11 May 1987: Talk Talk commence recording Spirit Of Eden

35 years ago today, Mark Hollis (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Tim Friese-Green (keyboards, production), Lee Harris (drums), Paul Webb (bass) and engineer Phill Brown convened at London’s Wessex Studios (don’t look for it – it’s not there any more) to begin work on the Talk Talk album Spirit Of Eden.

During May, June and July 1987, this core unit worked five-day weeks from 11am until midnight, in near darkness apart from an oil projector, a gentle strobe lighting effect and three Anglepoise lamps.

Tim Friese-Green on the Hammond organ, Wessex Studios

Basic tracks laid down, they took a break. On 19 October 1987, work resumed with instrumental overdubs; first woodwinds, then a coterie of world-class musicians including David Rhodes, Bernie Holland and Larry Klein, whose contributions would end up on the cutting-room floor. But those whose performances did make the cut include Nigel Kennedy, Danny Thompson, Robbie McIntosh, Martin Ditcham and Henry Lowther.

Lee Harris’s drum booth, Wessex Studios

Almost a year in the making, Spirit Of Eden was finally released on 12 September 1988 (after a long delay while EMI panicked – it was actually completed on 11 March 1988) and remains one of the most influential, least-dated ‘rock’ albums of the 1980s.

Thanks to Phill Brown for use of his photos.

‘Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence’ is published by Ben Wardle.

The ‘Spirit Of Eden’ master tapes

John Martyn: The Apprentice

Island Records undoubtedly did a lot of good for John Martyn but they also royally messed around with arguably his two best post-1970s albums.

First there was the delayed, eventually botched release of 1980’s Grace And Danger, then the complete rejection of The Apprentice when first delivered in 1988.

The album eventually saw the light of day on Permanent Records (owned by Martyn’s then-manager) in early 1990, after John finished it at his own expense at Glasgow’s Ca Va Studios. It immediately sold strongly and got a great review in Q magazine (alongside a memorable interview) amongst other rags.

But co-producer Brian Young reckons it could have done a lot better – the idea apparently had been to tout it around the major labels, but John’s manager decided to steer clear of the suits this time around. We’ll never know if that was wise (and sadly it’s currently on streaming platforms with completely the wrong artwork attached).

Most importantly, The Apprentice is full of memorable songs which easily offset the sometimes fairly flimsy production. He was expanding his harmonic horizons (and vocal range – this is probably his best singing on record) and there’s a strong Latin influence throughout, helped enormously by the return of Danny Cummings on all kinds of percussion.

‘Live On Love’, ‘Deny This Love’ and ‘Send Me One Line’ could have made cracking singles, the latter apparently penned for the movie ’84 Charing Cross Road’ but not used. ‘The Moment’ and ‘Patterns In The Rain’ suggest a hitherto unacknowledged influence from the Great American Songbook.

‘Look At That Girl’ is a gorgeous ballad for his daughter Mhairi, while the title track was a rare insight into Martyn’s political leanings, written from the point of view of a terminally-ill worker at the Sellafield nuclear plant. ‘Income Town’ may just be the standout, another attack on rampant capitalism featuring a meaty guitar solo.

In short, there was something for everyone. Long-term fans just had to accept that he wasn’t going to be playing the acoustic through an Echoplex anymore; but his collaboration with keyboard player Foss Patterson was hitting its peak, after promising beginnings on 1986’s Piece By Piece.

John sold out no less than eleven nights at London’s Shaw Theatre to promote The Apprentice, enlisting Dave Gilmour to guest on guitar, and then played at the Glasgow Big Day festival a few months later. 1990 turned out to be a pretty good year (reportedly followed by one of his worst, though I saw him live several times in 1991 and he was always superb) for Big John.

Story Of A Song: Ambrosia’s ‘Poor Rich Boy’ (1981)

Apart from Steely Dan reaction videos on YouTube, my other mini viewing obsession over the last year or so has been ‘Columbo’ repeats.

You expect amusing performances and ingenious plotting from the classic Peter Falk-fronted show; you don’t expect music tips.

But there it was – a great piece kicking off ‘Columbo Goes To College’, the first episode of the show’s tenth season, debuting on 9 December 1990.

A bit of detective work revealed that it was Ambrosia’s ‘Poor Rich Boy’, written for the Oscar-winning ‘Arthur’ soundtrack, the one headed up by Christopher Cross’s US #1 ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’. I’d never heard of the band before but apparently they had some big hits at the tail end of the 1970s.

