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.

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John Martyn: Glorious Fool 34 Years On

john-martyn-glorious-foolWEA Records, released September 1981

9/10

Putting together my top 15 album list recently (and a dead laptop necessitating a break from this blog for a while) had an interesting knock-on effect: I actually spent some time listening to my choices.

Glorious Fool was possibly the one that surprised and pleased me the most (I listened to it on the original WEA cassette which sounds miles better than the CD master for some reason).

The general critical consensus is that John Martyn lost his way in the ‘80s, donning the suit, ditching the acoustic guitar and burying his music in synths, soft saxophones and stodgy productions. But it’s an overly simplistic view. I would put Glorious Fool and the previous Grace And Danger (not forgetting 1990’s The Apprentice) right up there with any of his fabled ‘70s stuff.

Certainly his compositions were more musically demanding, but John’s lyrics were still pithy and his chords as dark and rich as ever. It’s just that often he was concentrating on his singing a lot more in this period – no bad thing – and so often delegated the main harmonic accompaniment to a keyboard rather than his guitar. But he still often gave himself ample solo space on his trusty Les Paul or Strat.

John-Martyn24

The ‘80s started fairly unpromisingly for John. He was still in turmoil over the breakup with wife Beverley, and the release of his classic Grace And Danger album had been delayed for 18 months, Island Records label boss Chris Blackwell believing it to be terminally uncommercial.

It was finally released in June 1980 to excellent reviews and reasonable sales but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as John’s relationship with Island was concerned.

His new manager Sandy Roberton got him a deal with Warner Brothers and also helped put together a cracking new band including ex-Jeff Beck keys player Max Middleton, Latin percussionist Danny Cummings and hotshot Glaswegian bassist Alan Thomson.

Martyn’s mucker and partner-in-heartbreak Phil Collins also returned on drums and production. John said at the time, ‘I wasn’t married. I thought: let’s go for it, let’s make some money and make a band.’

In June 1981, they all convened at the Townhouse Studios on the Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, to commence work on Glorious Fool. During the recording, John was living in the small apartment above the studio, and would often undertake vocal duties in the wee hours of the morning, slightly the worse for wear and clad only in his dressing gown!

I live about 15 minutes’ walk away from the Townhouse – sadly not in use as a commercial studio any more – and often walk past trying to picture the proceedings. Other classic albums recorded there include Peter Gabriel’s Melt, Collins’ Face Value and XTC’s Black Sea.

It’s clear that John’s failed marriage is still very much the emotional currency of his songwriting. ‘Pascanel (Get Back Home)’, ‘Hearts And Keys’ and ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’ are almost embarrassingly candid in their evocation of the contrasting emotions spawned by a relationship breakdown, everything from pure love and raw lust to rage, despair, envy, pleading and desolation. Just a typical evening with John Martyn then, by all accounts…

The furious ‘Never Say Never’ kicks off with Martyn screaming ‘Shuddup! Close your mouth!’ over Collins’ trademark tom fills. Brilliant. ‘Perfect Hustler’ and ‘Didn’t Do That’ are more comic evocations of lost love, the former featuring Martyn sarcastically taunting his paramour about her suave, Latin-dancing boyfriend, and wondering if he has ‘gold teeth in’! In contrast, ‘Hold On My Heart’ is an unashamedly soft, romantic love song, the nearest the album comes to an early ’80s Collins or Genesis ballad.

Elsewhere, ‘Don’t You Go’ is a heartbreaking anti-war folk ballad, with John’s moving vocal accompanied only by Collins’ piano and ghostly vocoder. The title track takes a satirical look at the then-newly-elected president Ronald Reagan while ‘Amsterdam’ is a harrowing portrait of a close friend’s funeral in the Dutch capital (after an unrequited obsession with a local prostitute). It features a nasty, brutal groove, sort of John’s version of post-punk, and the haunting refrain: ‘The night the kid left Amsterdam…’ It’s the ‘80s flipside to ‘Solid Air’, another tribute to a fallen comrade (Nick Drake).

Another reason for Glorious Fool’s success is the sheer quality of the musicianship. Collins has never played better, coming up with three or four classic beats and demonstrating a perfect understanding of what each song requires, and the whole band can turn on a dime. They’re just as comfortable with the Weather Report-style Latin/fusion groove of ‘Didn’t Do That’ as they are with the slinky Little Feat flavours of ‘Couldn’t Love You More’, driving hard rock of ‘Amsterdam’ or ambient balladry of ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’.

The album was a reasonable success, hitting number 25 on the UK album charts and staying in the top 100 for seven weeks, and the critics were generally onside. It also made for a very interesting companion piece to Collins’ Face Value, released six months before. You don’t need me to tell you which record sold more copies, but I doubt John lost much sleep over it.

For much more about Glorious Fool and John’s stellar career, check out ‘Some People Are Crazy’ by John Neil Munro and also this excellent BBC4 documentary.