David Sylvian: Pop Song 30 Years Old Today

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 30 years ago today.

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’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is completely 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 the Townhouse Studios, ‘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, 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.

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Book Review: Cries And Whispers 1983-1991 (Sylvian, Karn, Jansen, Barbieri) by Anthony Reynolds

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.

‘Cries And Whispers’ is published by Burning Shed.

 

September Songs: David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees

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 1984is 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 on this, 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 that things were never quite the same again.

 

 

Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part One)

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

Yes yes yes, 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.

3. John Scofield @ Half Moon Theatre, Docklands Festival, Sept 1988?

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.

David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

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 – given the events in Texas this week – 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.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth: 30 Years Old Today

David sylvian

cover artwork by Russell Mills

Virgin Records, released 13th September 1986

Produced by Steve Nye/David Sylvian

Recorded 1985/1986 at The Manor, Oxfordshire, and Townhouse, Shepherds Bush

UK album chart position: 24

Recently, I was honoured to be asked by photographer William Ellis to contribute to his One LP project where he asks musicians, writers and music business figures to speak about the album that has been most important to them.

Here’s what I said about Gone To Earth (with a few edits):

I was given the album by my parents on my 14th birthday. I had heard the single ‘Taking The Veil’ a few weeks before and it had struck me immediately as something I needed to check out. Concurrently, I was getting into Japan, Sylvian’s band from the early ’80s.

But Gone To Earth had a whole new influence: ECM-style jazz. Kenny Wheeler plays some beautiful solos, John Taylor features strongly on piano, and Harry Beckett blows all over ‘Wave’. Back in the mid-’80s, pop music embraced jazz with ease, but now it seems like the two worlds have completely diverged. Sylvian combines both elements really nicely.

When I delved deeper into Sylvian’s lyrics, I realised that they could be related to romantic affairs – there was a ‘pop’ element to them – but they could also be spiritual in nature, about ‘the other’ in general, touching on religious ideas, metaphysical ideas. That concept has fascinated me as I’ve got older.

Side two of Gone To Earth is completely instrumental. Sylvian loathed the term ‘new age’ and instead produced ambient music which was more environmental, geared towards self-reflection and an appreciation of nature. He once said, ‘If I didn’t live in a city, I wouldn’t need to make this music.’ On ‘The Healing Place’, German artist Joseph Beuys speaks about his vision of art. Another track features Robert Graves reciting his poem ‘The Foreboding’. The voice of JG Bennett makes a few appearances, familiar from Fripp’s Exposure.

And then, of course, there’s Sylvian’s voice. I think of it as an instrument. Some people find him a bit doomy, depressing, po-faced, but I’m always inspired by his melodies. He’s also a great, natural musician, very underrated/understated on keyboards and guitar.

The story goes that Virgin didn’t want to fund the second instrumental side. You can imagine, can’t you? They said, ‘This pop singer’s trying to an album of instrumentals? What’s going on?’, even though Bowie had done it ten years before. In this fascinating interview from 1986, Sylvian explains that he had to work on side two in his ‘spare’ time, away from Virgin’s watchful eye. I’m glad he did.

Musically, the album is also a guitarists’ dream: Robert Fripp, Phil Palmer, Bill Nelson and Sylvian himself contribute memorable, considered work. Nelson in particular is a revelation. Sylvian gives him space to sculpt and layer his parts, and he delivers some brilliant solos. BJ Cole adds some dreamy pedal steel.

David Sylvian

In 1988, I saw Sylvian at the Hammersmith Odeon with a great band featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, David Torn on guitar and Steve Jansen on drums. It was tremendously exciting; there was a kind of ‘goth’ element at the gig which surprised me and lots of young women screaming for Sylvian!

He was still holding onto his ‘pop’ status – it’s no mean feat for an 80-minute, half-instrumental album to reach 24 in the charts. It was a time when pop music had a lot more mystique; you had to scan The Face, Wire, NME or Melody Maker to glean any snippets of information about artists of Sylvian’s calibre.

Every time I listen to Gone To Earth, I notice something new. It’s such a layered, beautiful piece of music, almost always to be enjoyed in one sitting, and it came out during an incredibly fertile period for Sylvian – the 1984-1987 run of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive surely matches any other artist in ’80s music.