EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER FOUR OF ‘CRIES AND WHISPERS.’

Author’s note :  “This was the first Sylvian album where at age 15, I was sufficiently ‘awake’ to be aware of its release. I was too young to appreciate, in the moment, any of the earlier releases. I bought it at Woolworths in Llanrumney Cardiff before school and carried it around with me all day, gagging to get home and play it…And I still play it”

(This is a mere extract from Chapter four.  To buy the book please follow the links below. Please note – Some of the photos here do not appear in the actual book although many lovely, previously unpublished ones do.)

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Chapter Four :  I HEAR YOUR VOICE

People always have an idea that one day they’d like to live somewhere, they’d like to have a house somewhere. I think that’s a longing for something inside; there’s a place inside where that serenity exists. Safe and sound with yourself. I don’t say I have it, it’s something I long for. But I know it exists and I’m working towards it in the most practical way possible.’ Sylvian, 1986

Mark Prendergast (Journalist): ‘There is a pub in Vauxhall called The Royal Oak which is near St. Peter’s church. Between 1986 and 1989, Russell Mills used to curate Echoes From The Cross – a series of concerts – at that church. I was at the pub before the concert one night in ’86 when Brian Eno was performing. He was there with Russell Mills having a Guinness. And someone introduced me to Yuka Fujii. We were talking about various things, sat on this couch. And I heard a sound come from behind the couch, so I looked behind it and there was David – hiding behind the sofa. He had a pair of John Lennon style dark glasses and a mac and cap on. And I instantly thought, “Oh, it’s David Sylvian …in disguise.” But the funny thing is, this ‘disguise’ just made him look more like David Sylvian! He was obviously extremely paranoid and self-conscious about anyone recognising him which was daft because Brian Eno was there and was in plain sight, just stood at the bar and not self-conscious at all. Brian was talking to Russell and various punters and then went off to do the concert. David was behind the couch the whole time …and no, he and Eno didn’t talk.’

The ‘new’ David Sylvian officially emerged from behind the metaphorical sofa in the July of 1986 for a two page spread in The Face magazine for a piece by David Rimmer. This was his first British interview since Record Mirror in December 1984. Back then, Sylvian had still been reassuringly blond and made-up, the thinking Pop fan’s pin-up, a reluctant Pop star with a coke habit (and a temporary intolerance to dairy products). By the spring of ’86, the peroxide, make-up and coke habit were gone. The Pop landscape had changed too; the once untouchable Duran Duran had lost two key members and were struggling commercially. The digital prefabricated pop of Stock Aitken and Waterman was on the ascent and The Smiths, with Morrissey as the nation’s neurotic boy outsider of choice, were at their peak. David Bowie was lost. In the midst of this, Rimmer encountered a Sylvian who was ‘small and neat, grey-suited with white shoes. His hair was a natural darkish-brown, a small silver crucifix dangled in the blood-red folds of his shirt. Owlish, tinted spectacles lent him a learned air while also obscuring most of his face. What remained visible was pale and clear …such a transformation had he undergone from the willowy blond, heavily made-up, with the fringe and the highlights, that I was unsure I would recognise him had he walked up in the street, sung a few bars of ‘Forbidden Colours’ and begun taking Polaroids …I keep musing, what if this ‘isn’t’ David Sylvian after all? Maybe it’s a hoax. Maybe this is a bloke who looks a bit like him, employed to impersonate Sylvian for reasons as yet unclear.’