Co-written – like the rest of the soundtrack album – by Burt Bacharach (alongside band members David Pack – himself a hugely respected songwriter – and Joe Puerta) and produced by Val Garay (Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’), it taps into that great period at the dawn of the 1980s when yacht rock dovetailed with prog/AOR/new wave/whatever.

It’s mixed refreshingly dry, with barely any reverb, and features a treacherous arrangement that separates the men from the boys. It’s in 2/4 but has some very odd accents (especially in that deliciously long fade). Try playing along. Where’s ‘one’? There’s a nice use of the ‘flatted fifth’ in the verse and also a superb vocal by…who? Pack or Puerta?

The chorus lyric smartly lays out the film’s plot and concerns of Dudley Moore’s Arthur:

Life is more than time and money that’s easy to spend
When you know that she’s out there
Lookin’ for the girl whose eyes out-sparkle all of your gold
And a heart that’s bigger than Times Square

‘Poor Rich Boy’ was released as a single in 1981 but didn’t chart. There was also a strange jazzy instrumental version played throughout the trailer (see below).

It’s a shame in a way but Ambrosia are almost ‘cursed’ for me now – I don’t want to hear anything else by them because I know it won’t be as good… Or will it?

Tin Machine: The Final Gig 30 Years On

I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this but Bowie came to me in a dream a few days ago and said I must! I’m under orders…

30 years ago this month, on 17 February 1992, Tin Machine played their last ever gig at the NHK Hall in Tokyo. It was the final date of the ‘It’s My Life’ tour.

It had been a period of ups and downs – ups in late October 1991 when Bowie proposed to Iman Abdulmajid in Paris, downs due to the drug problems of one band member (with the initials HS).

Some people never ‘forgave’ Bowie for TM but for many others the band represented his ’80s rehabilitation. I was fascinated from the get-go and for my money it spawned a fair share of classic David (sometimes co-written with Reeves Gabrels) songs: ‘I Can’t Read’, ‘Under The God’, ‘Amazing’, ‘Baby Universal’, ‘You Belong In Rock’n’Roll’, ‘Amlapura’, ‘Shopping For Girls’, ‘Goodbye Mr Ed’.

And it’s doubtful we would have got that brilliant Buddha Of Suburbia/1. Outside/Earthling triptych without TM.

Bowie agreed: ‘Once I had done Tin Machine, nobody could see me any more which was the best thing that ever happened, because I was back using all the artistic pieces that I needed to survive and imbuing myself with the passion that I had in the late seventies.’

True to his word, the band lasted three albums, though Bowie hinted it may have gone on longer had drug problems not reared their ugly heads. But it’s still hard to get hold of the last two records (Tin Machine II, Oy Vey Baby).

Here’s the second, penultimate night at the NHK on 6 February 1992. The sound quality is superb, though the audio cuts out completely around 45 minutes in and doesn’t return.

Gabrels sounds great, Bowie (sporting a ‘Rock Against Racism’ T-shirt) does too and there are some nice bits of ‘amateurism’ including several fudged song openings (Bowie’s guitar tech has very kindly turned down the volume of his 12-string before the start of the gig!). Some of this material was used for the final album Oy Vey Baby.

Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain

After ‘82’s critically acclaimed New Gold Dream, the logical step for Simple Minds would seem to have been to go even further away from their art-rock roots and rush headlong towards some funky ‘sophisti-pop’.

After all, head honcho Jim Kerr is on record as saying that his favourites from the era were Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, Donna Summer’s two classic 1982 singles and Carly Simon’s ‘Why’.

To that end, Nightclubbing co-helmer Alex Sadkin was eagerly approached to produce Sparkle In The Rain, but he declined, busy with Duran Duran and Thompson Twins work.

Instead, inspired by premiering the pile-driving, Pink Floyd-meets-Doors ‘Waterfront’ at Dublin’s Phoenix Park gig (supporting U2) on 14 August 1983, they turned to producer Steve Lillywhite, chief architect of the Return to Rock that was eclipsing New Pop during summer 1983, courtesy of his work with Big Country and U2.

Lillywhite hastily took them into Shepherds Bush’s legendary Townhouse Studios 2, with Howard Gray engineering. Guitarist Charlie Burchill wrote ‘Herzog’ on the back of Lillywhite’s chair, inspired by his and Kerr’s newfound love of the German director’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and its theme of dreams moving mountains. A photo of Nastassja Kinski took pride of place on the control-room wall.

