David Sylvian: Pop Song 30 Years Old Today

Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single 30 years ago today.

It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).

Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is completely out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’

Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at the Townhouse Studios, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…

Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).

I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out, and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.

But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.

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Book Review: Cries And Whispers 1983-1991 (Sylvian, Karn, Jansen, Barbieri) by Anthony Reynolds

Which ‘rock’ artists are the most likely to be subjects of not one but a series of biographies? The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan?

Japan are possibly unlikely recipients of such a legacy, but Anthony Reynolds’ superb new ‘Cries And Whispers’ – carrying on from where ‘A Foreign Place’ left off – holds the attention with ease.

His luxuriously-appointed new book takes an indepth look at all the protagonists’ (Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri) careers between 1983 and 1991, a mouth-watering prospect when you realise how scant the serious coverage of these groundbreaking musicians really is, Martin Power’s half-decent 1998 biography of Sylvian aside.

Here you get rigorous research, rare photos and unexpectedly candid interviews from producers, engineers, designers, record company execs, hangers-on and of course the musicians themselves. There are fascinating glimpses under the ’80s pop bonnet, with details of record company correspondence, press releases, tour itineraries/diaries and testimonies from session players.

There’s the odd unqualified muso revelation (did Mark King really get asked to play bass on ‘Pulling Punches’?!) and tasty gossip a-plenty, hardly surprising when you consider that the book covers the troubled Rain Tree Crow project.

In the main, Reynolds wisely keeps musical analysis to a minimum, letting the facts and musicians speak for themselves, and he also – admirably – is as interested in the murkier corners of Sylvian’s ’80s work (the one-off ‘Pop Song’ single, his involvement with Propaganda’s A Secret Wish album) as he is with the better-known stuff.

Indeed, all the chapters on Sylvian’s solo work are terrific, particularly the lengthy portrait of his punishing ‘In Praise Of Shamans’ 1988 world tour. The Rain Tree Crow section is also gripping. There are minor gripes here and there: some quotes from relatively peripheral figures – clearly cut and pasted from email correspondence – could do with trimming, and does anyone really want such a lengthy analysis of Dalis Car or The Dolphin Brothers? But even these longeurs have their fascinating moments.

This writer almost read ‘Cries And Whispers’ in one sitting, passing it from desk to sofa to dinner table to bath to bed, and you may well do the same. It’s another fine achievement by Reynolds and another classic music book to boot. We eagerly await the next instalment.

‘Cries And Whispers’ is published by Burning Shed.

 

Japan: Oil On Canvas 32 Years On

japanVirgin Records, released 18th June 1983

9/10

Produced by John Porter and Japan

UK Album Chart Position: #5

First of all: the cover. As a teenager, I was instantly intrigued by Frank Auerbach’s mesmerising artwork, and the music very definitely lived up to the packaging.

Recorded live during Japan’s final tour, though with a good few overdubs (according to the recent band biography ‘A Foreign Place’, the only ‘live’ elements on the album are Steve Jansen’s drums – everything else was replayed in the studio) and three new studio tracks added too, Oil On Canvas was released six months after their break-up and proved a perfect farewell from one of the key bands of the early ’80s.

The fact that it ended up as Japan’s highest-selling album (shifting over 100,000 in the UK) must have really irked manager Simon Napier-Bell – after year of toil, the band were calling it a day just as they were getting some commercial success (read ‘A Foreign Place’ for a full explanation of the split). Tin Drum was great but who knows what they might have come up with as a follow-up given the giant strides they had made as musicians, songwriters and arrangers since ’81. Sure enough, within a few months of their split, Duran Duran were taking their sound and image to the bank.

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

There is so much to enjoy on Oil On Canvas. The Tin Drum tracks have added heft and a bit more air. David Sylvian’s vocals are warmer and more expressive than on the studio albums (though he has since virtually disowned this early singing style), and his Satie-esque title track prefigures the triumphs of his solo career.

‘Ghosts’ is extended with a superb Stockhausen-meets-serialism intro/interlude thrown in while ‘Canton’ becomes a mighty parade of musical colours, with clanging synths, whip-lashing china cymbals and the late great Mick Karn’s increasingly insane bass embellishments.

There has never been a rhythm section quite like Karn and Steve Jansen (drums) and probably never will be again. They revel in open spaces and ‘non-rock’ textures, typified by the deceptively simple and downright spooky ‘Sons Of Pioneers’. Karn sounded like no one else on fretless bass (and looked like no one else too – see below), exploring Middle Eastern concepts and weird intervals to produce a sound both complex and hilarious.

Jansen came up with several of the most ingenious backbeats in pop history while always making them danceable. Together, they produced classic grooves like ‘Visions Of China’, ‘Cantonese Boy’ and ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’, and Richard Barbieri’s creative keys playing always emphasises texture and mood over technique. His closing instrumental ‘Temple Of Dawn’ bids a fantastic album farewell first with a chill and then with a brief shot at redemption.

Sylvian escaped to a successful, innovative solo career, Karn also went solo and hooked up with collaborators including Midge Ure, Peter Murphy and, most memorably, Kate Bush. Barbieri and Jansen teamed up regularly in various projects and recorded together as The Dolphin Brothers in 1987 but didn’t enjoy much commercial success. Against all odds, they all got together again at the end of the ’80s for the intriguing Rain Tree Crow project.