DAVID SYLVIAN          JAPAN            LAURIE LEWIS

Given the intensity of the promotional duties Sylvian had now taken on, perhaps a professional stand in would have been a good idea. Sylvian had re-emerged to promote a new album. A double no less. Half of which was …instrumental. Compared to the Virgin birth of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth was put together piecemeal, as Sylvian explained, ‘I started on a variety of different musical projects but I hadn’t one specific direction. I had the soundtrack to the film Steel Cathedrals, I had Words With The Shaman on the go, and added to that was a body of work that didn’t necessarily sit well together. I then started writing songs, and I started recording a number: ‘Wave’, ‘Before The Bullfight’, ‘Laughter And Forgetting’. So I ended up with this kind of – what do you call it – an in-cohesive collection of material, that I somehow had to make sense of. So what I did was persuade Virgin to put out the Words With The Shaman EP, put Steel Cathedrals to one side for the time being – I think it was released as a video only at the time – and then take the songs that I’d been working on and sort of develop them further and flesh that out into a full album.’ According to Sylvian, Virgin had initially hoped for a straightforward sequel to the critically and commercially successful Brilliant Trees, and were reticent with him as regards to pursuing a solely instrumental path. ‘I’d also been writing these little instrumental pieces which I really loved, and I wanted to pursue them as well. And the deal was that the budget for the album would not cater for the instrumental work, and if I wanted to produce it then I had to produce it in the off hours, like the end of a session or the very first thing in the morning before sessions got underway, and therefore produce it in my own time and at my own costs. So that’s what I did. But for me it was a body of work, the instrumentals and the songs belonged together, and Virgin did allow me to release the album as a double ultimately. I’m not sure that they were that enthusiastic about it at the time, but they didn’t put up too much of a fight on the creative issues.’ Draper himself confirms this : ‘David’s freedom then was purely down to my support of him. I wouldn’t have put any pressure on David to do something he didn’t want to do, and as far as I recall we backed him all the way. At this point in his career David was obviously maturing and was very well respected critically, and was selling enough records around the world for him to do what he wanted to do. The success of ‘Ghosts’ had proved him right in a way. But what you also have to remember is that Virgin had a history of supporting and releasing left field music; even Tubular Bells wasn’t a commercial certainty before we released it, and we also had acts like Henry Cow and Robert Wyatt …also in the ‘80’s Virgin were the distributor for ECM records …and early on The Human League and Simple Minds were quite experimental. We weren’t just about Phil Collins, although those type of acts did sell enormously and in a way help fund artists like David. But as I say, he was selling enough records anyway and we imagined him becoming an artist along the lines of Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush …consequently we gave him a lot of freedom.’

Of course, the difference between Sylvian, Gabriel and Bush was enormous; at least as far as sales went. In Sylvian’s case there was no ‘Running Up That Hill’ or ‘Sledgehammer’ blazing a trail for the parent album. Instead a new single ‘Taking the Veil’ was released that August to mixed reviews and patchy airplay. No1 magazine loved it, calling Sylvian “a genius” and granting him with half a page, printing the lyrics over a photo of Sylvian dressed in white sat and perched on a chair.

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Sounds were slightly less complimentary, saying ‘…it ends with a wank.’ Mark E. Smith and then wife Brix Smith reviewed it more or less favourably in Record Mirror although, referring to Sylvian’s tortoise-like work rate, the former joshing, “The man’s bone idle! Get some work done you lazy sod.’

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The single was debuted on the Janice Long evening show on Radio 1 and sounded oddly dated. Fretless bass had just about fallen out of fashion. It also picked up a play on the Mike Read Sunday afternoon Radio 1 show, sounding profoundly out of place coming after Bananarama. ‘It’s got a great mood,’ was all the DJ could offer by way of explanation.

There was no promo video to accompany the single.‘I’m not sure why there wasn’t a video,’ recalls Draper, ‘and at that time it would have been a record company cost so David wouldn’t have had to recoup it. I think he just didn’t like doing them.’ Sylvian himself had initially pushed for a much more lugubrious song – ‘River Man’ – to be released as the lead single, but Virgin had gone for the more uptempo (if only by default) ‘…Veil’. ‘I think Virgin are going for an audience that isn’t mine,’ Sylvian lamented. The single was released in various formats: pic disc, remixed 12” and regular 7”, and housed in a beautiful sleeve with artwork appropriated from a 1970 Peter Blake work Just at this moment, somehow or other, they began to run. The title and theme of the song itself was lifted directly from a Max Ernst book, A Little Girl Dreams Of Taking The Veil, a book of collaged illustrations that intended to ‘provide bizarre images for a surrealistic novel about a young girl’s apocalyptic dreams of hell and marriage to the celestial bridegroom’ ‘The image that it [the book] gave me was very strong,’ said Sylvian, ‘so I just wrote down the lyrics quickly, and the music came immediately afterwards.’ ‘Taking the Veil’ was unique in one regard. For once, the lyrics didn’t seem to reference Sylvian himself, as their author was well aware: ‘I do think while I’m moving towards a more up-tempo music, writing about myself has gone far enough now,’ mused Sylvian. ‘It gets tiring, for myself and the public.’ This wasn’t an attitude Sylvian would endorse for long, however.

