As winter ghosts gather and Halloween approaches, Plight & Premonition makes for a great seasonal soundtrack.
David Sylvian reportedly hated the term ‘new age’ and wasn’t even that fond of ‘ambient’, preferring the phrase ‘environmental’ to describe his instrumental work of the ‘80s (he lived in South Kensington, a busy part of West London, and occasionally spoke of making music that would remind him of being in nature).
And what a body of work it is. Plight & Premonition is a great conjuring trick – it’s almost impossible to work out how it was done. Sylvian and Czukay concoct an intoxicating blend of tape loops, Dictaphone, acoustic piano, radio recordings, treated guitar and analogue synths which doesn’t sound remotely like anyone else’s ‘ambient’ music.
Sylvian arrived at Czukay’s massive studio near Cologne – an abandoned cinema – in autumn 1986 to work on the latter’s Rome Remains Rome album. But that work never materialised. Instead, after a dinner out, they returned to the studio and started messing about on Czukay’s many instruments.
Sylvian told writer Richard Cook more about the album’s genesis in ‘The Wire’ magazine:
I dislike studios immensely, but I like Holger’s studio because it’s all one room and it’s geared towards the musician. You never really know when you’re being recorded. There was three nights’ worth of improvising. ‘Plight’ was originally just a ten-minute piece of music which Holger worked on for six months afterwards, adding signals from short-wave radio and stuff, and finally turning it into the piece it is now. ‘Premonition’ is a piece we did at the end of the three days and it’s just as it stood.
The only thing we can be sure of is that ‘Plight’ is – tangentially – in E minor, whereas ‘Premonition’ is in E major. The former is disturbing, the latter uplifting. Apart from that it’s best just to let it wash over you.
The album emerged on Virgin’s burgeoning instrumental imprint Venture Records on 21 March 1988. Superbly, it made an appearance in the UK album chart at #71 and sold well. Sylvian was still quite a draw at the time in the slipstream of Secrets Of The Beehive.
However the current streaming/CD version of Plight & Premonition is an awful remix carried out by Sylvian in 2002 during his Everything And Nothing greatest hits period, when he was reassessing everything he’d done for Virgin (and not liking a lot of what he heard).
He inexplicably removed all reverb (both real – via the studio echo chamber – and digital), leading to a fidgety, unpleasantly dry mix with very little depth or substance. Best to find the original 1988 release if you can, and you’ll also get Yuka Fujii’s delicious cover photo too…
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.
Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single.
It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).
Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’ssome kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’
Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at Marcus Studios, Fulham, West London, during late summer 1989, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…
Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).
I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out (30th October 1989), and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.
But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.
Which ‘rock’ artists are the most likely to be subjects of not one but a series of biographies? The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan?
Japan are possibly unlikely recipients of such a legacy, but Anthony Reynolds’ superb new ‘Cries And Whispers’ – carrying on from where ‘A Foreign Place’ left off – holds the attention with ease.
His luxuriously-appointed new book takes an indepth look at all the protagonists’ (Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri) careers between 1983 and 1991, a mouth-watering prospect when you realise how scant the serious coverage of these groundbreaking musicians really is, Martin Power’s half-decent 1998 biography of Sylvian aside.
Here you get rigorous research, rare photos and unexpectedly candid interviews from producers, engineers, designers, record company execs, hangers-on and of course the musicians themselves.
There are fascinating glimpses under the ’80s pop bonnet, with details of record company correspondence, press releases, tour itineraries/diaries and testimonies from session players.
There’s the odd unqualified muso revelation (did Mark King really get asked to play bass on ‘Pulling Punches’?!) and tasty gossip a-plenty, hardly surprising when you consider that the book covers the troubled Rain Tree Crow project.
In the main, Reynolds wisely keeps musical analysis to a minimum, letting the facts and musicians speak for themselves, and he also – admirably – is as interested in the murkier corners of Sylvian’s ’80s work (the one-off ‘Pop Song’ single, his involvement with Propaganda’s A Secret Wish album) as he is with the better-known stuff.
Indeed, all the chapters on Sylvian’s solo work are terrific, particularly the lengthy portrait of his punishing ‘In Praise Of Shamans’ 1988 world tour. The Rain Tree Crow section is also gripping.
