Mark Isham: Vapor Drawings 35 Years On

Did any music of lasting worth come out of the early ’80s ‘New Age’ boom? Mark Isham’s brief but inspired Windham Hill catalogue surely still cuts the mustard.

The trumpeter/keyboardist/composer’s Vapor Drawings, released 35 years ago this weekend, was a remarkably assured, fully-formed debut album, recorded when he was part of Van Morrison’s band and also enjoying a varied session career.

I distinctly remember hearing a track from it in the mid-1980s on a short-lived ‘new age’ BBC radio show whose name escapes me. And weirdly, Isham mixed the album 100 yards from my childhood home during spring 1983, at John Kongos’s Tapestry Studios.

Synths are Vapor Drawings’ main ingredient but Isham uses them in subtly original ways, using sequencers to build Steve Reich-inspired ‘systems’ or – one of his trademarks – getting them to hang in the air like sky lanterns.

The music defies categorisation, mostly hovering in the hinterland between ambient, minimalism, electronica and jazz (he even throws in a quote from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ on ‘Raffles In Rio’). But there’s always the human element courtesy of his superb trumpet and piano playing. Erik Satie is also an apparent inspiration, and possibly what David Sylvian picked up on when he invited Isham into the studio to record Brilliant Trees later in 1983.

It’s no surprise Isham has become one of the most in-demand soundtrack composers of the last 30 years – ‘On The Threshold Of Liberty’ (named after a Magritte painting), ‘Men Before The Mirror’ and ‘Sympathy And Acknowledgement’ are epic and rousing.

’83 proved to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for Isham, hooking up with Sylvian and also working with Gil Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vapor Drawings is the first and best of his solo albums. Happy birthday to an unsung classic.

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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.

 

 

1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening. Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

35. Marc Almond’s spoken-word line in Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’

There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it… 

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!’ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

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. An excellent desk recording has appeared on YouTube, probably frustrating David no end:

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 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.

Winter Music

winter-music

So the evenings draw in, Christmas clogs up the telly and hygge is all over the Sunday supplements. You contemplate your navel and your age and comment on how quickly the year has gone by…again.

And if you listen to music a lot, chances are you’ll probably notice how your tastes change as the season eases from autumn to winter. This may have happened when winter turned to spring too, but something a bit more introspective might be called for when your football team starts sliding and the heavy stuff comes out of storage and into your wardrobe.

Here are nine ’80s tracks that instantly say winter to me, calling at Ambient, Eerie and Lovelorn:

9. Pat Metheny Group: ‘Distance’ (1987)

This is the only track from the Still Life (Talking) album I can listen to these days. Lyle Mays’ composition sticks out like a sore thumb on that 1987 collection, a challenging, spooky piece with a touch of serialism that suggests Very Bad Things… A soundtrack for the movie that never was.

8. Roxy Music: ‘To Turn You On’ (1982)

Ferry’s tale of long-distance love for someone very unsuitable. He’s in London, she’s in New York. She possibly has some kind of ‘ailment’ – drug addiction? Mental health problem? (You may be reading too much into this… Ed). He is hopelessly and rather tragically smitten. One of Ferry’s finest ballads with a crackerjack band (Paul Carrack, Rick Marotta, Alan Spenner, Neil Hubbard) bringing it to life.

7. David Sylvian: ‘Pop Song’ (1989)

I could have chosen any amount of Sylvo tracks but have settled on this stand-alone 12” single, his cheeky response to Virgin Records’ request for one more solo hit (which never materialised). It paints a fairly bleak portrait of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music, featuring microtonal synths, Steve Jansen’s clever drum layering and close-interval piano work from the late John Taylor.

6. U2: ‘4th Of July’ (1984)

Ostensibly a duet for bass (though surely that’s not Adam Clayton?) and ‘infinite guitar’ (The Edge put through Eno’s processing systems), U2’s first bash at pure ambience was a minor triumph. To say one doesn’t miss Bono’s voice would be an understatement. As far as I know, the band have never attempted anything similar since – more’s the pity.

5. The Sundays: ‘Skin & Bones’ (1990, recorded in 1989)

The unforgettable lead-off track from the classic Reading, Writing & Arithmetic album. The Cocteau Twins meets The Smiths? You betcha.

4. Mark Isham: ‘In The Blue Distance’ (1983)

Isham’s plaintive trumpet and atmospheric keyboard playing create a sombre yet uplifting winter masterpiece. Click here for a listen.

3. Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ (1982)

I first heard this nostalgic classic in late 1983 and it was my first exposure to Joni’s music. I’ve never forgotten it and will forever associate it with this time of year.

2. Love & Money: ‘Inflammable’ (1988)

One of many great torch songs penned by James Grant, featuring on the late-’80s classic Strange Kind Of Love. ‘I go looking for what I want in the wrong places’ – there’s a winter mantra for urban singletons right there…

1. Lloyd Cole: ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ (1985)

Let’s face it, winter can also be haunted by ghosts of failed romances, stolen moments and disastrous Christmas flings. This classic covers all that stuff very efficiently with a nice line in black humour.

Check out the playlist on Spotify (minus a few tracks not currently available).