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While these literary and art references offered yet more opportunities of discovery for Sylvian’s still young fans and gave an insight to the singer’s own tastes, such elements in a Pop song were never likely to bother charts then consisting of Sinitta, Cutting Crew and Cameo. ‘Taking the Veil’ did however make it to number 54 and hung around for four weeks, a perfectly respectable performance for an artist as uncompromising as Sylvian, who had emerged from the studio with not just an album but a statement. Double albums were much less indulged in the ‘80’s than they had been in the previous decade; especially double albums that were half instrumental. With the currency of his porcelain Pop mask consigned to history, Sylvian’s ‘new look’ also posed a challenge to the fickle pop firmament. To counter this, in the late summer and early autumn of ’86, he would embark on a press tour of literally global proportions, one that saw Sylvian and Fujii travel to Europe, Japan and Australia. Nicole Fritton was then a junior press officer at Virgin. Fritton: ‘Me and Sian Davies who was then head of press worked together. I was a Japan fan before I joined Virgin at 17 and had been working there since ’82. At the job interview I had talked of nothing but Japan! David, Mick, Steve and Richard were even more beautiful in real life. They just put you at ease. David wasn’t difficult at all, he was gentle but driven and focused, and by now we knew him well enough to know what he would or wouldn’t do. So we may get…inappropriate requests but we’d still have to put them to him. So if No1 magazine asked if he’d be interested in posing on a donkey at Brighton pier for their summer special we knew he’d say no, but we still asked. The best thing was just to be open and honest. I remember one photo shoot where we all thought the results were amazing but he didn’t want us to use them. They were too typically ‘heart throb’ looking, I suppose. But apart from that David was very easy going and Virgin would never put undue pressure on its artists; we nurtured them and allowed them to be who they were.’

In place of Sylvian’s Smash Hits friendly blond fringe and foundation was an insatiable interest in philosophy and a new found confidence in his musical, technical and writing abilities. All would allow him to be taken unequivocally seriously both by (most of) the ‘serious’ music press, and the magazines that covered all aspects of music technology. Thus, while Sylvian never would grace the covers of Smash Hits, Record Mirror or No1 magazine again, he did appear as cover star of the NME and Electronics & Music Maker magazine. This suited Sylvian just fine.‘It was a natural progression, as he matured,’ says Fritton. ‘His vision got larger when he left the band and so the kind of press he did matured with him.’ In fact, Sylvian had made it plain to Richard Chadwick that he was no longer interested in the ‘Teeny’ press.‘The problem being,’ explained Chadwick in a letter to Virgin, ‘that when journalists are writing for ‘Teenys’, and however much they admire the artist, they are forced to write down to their readers. So I really think we’ll have to forget the ‘Teenys’ for this album. If the next album turns out to be more obviously commercial, David assures me he will consider them then.’ ‘I know now to keep away from Smash Hits type magazines and the tabloids and trash, OK?,’ replied the Virgin Press officer. When he had last spoken to Dave Rimmer for The Sunday Times in 1984, Sylvian had confessed that, ‘On the last [Japan] tour I felt so embarrassed by girls screaming down the front. During the quiet numbers it was horrifying to hear conversations going on in the front row.’ This time around, recalls Rimmer, ‘We spent much of the time talking about Eastern religion, a subject I knew fuck all about but was developing an interest in. David was obviously much further down that road. We even agreed to meet up and talk about it some more in a private conversation. But that never happened because I didn’t follow up – I was nervous about crossing personal/professional boundaries…’ Sylvian also explained to Rimmer where he now saw himself in the ‘Pop world’. If you think of the avant-garde as the bottom of the ladder and Pop as the top, then I tend to work somewhere around the middle.’ No matter how esoteric Sylvian wanted to be, Virgin ensured there was a place for him in the press. ‘It wasn’t a struggle to get him space,’ says Fritton. ‘As I’ve said, Virgin were totally supportive of all their artists – our dealings with them were based on our relationships – and we had so many successful artists to offer the press then, we could ‘trade’ if we had to, but with David it wasn’t an issue.’