There were regular games of table tennis, Kerr using them to psych himself up for the very adrenalized vocal takes, especially on the hysterial ‘Kick Inside Of Me’.

After previous drummer problems to match Spinal Tap, the excellent Mel Gaynor was a real find for the band. Though quiet in the studio, he was a monster on the kit and also apparently contributed effective keyboard and guitar ideas.

Bassist Derek Forbes was more in the background, spending a lot of time drawing his ‘Dan Yer Man’ cartoons. Burchill allegedly gave him a bollocking about his lack of ‘commitment’; the writing was on the wall for the talented player. He’d soon join fellow ex-Mind Brian McGee in a superb iteration of Propaganda’s touring band.

Tellingly, Sparkle’s songwriting royalties are split five ways, except for a truncated cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ which jettisons some of the more ‘unsavoury’ statements of the original (shades of Bowie’s ‘Tonight’, recorded a few months later?).

But it’s Gaynor, Kerr and McNeil’s album. The latter provides epic textures, very high in the mix. Kirsty MacColl provides a very welcome ‘girl’s voice’. ‘Shake Off The Ghosts’ was certainly noted by U2. ‘Waterfront’ is brilliant. How many other hits use guitar harmonics for their main riff? (only The Hooters’ ‘Satellite’ comes to mind).

Alongside Empires And Dance, Sparkle remains my favourite Minds album. Yes it’s a sonic ‘experiment’ and most tracks go on for a minute too long, but it’s rooted in strong band playing and delicious ambient textures. And it’s bloody loud.

Released on 6 February 1984, it became their first of four straight UK #1 albums. But they weren’t delivering on the singles front: ‘Waterfront’ only got to #13, ‘Speed Your Love’ #20 and ‘Up On The Catwalk’ #27. With hindsight, their reluctant November 1984 recording of Keith Forsey/Steve Schiff’s ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ was a vital career move.

Minds hit the gig circuit for a very busy summer 1984 tour including a record-breaking (at the time) eight nights at Hammersmith Odeon. This was a very different group to a year earlier. It’s fascinating to compare two ‘Oxford Road Show’ gigs from early 1983 and early 1984:

Gone was the skinny, neurotic Euro art-funk. Kerr was a far more wholesome, energised, welcoming character than before, screaming ‘Charlie Burchill!’ before the regular guitar breaks. He even started the Hammersmith gigs up a pole, Julian Cope-style!

But Kerr quickly disowned this period, citing exhaustion on the part of the band. Stateside success seemed so near yet so far. But then came ‘Don’t You’, Kerr’s marriage to Chrissie Hynde, ‘The Breakfast Club’ and Live Aid. The world was theirs.

Further reading: ‘Simple Minds’ by Adam Sweeting

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…

 

Van Halen: Quantized

Harry’s Records, right next to the bus stop on my way home from sixth-form college, was a real institution for me in the late 1980s (I’ve only recently discovered that it was actually a UK-wide chain of music stores).

Many a trip home was enlivened by inspecting the covers of Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis, Steve Vai’s Flex-Able or Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

And Van Halen, the superb 1978 debut album. From the opening backwards car horns and Michael Anthony’s fuzzy bass to the manic closer ‘On Fire’, it was a stunner.

It’s a brilliant mix of Cream, Led Zep, The Sex Pistols, Kinks and Who, featuring a talented vocals/guitar/bass/drums lineup with a striking audio imprint (producer Ted Templeman’s mastery of the famous Sunset Sound echo chamber, with Eddie’s guitar flying across the stereo spectrum: Rick Beato and Warren Huart have put together superb musical analyses of the album).

The band ‘breathed’ and grooved, and it sounded like they played live in the studio (they did, pretty much). It certainly wasn’t ‘perfect’. Perfection is an interesting concept for rock, one of the legacies of the post-Nirvana 1990s. Everyone recorded with a click track, and everyone seemingly looked for ‘perfection’.

The 1970s were different. So it’s a great jolt to hear VH’s ‘Running With The Devil’ quantized and placed on ‘the grid’ by this wacky music surgeon below. Judge for yourself if you prefer the ‘perfect’ version or original, ‘wrong’ version – it’s a fascinating, sometimes amusing project:

P.S. Check out this amazing soundboard recording of VH’s Hammersmith Odeon support show with Black Sabbath in June 1978.