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.

Advertisements

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.

Book Review: Inside The Songs Of XTC

complicated gameBooks about songwriting are a small but fast-growing and fascinating subgenre of music journalism. Alongside such classic tomes as Paul Zollo’s ‘Songwriters On Songwriting‘, Omnibus Press’s ‘Complete Guides’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles‘, we’ve also recently had Daniel Rachel’s excellent ‘Isle Of Noises‘. And now here comes another cracker.

XTC fans, however, may be slightly surprised about the publication of ‘Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC‘, a gripping new book of interviews with mainman Andy Partridge, seeing as they may possibly feel that it would hard to better Neville Farmer’s ‘XTC Song Stories’.

But, while obviously covering similar ground, ‘Complicated Game’ zooms in with forensic detail on a select group of Partridge songs, particularly ones that may well have been overlooked throughout his stellar career (‘Travels In Nihilon’, ‘No Language In Our Lungs’, ‘Beating Of Hearts’, ’25 O’Clock’ etc). He once said that XTC’s music explores the unexplored nooks and crannies of the guitar neck; this book does the same for their discography.

Essentially, ‘Complicated Game’ is a transcription of over 30 interviews by American rock journalist/musician Todd Bernhardt. Though some of Partridge’s legendary West-Country repartee and clever wordplay occasionally get a bit lost in translation, these conversations are candid, detailed and never less than engaging. Discussions about a rhyming couplet can suddenly give way to painful memories of Partridge’s divorce, or asides about Swindon or 9/11. The ‘Dear God’ controversy gets a whole chapter. The thorny subject of record company wrangling is never far from the surface, and Andy’s troubled relationships with producers is also a constant theme, with Steve Nye, Todd Rundgren and Gus Dudgeon taking centre stage (the former being described as ‘possibly the grumpiest guy we’ve ever worked with’!)

There’s just enough musical theory discussed too, and – not surprisingly, given that Bernhardt once interviewed Partridge at length for Modern Drummer magazine – a lot of emphasis on the role of the rhythm section, with much talk about Colin Moulding’s superb bass playing and many hilarious anecdotes about original XTC drummer Terry Chambers and later sticksmen Pete Phipps, Prairie Prince and Dave Mattacks.

But, most importantly, Partridge is able to give detailed and fascinating answers about where he gets his songwriting inspiration, looking in detail at how unusual – and often completely accidental – chords can set off images and themes, and also how much he associates music with colours. There’s also a lot of advice for songwriters about how to develop initial ideas.

Andy_Partridge

Of course, the real measure of a great music book is how quickly one is drawn back to the records, and ‘Complicated Game’ works a treat in that regard – I rushed first to the CD and then to the guitar to try and nail down ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl‘ and ‘Church Of Women’. The orchestral arrangements and song structures of the truly singular ‘River Of Orchids’ and ‘I Can’t Own Her’ are also discussed in great detail.

There are a few minor quibbles: some of the interviews have a slightly ‘flogging a dead horse’ feel to them, and also there’s a strange reluctance to talk about Partridge’s contemporaries – Sting, Weller, McAloon, Gartside et al go unmentioned, and Elvis Costello is only referred to once in terms of his huge bank balance…

But hey, enough of my nitpicking. ‘Complicated Game’ is another fine book about songwriting, a good holiday read for ’80s music fans and a great companion piece to ‘XTC Song Stories’. I devoured it almost in one sitting and will be reaching for it regularly. Give it a whirl here. There’s also a cracking recent radio interview with Andy Partridge and Bernhardt here.

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.

カバー0720.indd

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.

JAPAN_1 (1)

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.