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.

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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.

Japan: A Foreign Place

japanIt’s been a bit quiet over here at movingtheriver.com recently, partly because I’ve been focusing on my (blatant plug) new site Sounds Of Surprise. But when I recently received Anthony Reynolds’ new book ‘Japan: A Foreign Place‘ in the post, I just had to drop everything and give it a read.

It’s only befitting that Japan – a band who put a big emphasis on surface and style – should be rewarded with such a glossy, beautifully-designed biography.

To paraphrase an old joke, when I got the book in my hand I didn’t know whether to read it or frame it. ‘Japan: A Foreign Place’ comes with a weighty, thick binding and a glorious cover featuring the band’s characteristic logo. It’s also packed with many fantastic photos, almost all of which were new to this correspondent. Many of them even appear to show David Sylvian smiling.

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Toronto, 24th November 1979

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Toronto, 24th November 1979

But what of the book’s content? Though it will satisfy the most information-starved Japan fan, with detailed commentaries on the band’s music and relationships, it also works very nicely as a portrait of the wider late-’70s/early-’80s music scene: Giorgio Moroder, Ryuichi Sakamato, Simon Napier-Bell, Gary Numan and David Bowie make regular appearances.

Though the band were, critically, a laughing stock up until the Quiet Life album in 1979, it’s often forgotten quite how out of place they always were in the UK pop firmament. From androgynous glam-rockers to glacial art-popsters, Japan resolutely stuck to their own guns and, by the time of their split in 1983, had become probably the most influential group of their era.

Sylvian and Barbieri, The Oxford Road Show, November 1981

Sylvian and Barbieri, The Oxford Road Show, November 1981

Reynolds expertly builds up a lucid picture of South-East London in the 1970s with its racial/cultural/class divisions and dodgy schoolmasters. The brothers Batt (soon to be rechristened David Sylvian and Steve Jansen) hooked up with schoolmate Andonis Michaelides (soon to become Mick Karn) to jam and write songs. Reynolds reveals some of Japan’s more outré musical influences (Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Aynsley Dunbar) and also that their early material was full of Sylvian guitar solos.

Jumping forward a bit, we get many gossipy revelations: Sylvian’s toe-curling audition for legendary manager Simon Napier-Bell, Gary Numan’s frequent stalking and also Japan’s early (and uniformly bad) experiences on the live scene of the late-’70s, supporting the likes of Blue Oyster Cult. Though the band were all resolutely straight, onstage they were subjected to constant homophobic comments and a barrage of missiles. Reynolds reveals that Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi had a real thing for Sylvian, pestering Napier-Bell for an introduction, not realising Sylvian wasn’t a ‘chick’. But this surely wasn’t the first time Sylvian had been mistaken for Brigitte Bardot.

Japan, November 1982

November 1982

Japan’s pop breakthrough is expertly handled, Reynolds spelling out in great musical detail how Sylvian’s emergence as a high-quality songwriter fused with Richard Barbieri’s canny synth programming and the stunning Karn/Jansen rhythm section to finally produce some music of worth. But success had come at a great cost; the band had completely grown apart, not helped by Karn’s girlfriend moving in with Sylvian on the eve of an important tour.

This Kickstarter project has clearly been a labour of love but ‘Japan: A Foreign Place’ punches way above its weight with in-depth interviews, sumptuous design and anecdotes aplenty. Occasionally, the text has a repetitious, ‘cut and paste’ quality, but this is a minor quibble. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will ever write a better book about one of the key bands of the ’80s. Highly recommended.

‘Japan: A Quiet Place’ 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 Japan 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 (selling 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.