Sylvian’s well honed charm and his metamorphosis from Pop candy to Left Bank dandy made him a favourite for sympathetic and intellectually aspirational journalists. Some of these writers would even garner their own fan base for a while. Chris Roberts’ piece, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, which appeared in the 27 September issue of Sounds was the perfect example of this. If you were a Sylvian fan in 1986 it was as if Roberts was speaking directly for you. One either ‘got’ Sylvian or didn’t. Roberts did, but says, ‘this may have been overstated by my “me-against-the-world” mentality. Of course some writers didn’t go for Sylvian, but others did. The tone of my piece is probably less that ‘most’ people were into less elevated music and more that I was quite a defensive and over-sensitive youth, railing against Ozzy Osborne and Saxon or whomever. Sylvian was the perfect projection to filter your own “down-with-denim-and-leather” rants through, and to champion the aesthetic and thoughtful. There were haters. Every artist/band has them. But, compared to the present day, the ‘80s were extremely fey-friendly and foppish and poetry-reading and glamorous. I should’ve appreciated it more really, before Oasis, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Nirvana, etc. came along and things got really laddish and herd-y and anti-art. Sylvian, like Japan, appealed to narcissists and loners though he still had a large Pop-girls following too.’ Roberts met Sylvian in a borrowed Baker Street flat at the end of summer. Fujii (‘Quiet. Very quiet,’ according to Roberts) was there too, sketching at a desk. The setting was oddly informal for an interview but Sylvian and Robert’s found an immediate rapport.

The ‘new look’ Sylvian, dressed in Issey Miyake with still-porcelain skin and heavy brown fringe, did not disappoint the journalist: ‘The “plain” look is not plain. It’s more broad-shouldered than anticipated, more consummate and strong. He’s not shy or paranoid. At all. He’s very relaxed. It’s like his breathing is right or something. His talking voice is glacial harmonics. Playing the tape back you can detect just a trace of cockney running underneath the absence of accent, but that’s quite becoming …There are the yellow-tinted glasses and then the nose, the mouth, the jaw. All the angles are still, rest assured, angelic. If Sylvian wasn’t nonchalantly beautiful you don’t believe you’d believe the world was round.’

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Despite the recent commitment to instrumental work, Sylvian was well aware of his musical roots. ‘I wouldn’t dismiss Pop music,’ he stressed to Roberts, ‘It’s easy to generalise and say it’s all superficial and meaningless or whatever, but I don’t believe it is. A great deal of it is, it’s just based on ego and image and style …but in a way a lot of people need that. Music which just lifts them up for a moment and then can be forgotten. That’s quite important.’ There were some who would have described Japan as much of the above, and Sylvian himself was resolutely dismissive of his old group: ‘I don’t cringe as much as I laugh!,’ said Sylvian of the first two Japan albums, ‘I don’t take it so seriously as to worry about it. I understand the train of thought. It doesn’t bother me.’ Roberts: ‘And whatever happened to the self-conscious “political awareness” coquettishly lilting through ‘Rhodesia’, ‘Communist China’, ‘Suburban Berlin’…?’ Sylvian: ‘But they weren’t politically aware! Really! They were just playing with imagery. I get angry sometimes that I get letters from people who like those lyrics, and I think – how can I explain to them that they’re meaningless? But anyway, that’s not really worth covering …’ Why be bothered with the past when for Sylvian life was ‘getting better by the week’ since Japan ended? That said, Sylvian admitted that, ‘I’m far less satisfied with my solo work than I was with Japan’s. I’m less sure of it. But at the same time I feel it’s more valuable. If that makes sense.’ His lack of satisfaction could be down to the fact that his vision and thus goals were expanding by the day. The philosophy that now defined Sylvian’s life, and by default the work, could perhaps be summed up by a need, a yearning. This was evident enough in the music but still Sylvian summed it up to Roberts, explaining that, ‘People always have an idea that one day they’d like to live somewhere, they’d like to have a house somewhere. I think that’s a longing for something inside; there’s a place inside where that serenity exists. Safe and sound with yourself. I don’t say I have it, it’s something I long for. But I know it exists and I’m working towards it in the most practical way possible.’

