China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse 30 Years Old Today

‘File under: Victims Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’. That was Q magazine’s memorable verdict on What Price Paradise, CC’s 1986 studio album. They had a point – it was producer team Langer & Winstanley’s unfathomable attempt to turn the Liverpudlians into Madness.

But when Steely Dan co-founder/co-songwriter Walter Becker came back onboard for ’89’s Diary Of A Hollow Horse, released 30 years ago today, normal service was resumed. It now sounds like a perfect follow-up to the 1985 classic Flaunt The Imperfection.

Becker was reluctant to record in England so persuaded the band to convene at George Benson’s Lahaina studio in Maui, Hawaii, just down the road from Becker’s home. He brought engineer Roger Nichols along for the sessions too, famous for his painstaking work on Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho. Nichols apparently taught all of the band how to scuba dive during their time off.

It’s hard to know what sort of expectations Virgin Records had for this album. What they ended up with is a kind of chamber pop, mainly the sound of a great, super-tight band playing live in the studio. The only concessions to ’80s music are the teeniest bit of reverb on the drums and the occasional synth overdub, to add colour in lieu of a horn section.

Becker’s real contribution seems to be on the arrangement side (the tasty modulation for the guitar solo in ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’ is a case in point), and he also brings in great backing singers Maxine Waters, Myrna Matthews and Linda Harmon, saxist Jim Horn, guitarist (and Countdown To Ecstasy engineer) Tim Weston and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, who presumably used up most of the recording budget.

Virgin obviously computed the ‘hits’ as ‘Red Letter Day’ and ‘St Saviour Square’, summarily canning Becker’s versions of the songs and bringing in Mike Thorne to ‘re-produce’ them (the ploy didn’t work – the singles stiffed at #84 and #81 respectively). You can listen to all of the versions on YouTube.

Hollow Horse also didn’t work commercially, only reaching #58 in the UK album charts. But this was a period when some great pop/rock by the likes of Danny Wilson, It Bites, Love & Money and David Sylvian (all Virgin acts except for one… hint, hint…) also failed to find a big audience. CC’s album sales diminished as the quality of their work increased – the game was up in terms of major-label support, but amongst fans of quality ’80s pop Hollow Horse has only gained status over the years.

The lads reproduced the album perfectly at London’s Dominion Theatre in spring 1989, a gig whose details elude me apart from the late Kevin Wilkinson’s superb drumming (and ahead-of-its-time, side-on kit placement) and vocalist Gary Daly proudly saying ‘That’s a good one, tha’!’ after ‘Day After Day’. He had good reason to feel chuffed – Diary Of A Hollow Horse still sounds like a minor classic 30 years on.

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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.

 

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). 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.

 

 

Scritti Politti’s Provision: 30 Years Old Today

A pop formula can be a dangerous thing. In Scritti mainman Green Gartside’s case, it was literally dangerous – dangerous to his physical and mental health.

He speaks of their 1988 album Provision with something akin to dread these days, lamenting the three-year recording process (no less than 10 studios are listed in the credits) and then ‘a year of hell’ – his words – promoting it (epitomised by the fairly dire ‘Boom! There She Was’ video). A full-blown breakdown followed, and he now says he wished he’d had the guts to explore the hip-hop sounds that had begun to enthrall him around ’86/’87.

But, to these ears, Provision is an almost-perfect follow-up to the classic Cupid & Psyche ’85. There’s arguably more cohesion – Gartside and keyboard-playing cohort David Gamson co-wrote and co-produced all tracks (no Arif Mardin this time) and the guest spots from Miles Davis, Roger Troutman and Marcus Miller are expertly placed.

‘Sweetness’ is the word that seems to follows Scritti around. And despite containing two classic ballads (‘Overnite’, ‘Oh Patti’), Provision is unashamedly happy music – all songs are in major keys – and for me it’s one of the ultimate summer albums (’88 was a great year in this regard, Provision sharing disc space with Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick, Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy and Joni’s Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm).

But Green’s lyrics are always subtly subversive. ‘Sugar And Spice’ may be about anal sex or drugs (or both!), ‘Boom’ references Immanuel Kant and a ‘pharmacopoeia’ (dictionary of drugs), amusingly lip-syched by Gartside in the video, while his interest in Marxism is never far from the surface of even the most seemingly-straightforward ‘boy/girl’ song.

And is there a Grammy award for arrangement? If so, Provision should have won. Gamson and Green do some intricate things here with backing vocals (check out ‘Bam Salute’), rhythm guitars and synth syncopation. No-one else has really explored similar areas, including the greats of ’80s R’n’B. No wonder Miles was a bit obsessed with Scritti.

Yes, the songs on side two are a bit too long and possibly point to a dearth of material, and the album could also do with a real drummer (Steve Ferrone, Vinnie Colaiuta?). Provision missed the top 100 in the States but made the top 10 in the UK (selling over 100,000 copies) and produced one top 20 hit in ‘Oh Patti’. Writer Nick Coleman gave the album a 9/10 rave in the NME, calling its songs ‘sweeties to rot your teeth and detonate your heart’.

Hear, hear. That ‘sweetness’ again…

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.

Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week. He was fresh from a UK number one album Boys And Girls and had cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’. Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths. And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface. His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves. The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and rhythm guitar from David Williams. ‘New Town’ is a witty late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour. ‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire. ‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows? The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.