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). And, lucky for us, footage exists of the latter’s recording session, focusing in on Wayne Braithwaite’s bass overdubs (did they change the song’s key at a later date?):

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.

 

 

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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…

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.

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.

Aces Of Bass in Early-’80s Britpop

mark_king_1988_tel_aviv_israelWatching the superb reruns of ‘Top Of The Pops’ recently, it’s apparent how many great bass players stormed the UK charts during the early/mid-’80s.

Everywhere you looked, there were hip, young four-stringers with good haircuts and some nifty licks (or ‘kids with a riff’, as Robert Palmer called them).

Though very much under the twin influences of Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Jaco Pastorius, a whole host of ’80s players managed to forge some truly original sounds while clearly utilising the feels and techniques of both American bassists.

Here’s a smattering of great British players of the period (more from across the pond soon) with a few of their enduring performances. Make sure your subwoofer is turned on…

9. Mick Karn

By Japan’s 1979 Quiet Life album, the man born Andonis Michaelides had become one of the most original fretless players of all time, effortlessly bypassing the Jaco template. His lines were also absolutely integral to the band’s formula and eventual success. This minor hit demonstrates his melodic approach (though somehow he was denied a songwriter credit) and his playing reveals new discoveries even 35 years on.

8. Tony Butler

Shepherds Bush-born Butler brought something very unique to ’80s rock and pop with his band Big Country. He also formed a key rhythm section alongside drummer Mark Brzezicki. Check out his bouncy, almost dub-style rhythmic approach on this beautifully structured bass part.

7. Derek Forbes

The hyperactive Glaswegian just couldn’t stop coming up with classic early-’80s basslines. After his departure from Simple Minds in 1984, he also added some quality low-end work to Propaganda’s touring band.

6. Guy Pratt

The Artful Dodger of the early ’80s bass scene, Guy cut his teeth with Icehouse before breaking out to play with everyone from Madonna to Pink Floyd. This quirky 1984 hit is a compilation of all his licks and tricks – producers seemed to like his ‘more is more’ approach…

5. Graham Edwards

According to Pratt’s great ‘My Bass And Other Animals’ book, Edwards was always going up for the same gigs as him back in the mid-’80s. Now an almost forgotten name, he played some excellent stuff in Go West’s live band and also shone on this underrated gem:

4. Pino Palladino

Pino’s highly melodic fretless style had already graced megahits by Gary Numan and Paul Young by the mid-’80s, but this always seemed like his most intense, distinctive groove, with more than a hint of Bernie Worrell/Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ about it.

3. Mark King

Mr King has to be in this list. Though best known now for his formidable slap technique, his crisp, fluid fingerstyle lines were just as distinctive, not least this Eastern-tinged salvo which really sums up the spirit of 1982 (though one wonders if he’d like another go at the vocal…).

2. Colin Moulding

The XTC man’s flowing, melodic style showed that he was a worthy heir to Paul McCartney. No matter how ‘standard’ the chord changes, you could rely on Moulding to come up with something memorable.

1. John Taylor

Like or loathe Duran Duran (I have to say I was usually of the latter persuasion), Taylor certainly came up with some memorable if somewhat samey grooves (as gleefully parodied by Mr Pratt), finding a pleasingly-understated style on this minor classic.

Any more for any more?

10 Great Album Covers Of The 1980s

One of the many positives of the recent vinyl resurgence is the potential for some decent album covers again. For a while, it seemed as if the art was being lost.

Back in the ’80s, as the cliché goes, you would generally buy an album, stick it on and then peruse the cover at some length while you listened. The best covers seemed to take on a life of their own. Budgets were healthy, the musicians cared and you could see the time and effort that went into the work. I particularly liked those covers with a ‘psychological’ aspect, some kind of story or scene, an image that maybe enhanced the lyrical themes of the album. Or, failing that, one that would look pretty good on a wall or even in a gallery.

Here are ten album covers of the ’80s that still beguile, from the decidedly Spielbergian to the spooky/superb.

10. Weather Report: Procession (1983)

Cover artwork by John Lykes

weather report

9. It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill (1986)

Cover artwork by David O’Connor

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8. Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator (1988)

Cover artwork by Jean-Francois Podevin

wayne sh

7. Level 42: Level 42 (1981)

Cover artwork by Joy Barling

level

6. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983)

Cover artwork by Frank Auerbach

japan

5. George Duke: Guardian Of The Light (1983)

Cover artwork: unidentified (anyone know?)

george

4. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)

Cover artwork by Mark Ryden

jeff-becks-guitar-shop-55b528bc7fc87

3. Peter Gabriel: 3 (1980)

Cover artwork/photography by Hipgnosis (Storm Thorgerson/Audrey Powell)

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2. Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (1986)

Cover artwork by James Marsh

talk talk

1. Gil Scott-Heron: Moving Target (1982)

Photography by John Ford, artwork by Donn Davenport

gil scott heron

 

Book Review: Steve Jansen’s Through A Quiet Window

karn sylvian

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Stanhope Gardens, London, 1981

Ringo Starr was once asked: What do you remember about recording Sgt Pepper’s? His reply? ‘I learnt how to play chess on that album.’ Not to do Ringo down at all – he’s the reason this writer picked up the drum sticks – but the line does say something about the sometimes tedious nature of recording in the era of multi-tracking. The drummer may have laid down all his parts in the first week of a project, so he or she had better have a Plan B for when the rest of the band are tinkering endlessly.

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Japan drummer Steve Jansen didn’t learn chess but he did use his time very productively while the band recorded their masterpieces, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum; he developed his formidable photography skills, and now his work has been collected in a sumptuously-designed hardback book ‘Through A Quiet Window’.

To say that it will appease Japan fans is a total understatement – it makes a brilliant companion piece to Anthony Reynolds’ excellent recent biography ‘A Foreign Place’, and brings the band’s relatively short but very eventful story to life.

We see portraits of the band in all kinds of different locations, mainly between 1979 and 1981: Mick Karn laying down his bass parts at AIR Studios and mooching about Holland Park in West London; David Sylvian lounging in various hotel rooms and recording studios including the Townhouse and the Manor, Richard Barbieri sitting stone-faced at his keyboard or smirking on the tour bus.

There is also a memorably candid shot of Karn and Sylvian at the breakfast table in their Stanhope Gardens flat. We also see fleeting glimpses of producers Steve Nye and John Porter at various mixing desks, often flanked by either Karn or Sylvian. Jansen’s other musical projects of the time are also beautifully documented, including various Japanese sojourns featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto, Masami Tsuchiya and Akiko Yano.

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Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn and David Sylvian, South Moulton Street, London 1981

While there are a lot of laughs about, the overall impression is of a very insular bunch of guys, extremely dedicated to their music but also their friendships. No real surprise there, then, but the intimate nature of many photos is very refreshing. Steve Jansen demonstrates the same precision and natural sense of timing behind the camera as he always does behind the kit. And there are some cracking hairstyles on show too. Highly recommended.

‘Through A Quiet Window’ is available from Artes Publishing.