The physical manifestation of this longing was achingly apparent in Gone To Earth. Released on 13 September 1986, the album made a worthy 24 on the UK album chart. Critically adored at the time it also remains Sylvian’s most ‘romantic’ (in the traditionally man/woman sense) album to date. Recorded through ’85 and mid ’86 at Jam studios (off the Seven Sisters Road in North London), Eel Pie studios (Pete Townsend’s studio near Twickenham Bridge), at The Manor in Oxfordshire and mixed at The Townhouse in central London, the album again saw Sylvian sharing a co-production credit with Steve Nye. ‘David had already started recording an album,’ Nye recalls, ‘and had completed an entire album which he wasn’t very pleased with,’ (released as Steel Cathedrals and Words With The Shaman). ‘So we basically started again with the album. He wrote five songs for it, with vocals; the other album was instrumentals. That was also the first time I’ve ever had demos (consisting of keyboard or guitar and vocal) from him – everything up to then had been done in the studio.’ Sylvian: ‘I don’t have a home studio. I just have a 4-track recorder which I tend to sketch ideas on. I tend to write on a piano or guitar and if a song works that way I know it’ll work in any other form of arrangement. I like to leave things quite open until I’m in the studio. The tapes are used as a sketch so that the musicians can get a rough idea. And they are a very rough idea of what I’m looking for. The area of central London I live in precludes the luxury of my having 8-track equipment. I don’t really see the need for a lot of home based equipment in the way that I work, except maybe on instrumental compositions where I work directly onto tape and build ideas.’ Nye: ‘Of course, because we were dealing with sound things – a lot of synth sounds for example – it changed a lot in the studio …[but] it was good to hear the stuff first.’ Nye’s role as a producer would usually involve ‘routining’ tracks – having the artist play through songs for the producer to make comments and modifications on the arrangements; ‘It can make a lot of difference to the end result,’ explained Nye, ‘… just having one less verse here or a break there – it’s quite interesting.’ In this case Sylvian knew exactly what he wanted in terms of structure and arrangement and so he and Nye concentrated instead on the musical performances and actual sounds within the songs. ‘It’s fairly easy to get sounds together,’ said Nye, ‘because you can recognize the atmosphere and everything you do is clued into that…’ The atmosphere on Gone To Earth would be predominantly warm, organic even. It glowed like the embers in a prairie fire.

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Steve Nye (Far right) with The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, 1985.

Sylvian: ‘When I’m working with Nye I steer clear of all the digital sounds that are coming from the keyboards I use and the effects I use. Steve steers clear of recording on digital tape and even mastering on it. I tend to prefer Czukay’s approach which is totally idiosyncratic approach to technology – he makes it work for him in his own way and that’s what I tend to do also. I use the studio to achieve a result and I’ve basically used the studio in the same way for many years. One of the major changes over the last few years is that most of the recording is now done in the control room. I mean a lot of time technology can get in your way – you can hold things up for a very long time while trying to keep say the standard of recording quality very high. That’s something that doesn’t bother me too much …I’ve learned from Holger that the deterioration of sound quality on tape is very interesting …sometimes Nye and I work in the studio trying to deteriorate a certain sound rather than make it better!’ Sylvian still spent as long as it took to programme original sounds into his synths: ‘If I use a synthesiser and I recognise the origin of a sound, then I’m loath to record it. I have to try and disguise it. You shouldn’t be aware of what you’re hearing – it should be more abstract.’ This illustrated a fundamental difference in Sylvian’s approach compared to his one-time contemporaries. Mick Talbot, keyboard player of The Style Council, was interviewed in International Musician a few months after Sylvian’s quote appeared. ‘I’m not particularly worried about coming up with sounds,’ said Talbot. ‘I read a thing in some magazine where some bloke said that he never wanted to use a standard preset on a synthesizer. Well I’d think that bloke is so busy creating unique sounds that he doesn’t care if he’s playing a good song with a strong melody and a decent lyric.’

