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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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).

Sideways & Steve Jobs: An Invitation To Windham Hill 30 Years On

Windham+Hill+An+Invitation+To+Windham+Hill+164800DVD commentaries come and go, but among the best I’ve heard is for ‘Sideways’, Alexander Payne’s classic 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. One scene, set at at the fictitious Frass Canyon winery, opens on the shot of a pale, very sincere acoustic guitarist playing a ‘tender’ ballad. On the commentary, Haden Church mutters: ‘Very Windham Hill-ish’, eliciting a chuckle from Giamatti. You get the feeling that the term ‘Windham Hill’ is a code for something not entirely positive…

frass canyon

For a brief period in my teens, a cassette copy of An Invitation To Windham Hill was always near the family hi-fi. I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t have bought it but he seemed to play it quite a lot anyway. It has since become one of those weird albums that I can’t shake despite having no particular interest in its musical genre or artists. Why is that? What is this kind of music really about once you subtract the nostalgia?

The Windham Hill label was founded in 1976 by Californian guitarist William Ackerman, who initially used the imprint to sell his own music out of a Palo Alto garage. Just down the road, Steve Jobs was establishing his Apple empire, and guess what: he was a big fan of Windham Hill, as Ackerman later recounted in an interview: ‘Steve fell in love with the aesthetic. All the Apple computers (played) Windham Hill music when you turned them on. It was such an exciting time. Anything seemed possible. People were making dreams come true, and I did feel part of that.’

Early on, the label emphasised solo acoustic instruments. Later, electronic music, contemporary bluegrass, smooth Latin/jazz and Celtic sounds were eased into the mix. The stark, ‘natural’ style of their album covers was apparently influenced by ECM, as was some of the musical ethos; Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the acoustic guitar work of Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny were apparently important to Windham Hill.

Also, in the same way that Jarrett’s album proved a huge sales breakthrough for ECM, a similar thing happened to Windham Hill – George Winston’s Autumn unexpectedly sold over a million copies and changed the label from a modest, regional imprint to nationally-known entity (and Autumn was the first of his seasonal-themed recordings!).

The whole Windham Hill package, both musically and visually, is very ‘white’, very ‘corporate’, very ‘Thirtysomething‘. It contributed massively to the mid-’80s popularity of New Age music (and the eventual backlash against it). It also has a lot in common with the Minimalist movement (including geography), and seems like music completely stripped of passion, rough edges, funkiness. Despite all that, I still find it pretty fascinating.

But Ian MacDonald has written persuasively about the infantilising effects of this stuff in his brilliant ‘The People’s Music’:

‘Something happens to people who listen to too much minimalism. They begin to smile facetiously, display a genially indiscriminate omni-tolerance and put their feet on your furniture. Some start wearing dungarees and playing with frisbees’!

There is definitely that element to An Invitation To Windham Hill, but it does also highlight the work of two genuinely excellent artists: Mark Isham and Michael Hedges. Isham has been a first-call soundtrack composer for 30 years now but his 1983 debut album Vapour Drawings is an ambient/electronic classic (more on that to come).

Hedges, who died in 1997, blew guitarists’ minds with the release of his debut album Aerial Boundaries. The title track manages to be both an amazing technical feat (it’s a solo piece for drastically detuned guitar sometimes featuring up to four intertwining melodies, achieved with a mixture of picking, tapping and hammer-ons) and also a substantial composition in its own right.

The other solo guitar tracks by Alex De Grassi and Ackerman are weirdly memorable, as are the solo piano pieces. In fact, the whole album is, and it might make a nice soundtrack to your wine-tasting evening or campfire gathering. Or it might not…

Track listing:

A1 George Winston ‘Thanksgiving’ (3:07),
A2 Alex De Grassi ‘Western’ (4:04),
A3 Mark Isham ‘Love Theme’ (From ‘Mrs. Soffel’) (4:11),
A4 William Ackerman ‘Visiting’ (6:07),
A5 Mark Isham ‘In The Blue Distance’ (4:07),
B1 Shadowfax ‘Angel’s Flight’ (4:00),
B2 Scott Cossu ‘Ohana’ (5:03),
B3 Michael Hedges ‘Aerial Boundaries’ (4:39),
B4 William Ackerman ‘The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter’ (3:50)
B5 George Winston ‘Longing/Love’ (5:11)

From Diva To De Palma: Seven Soundtrack Moments

withnail

Ralph Brown as Danny in ‘Withnail & I’

When it comes to the marriage of sound and vision, there’s a particular kind of ’80s cliché probably originating from the work of directors like Ridley/Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson and Alan Parker (interestingly, all Brits who ended up in Hollywood).