There are minor gripes here and there: some quotes from relatively peripheral figures – clearly cut and pasted from email correspondence – could do with trimming, and does anyone really want such a lengthy analysis of Dalis Car or The Dolphin Brothers? But even these longeurs have their fascinating moments.
This writer almost read ‘Cries And Whispers’ in one sitting, passing it from desk to sofa to dinner table to bath to bed, and you may well do the same. It’s another fine achievement by Reynolds and another classic music book to boot. We eagerly await the next instalment.
September’s here again. The leaves brown, the nights draw in; thoughts and ears turn towards Sylvian’s music.
The exquisite Brilliant Trees, released in July 1984, is one of those collections that I must have owned on almost every format over the years, and probably bought a few times on each.
A period of extreme introspection and even depression descended upon Sylvian following the split of Japan in late 1982.
Although his relationship with Mick Karn’s ex Yuka Fujii (who took the photos in the stylish Brilliant Trees album package) was largely thought to be the main catalyst, it still represented for Sylvian a distressing rupture of childhood friendships.
He later claimed that he could barely stay awake during this period, so degraded were his immune system and emotional reserves.
Sylvian gathered co-producer Steve Nye and some of his favourite musicians at Berlin’s Hansa Studios and RAK in London. Influences came from ambient music, NYC avant-funk, John Martyn, Nick Drake and ECM jazz.
His friend/ frequent collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto and brother Steve Jansen were the main musical cohorts, though ex-Japan keyboard texturalist Richard Barbieri also appeared to great effect.
Brilliant Trees is very much an album of two sides. The opener ‘Pulling Punches’ is a sweetener, an effective but unrepresentative slice of white funk featuring NYC sessioneers Wayne Braithwaite and Ronnie Drayton on bass and guitar. The nearest thing to the Tin Drum sound, there’s nothing remotely like it on the rest of the album.
What a treat to hear Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham’s flugelhorn/trumpet breaks on the classic singles ‘Ink In The Well’ (UK #36) and ‘Red Guitar’ (UK #17). Side two is a different matter altogether – it’s dark, foreboding, autumnal.
Sylvian and Nye mostly eschew ‘conventional’ solos in favour of ‘found’ sounds courtesy of Holger Czukay’s Dictaphone (see below) or Jon Hassell’s extraordinary conch-like trumpet, both used to especially brilliant effect on ‘Wailing Wall’.
‘Backwater’ begins with a powerful build up of (sampled?) strings (and check out Jansen’s inspired groove, a queasy 6/4 over a very strange programmed shaker pattern), while the almost hymnal title track is beautifully performed by Sylvian and adorned with a gorgeous ethno-jam outro.
Listening 30 years on, what strikes one is the minimalist nature of the whole album. It has dated remarkably well. Many tracks are built around a cyclical Jansen groove, sparse bass, strong Sylvian melody and then tasteful, painterly touches from clean guitar, piano, Dictaphone or synth.
This stunning collection set in motion a superb four-album run of form for Sylvian. Brilliant Trees is an almost-perfect blend of songcraft and the avant-garde at a time when pop was drawing on jazz, ambient and world music to occasionally spectacular – and commercial – effect (the album reached #4 in the UK charts and sold over 100,000 copies). You might say things were never quite the same again.
Mark King of Level 42, Hammersmith Odeon, 13th November 1985
The London live music scene was buoyant in the 1980s.
There was a gig on pretty much every corner. You could see a Goth band, a pub-rock band, a reggae band, a psychobilly band, a soul band – sometimes all on the same bill.
Places like The Rock Garden in Covent Garden, Swan and King’s Head in Fulham, Clarendon in Hammersmith, Red Lion in Brentford, Astoria in Soho and Mean Fiddler in Harlesden are quite understandably still revered by music fans of a certain age.
There were brilliant nightclubs too: The Bat Cave, Dingwalls, Wag, Blitz, Limelight, Marquee. Let’s be thankful a handful of legendary venues from that era survive (The Half Moon in Putney, Ronnie Scott’s, Roundhouse, Scala, Borderline) and long may they last.