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The majority of songs on Gone To Earth had been written on guitar and were then built up in the conventional manner at Jam studios and The Manor with specific players in mind, most notably Fripp and Nelson. ‘I’d started writing songs with the idea of two guitarists working against each other,’ confirmed Sylvian, who would also use some of the players he’d worked with on Brilliant Trees. Drums, bass and either keyboard and/or guitar (the latter in the early stages at least played by Sylvian himself) formed the foundations of the songs which were recorded in that sequence. For ‘Before The Bullfight’ for example, Sylvian initially worked at home, putting ‘the ideas straight onto [4-track] tape. I got a certain sound on a rhythm machine, then worked with just the drum sound. I then played around with chord shapes and recorded everything onto tape before I had any idea of what was coming next. Then I worked out the vocal to the chord shapes and I kept building, adding more guitar parts and so on. When I got into the studio I put down a click track and a chord sequence and played the demo to my brother.’ Jansen’s drums on ‘…Bullfight’ are a tour de force, sounding massive yet intricate and forged with a consummate authority. Jansen: ‘[On ‘Before The Bullfight’] the bull’s weight is represented by the heavy, sluggish [drum] pattern. The mic positions would have been pretty standard but with the mix relying more on the ambience mics than usual.’ This would account for their cavernous sound. Sylvian: ‘I spent a day just doing the drums and then one by one brought in the people that I want to play on the track. This was a simple piece of music and most of the recording involved me working on the atmospherics, which was the synthesisers, and then bringing in Bill Nelson to play the guitars.’

The basic structure of some songs was laid down initially at Jam studios in central London’s Tollington Park. Julian Wheatley was the in-house engineer there. Wheatley: ‘I first met Steve Nye on that session and as a person found him initially quite brusque, but after we got to know each other he opened up and was a really lovely guy. I think his original prickly exterior was just a cover for shyness maybe …He was more demonstrative about engineering (he was a very old-school one having been bought up through Air Studios), and less so in production. He was a man of few words who would somehow communicate through osmosis, rather than holding deep and meaningless dissections of the route the session should take. He was certainly a perfectionist, who wasn’t afraid of spending a good deal of time to get something just right. I was of course familiar with Japan, but not David’s solo work. He was quiet and fairly intense, intellectual and a real gentleman – softly spoken. I recall on the first day, he had brought in a book he was in the middle of which was about ley lines and holistic places in France which, for my 25 years, I thought was very cool. He also brought in his Prophet V synthesiser which had great sounds on it, and he would spend a good deal of time programming. Although I was only an assistant engineer to Steve and we spent just a couple of months working together, David often bumped into a friend of mine for some years after that and David always asked after me, which I thought was very kind of him. He and Steve had obviously worked a good deal together before and slipped immediately into their working routine while checking the ‘new guy’ out (me), which always happens on sessions when new people get into the studio. It’s difficult to say if one stronger character was leading the direction of the session – they both worked equally well with mutual respect for each other. There were never any disagreements or incidents that I can recall. We worked on 24-track tape via a Harrison console. The monitors were pretty horrid…’ Once ‘Before The Bullfight’s’ structure had been laid down to tape (in this case with Jansen’s drums – no bass guitar would feature on this track) Sylvian would also sometimes add a guide vocal. Wheatley: ‘I recall at the beginnings of the tracking for several songs that the first track would just be a long swirling guide pad from the Prophet V. It would last up to eight minutes or so, and I would punch into record – drift off to sleep (we worked long hours!) – and Steve would jab me in the ribs to wake me up just in time to punch out the vocals at the right moment. After a while, it got to a stage where when things took a really long time I would go and hang out in the kitchen for long periods until I was needed.’ After a few weeks Nye and Sylvian decamped to The Manor in Oxfordshire, home to the birth of Tin Drum some five years earlier.

 

Ian (now Jennifer) Maidman got the gig on bass for Gone To Earth having worked with Steve Nye in The Penguin Cafe Orchestra from 1984 on. ‘I met David for the first time at The Manor,’ recalls Maidman. ‘There was a good atmosphere in the studio. As for the songs, I didn’t hear anything beforehand. We basically ‘jammed’ the tracks, David, Steve Jansen and myself, live in the studio. I came up with my own bass lines, around the song structure David had. It evolved in the room. I was playing my Wal fretless custom, which was fed direct to the desk and via an amp too. Probably an Ampeg amp.’ Karn’s bass had been such a feature on Japan’s albums that Sylvian now seemed somewhat shy of replacing it. Several songs on Brilliant Trees had not featured bass at all and the same would apply to Gone To Earth. Sylvian: ‘I do like the idea of space …I don’t use the bass guitar a great deal because I find it tends to take up an awful amount of space. I think maybe Steve Nye would like me to flesh out the parts a bit more. But with this album I’ve tried to keep the promise I made myself when I started it. It’s very easy to become decorative just to enhance the drama, but I try to resist it.’