It’s basically a slick, beautifully-shot montage of images usually accompanied by vaguely ‘New Age’ kind of music which probably features some Satie-esque piano, possibly some strings (synthesized or real) and/or a bit of acoustic guitar or sax.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this combo is pure comfort food for me in these troubled times. It must be another of those ‘blokes of a certain age’ things. And it turns out that some of those directors also produced some of my favourite movie soundtrack moments of the ’80s:

7. Diva (1981)

Composer Vladimir Cosma channels Erik Satie, Peter Gabriel and Tangerine Dream to create a beguiling mix of solo piano, bleak new-wave rock and classic minimalism. I don’t ‘do’ opera but the two versions of Catalani’s ‘La Wally’ which bookend this superb album get me every time.

6. Angel Heart (1987)

A bleak synth swells in the distance, De Niro (?) whispers ‘Johnny… Johnny…’ and we’re off. Courtney Pine blows impressively over Trevor Jones’ ambient backing and the rest of the album features some excellent crooner tunes and R’n’B too.

5. Blow Out (1981)

Melody-maestro Pino Donaggio pulls out all the stops for this rather beautiful theme which accompanies director Brian De Palma’s most ’emotional’ movie slaying…

4. Betty Blue (1986)

Gabriel Yared’s haunting soundtrack for this famously-overrated art-house melodrama gives me an instant nostalgia rush. Very influential too, particularly on the next choice.

3. Withnail & I (1987)

David Dundas and Rick Wentworth’s music perfectly evokes some of the film’s themes darker themes, though the blues guitar licks were perhaps best left out of the final mix.

2. 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

The bizarre, chameleon-like career of pianist/composer Jack Nitzsche is one for another time, but his ‘love theme’ from Adrian Lyne’s guilty pleasure is sentimental, hokey and clichéd. And gets me every time. There are other crackers by Jean-Michel Jarre, Brian Eno and The Eurythmics on the quite-hard-to-find soundtrack album.

1. Mrs Soffel (1984)

A confession – I’ve never seen this movie. And I’m really not sure I ever will. But Mark Isham’s majestic theme never fails to beguile, originally heard on a mid-’80s Windham Hill Records taster cassette.

ECM Goes Rock: David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury

Cloud_About_MercuryECM Records, released 1987

8/10

The late ‘80s was a great period for avant-garde guitar playing with the likes of Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Arto Lindsay, Fred Frith, Dave Fiuczynski, Stevie Salas, Sonny Sharrock, Skip McDonald, Robert Quine, Steve Vai and Bill Frisell laying down some seriously mind-bending tones and textures.

Cloud About Mercury, David Torn’s second ECM solo album, definitely put him into the same league. Though just as influential as many of the aforementioned guitarists, he has never really gained as much of a public profile despite occasional solo albums (the latest Only Sky has just come out on ECM) and stellar sideman work with the likes of David Bowie and David Sylvian.

My dad used to get sent a lot of music for his work and I vaguely remember him passing Cloud About Mercury onto me, knowing I was a big fan of early-’80s King Crimson. My muso mates and I quickly grew to like the album’s perverse musical concepts and silly song titles. With a superstar avant-rock rhythm section of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin on board, it came on a bit like the follow-up to Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair, but also offered a strikingly original take on jazz/rock.

I recall a contemporary review of Cloud About Mercury in Q magazine which said something like: ‘Torn luxuriates in the silence for a bit…and then goes KRAOOOOOOW!’ To be fair, that writer probably hadn’t listened beyond track one (and there is an excellent counterbalancing AllMusic review).

But in its louder moments, CAM is definitely one to annoy the neighbours. Torn can certainly make a racket. His Trans-Trem guitar enables him to create some very novel effects and original lines, with micro-tones and Middle Eastern flavours, and you can really get lost in his ambient loops. As far as I know, he was the first guitarist to use the loop/delay pedal extensively.

CAM is also a very uncharacteristic ECM album, being much more in-your-face and rockist in its mixing and playing than most of the label’s output. In fact, it’s not really fair to judge it as a ‘jazz’ album at all. But sometimes Torn seems much happier playing solo or in duet with Isham; his superb rhythm section is underused, and the tunes rely too heavily on one-chord improvisations. Consequently Bruford and Levin sound somewhat muted and can’t quite bring the sort of forward-motion dynamics so crucial to jazz/rock.

Torn toured extensively to promote CAM (but presumably not London or I surely would have been there…) with ex-Japan bass player Mick Karn replacing the unavailable Tony Levin. An excellent decision, both musically and commercially. The band sounded fantastic and the tunes really came to life. Torn and Isham then accompanied David Sylvian on the ‘In Praise Of Shamen’ world tour which I caught at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1988.

Two quick questions to end, prompted by a discussion with my brother about Torn the other day: why isn’t there any music like this around these days? Or is there?