Here are a few gigs that still loom large (all in London unless otherwise stated). I hope they spark some memories of your own. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I pretty much camped out at the Hammersmith Odeon in the late ’80s – well, it was my local, and it seemed like almost everyone came through that brilliant venue…
9. Frank Zappa @ Wembley Arena, 18th April 1988
Yessir, Frank was in town for the first time in four years. I was a new fan and very excited to see him live. His guitar was insanely loud and very trebly. The reggae version of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was particularly memorable. Lots of onstage banter and political rhetoric. Lots of old-school hippies in the stalls. What a treat.
8. The New York Jazz Explosion (Roy Ayers/Tom Browne/Lonnie Liston Smith/Jean Carn) @ Hammersmith Odeon, 24th February 1985
I’d never heard of any of these guys when my dad offered me a ticket but I’m bloody glad I went. Lonnie started the show with some prime, instrumental, Rhodes-driven jazz/funk, then Roy played some old favourites and quite a lot from his In The Dark album. I don’t remember much about Jean or Tom but Roy blew me away (I’ve seen him at least five times since). The Odeon was packed and a very raucous crowd made a lot of noise in those glorious days when almost every famous US soul star played there. A real eye-opener.
7. David Sylvian @ Hammersmith Odeon, 30th May 1988
It was pretty much the first sight of David since Japan’s split and there was a genuinely exciting atmosphere in the old venue. Lots of screaming girls and a large Goth contingent. An unsmiling, slight and pale Sylvian silenced them by playing keys for the first few ethereal instrumentals (with hindsight, very reminiscent of Bowie’s ‘Stage’ tour a decade earlier). Fantastic band: David Torn, Mark Isham, Steve Jansen, Ian Maidman, Richard Barbieri.
6. Art Blakey @ Ronnie Scott’s, 26th January 1989
Ronnie’s hosted a lot of the bona fide jazz greats in those days. My dad took me to a see a fair few but catching Bu was a revelation. His sheer presence was memorable and his press rolls made the walls of the club shake. The suited-and-booted band, including top-notch Brit pianist Julian Joseph, were excellent too.
5. It Bites @ Brunel University, March 1988
My schoolmate Nigel had played me this band’s debut The Big Lad In The Windmill and I was becoming a massive fan when we got a lift out to darkest North-West London just before the release of their second album Once Around The World. They played in the low-ceilinged students union bar and it became one of the most outstanding pop gigs I saw in the ’80s. A terrifyingly tight band – ‘coming at you like a f***in’ juggernaut’ as singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery said recently – with humour and chops. And a cracking version of ‘New York, New York’ in the middle of ‘Once Around The World’ to boot.
4. Level 42 @ Hammersmith Odeon, 13th November 1985
They were finally making the big pop breakthrough with World Machine but still had one foot in their jazz/funk ‘roots’ – this era was an exciting mix of both approaches. These boys were going places but were still quite naughty/rough’n’ready with it. Sadly this was the peak of the original four-piece band, but it was another brilliant, noisy, sweaty night at the Odeon.
This took place at a makeshift venue in the back-end of nowhere within Thatcher’s huge Docklands development. It was a long car ride from West London into a strange wasteland. I had wanted to see this band since Blue Matter had come out a year earlier and accordingly watched drummer Dennis Chambers like a hawk throughout. From memory, he in turn eyeballed me throughout. His playing was pretty mindblowing from 10 yards away.
2. Wendy & Lisa @ Town & Country Club, 25th April 1989
It was a hot, sweaty night at the T&C, and the nearest to seeing Prince in such a small venue (which does a great disservice to Wendy and Lisa’s excellent playing and songwriting, but there you go). There was a genuine star quality to the (almost all-female) band and a very cool clientele – everyone was clocking a peak-fame Sinead O’Connor at the bar. The gig delivered the promise of summer and some cracking music too.
1. Animal Logic @ Town & Country Club, 25th May 1989
Back in the late ’80s, you only really gleaned info about musicians from magazines. When Rhythm – the now-defunkt UK monthly – printed that Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke were doing a gig in North London, we just had to be there. It was a surprise to say the least. There had literally been no sign of Copeland in the UK since The Police and the crowd seemed to be entirely composed of their fans – a huge roar erupted when Stewart’s kit was rolled onto the stage. Unfortunately the songs weren’t great but the atmosphere was.
And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.
Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so.
Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.
Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary.
But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.
Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too.
‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic.
‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.
‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart.
Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.
Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.