When bass guitar did feature, the resemblance to Mick Karn was obvious. Maidman: ‘I first became aware of Japan around ’81. I was recording at Air Studios, doing an album with Loz Netto (ex-Sniff ‘n’ The Tears). Japan were in the other studio working on Tin Drum. I would hear sounds floating down the corridor. I was struck by the bass I remember. Like Mick I was using Wal’s new custom basses too, so I knew that sound and was deploying it myself in a different way – more of a funky thing. Wal had a huge influence on a number of British players. I think it was Mick though who most effectively brought out the potential of the Wal fretless at that time. It was a very serendipitous combination of Mick’s unique musicality and the tonal possibilities of a particular instrument. When I heard Tin Drum I was blown away.’ On Gone To Earth Maidman was not deliberately referencing Karn however. ‘It wasn’t a conscious thing. I was influenced by other fretless players too, Jaco Pastorius being the most obvious. On Gone To Earth fretless just seemed to fit those songs. ‘Taking the Veil’ seemed to cry out for something swooping and elastic.’

 

At The Manor, Nye and Sylvian would greet a whole batch of musical guests, among them trumpet/flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler and his colleague and friend, Jazz pianist John Taylor. At least one track was recorded at The Manor which would never be released. Jansen: ‘[There was] a jazzier track that had the working title ‘Saints And Sheep’ which again was a live performance with myself, John Taylor and Ian Maidman on bass. I was really pleased with the interplay between us but I guess it didn’t suit the album.’ Maidman: ‘I just remember The Manor sessions being very relaxed and enjoyable, and feeling good about my contribution. It was nice that David didn’t dictate. The bass lines were my own response to the songs. Some people are much more controlling! On ‘River Man’ I also played the main riff originally, but David ultimately preferred the hypnotic quality of the sample (played by Jansen), so on that track I’m really just playing the harmonics.’

 

Once the rhythm tracks, guitars and keyboards had been recorded for ‘Wave’, ‘Silver Moon’ and ‘River Man’, Bill Nelson arrived at the studio. Nelson and Sylvian were of course already well acquainted and had enjoyed a letter writing correspondence in the last two years. (Sylvian and Yuka had also rented a room of their flat to Nelson’s future wife, Emiko Takahashi, in 1984.). Nelson was given a free hand to improvise over the backing tracks so far recorded. Nye: ‘With someone like Bill you’re not going to give him a part, you just let him play.’ Nelson played a Yamaha SG-2000S electric guitar and a Glen Campbell Ovation acoustic on the sessions, going so far as to share a writing credit on ‘Answered Prayers’ (this title borrowed from a Truman Capote book). Nelson however, didn’t recognize the pieces he played on as being finished songs. ‘I think it’s fair to say (at least from my own experience), that David’s approach depended on the input and contributions of other musicians to some degree. The tracks I played on for David were, in their raw form, bare skeletons. But David’s talent lay in his choice of musicians to flesh these skeletons out. My own recollection is that I was given free rein …I played several different versions or ideas over the rudimentary rhythm track, as did, I think, other musicians. David then later picked through the ideas we’d offered and carefully chose a certain selection of them …it was kind of composing by editing, making the best of the input of the musicians he’d invited to play on the recordings. He afterwards came up with lyrics and vocal lines to suit the tracks. I thought this was an interesting approach and didn’t ever think that he was putting songs together purely from other people’s creativity. I just saw it as a kind of Postmodern assemblage process and perhaps all the more fascinating for it.’ Sylvian: ‘There should be no rules. As soon as there are rules – even personal rules – everything becomes safe and predictable …I tend to view music emotionally and not intellectually. When I’ve reached a certain emotional layering in my work that for me is the cut off point.’ Such a tenet could have easily been applied to painting.

Nelson left the sessions impressed. ‘He [Sylvian]does take the craftsman’s approach in that he cares very deeply about the quality of his work,’ reckoned Nelson. ‘Not just in the technical sense, i.e. that it’s recorded well or played in time, but that he cares about what he is saying. You can get away with shoddy technical performances and a rough recording provided something is being said and communicated through the music. And for me, David’s example of the dedication he puts into the meaning of his work – the content side of it – shines more than anything he might do on a technical level with studio techniques or expensive keyboards. In fact, I’m sure that if David sat down with just an acoustic guitar and recorded his songs on a simple cassette recorder, he’d still communicate more than bands like Sigue Sigue Sputnik could in a million years!’

 

With Nelson and the rhythm section departed, it was time for Robert Fripp to take a trip to The Manor. ‘He [Sylvian] asked me to play on his record,’ recalled Fripp. ‘The actual message I got was – this was from EG management, my office in London – “David Sylvian phoned. He has this piece of music and he says you’re the only guitarist in the world who can play on it.” Well I said “Yes!” I mean how could you say no to a line like that? So I went along and played. It’s called ‘Wave’ …sensational …that music has something about it, that particular piece. The song was originally called ‘The Holy Blood Of Saints and Sheep’. Now I don’t know why he changed the lyrics, but I loved the original vocal which I heard and worked through. The current one is fabulous too. He said, “Go. Here you are. This is what we’ve got. Come up with something. Go.” And I work well like that.’ Fripp had even discovered a new guitar tuning for his work on Gone To Earth. This resulted in ‘flurries of bum notes’ in spots, but he nevertheless found Sylvian’s record to contain ‘beautiful music,’ and he ‘was very pleased to have the opportunity to play on it.’ (Fripp had, of course, already played on Steel Cathedrals). The title track of Gone To Earth is a near duet between Fripp and Sylvian and was an explicit example of their collaboration on the album. Sylvian even allowed Fripp a co-writing credit on the song. Sylvian: ‘The lyrics for the song ‘Gone To Earth’ were written before I got in the studio. I had in mind to do two versions, one with Bill Nelson and another with Robert Fripp, but in the end I only had time to record the one with Robert. I sat down with him in the studio, picked out the song on guitar and he responded immediately by playing something very aggressive. I recorded the rhythm track there and then, and very quickly he came up with two or three takes on lead guitar that would be suitable. The vocal went down soon after, and in all it was a very spontaneously created song with a minimum of studio overdubbing.’ Among the squall of the song, the placid voice of John Godolphin Bennett (an acolyte of Gurdjieff) was suddenly heard: ‘The soul goes beyond being and enters this divine world.’ Sylvian: ‘The context the sample was used in…was like this moment of clarity in an otherwise chaotic universe. So it was to indicate, to some degree, the possibility of divine insight if you like.’ By utilising Bennett’s voice on this track, the continued impact of Gurdjieff’s philosophy on Sylvian was explicitly detectable. Sylvian: ‘My interest in all things Gurdjieff led me to the writings of J.G. Bennett. Of course on meeting Robert for the first time, I spent far more time enquiring about Mr. and Mrs. Bennett and their teachings than recording (actually Robert set up a number of Frippertronics loops so we put the machines into record and left them to it, allowing us to take tea and sit and talk while simultaneously ‘working’), which in turn quite naturally led to the inclusion of Mr. Bennett’s quotation on the title track.’ Gurdjieff had also made music himself. David Toop: ‘I’ve written about Gurdjieff’s improvisations on harmonium (recorded in 1949) in my book, Into The Maelstrom. Maybe this passage is relevant here: “Whatever one thinks of Gurdjieff and his teachings, the music is strange for its time, a slow meander through some ancient Asian landscape pictured within Gurdjieff’s imagination, the knocking and creaking of the bellows audible as if shoe leather on a mountain pass, its wheezing the breath of the footsore walker whose destination is uncertain but whose progress is inexorable.”’ Such a description perfectly suited Sylvian’s journey at this point.

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Fripp and Yuka Fujii at The Manor.

The song ‘Gone To Earth’ in particular was a prime example of him transposing into song the deconstruction Sylvian had observed in Auerbach’s portrait paintings. Sylvian: ‘I try to use a basic structure – I like ballads, and if you’ve got a strong melody it can stand up to any form of arrangement. I came to this idea through looking at abstract artists’ paintings. The most successful ones are those that use portraits as the basis for the paintings because something recognisable is always there, and from that they can take the painting wherever they want, making it as abstract as they wish. The enjoyment of working with a ballad is to destroy it and sort of rebuild it. Giving it a less defined structure. People are so used to listening to music that they know where things are going to happen. So …you don’t have to tell them in a dramatic way – “THIS is the chorus. THIS is the verse,” because they already have it programmed into their minds.’ Fripp’s wailing, keening guitar ejaculations were the perfect foil for Sylvian’s approach. Nye: ‘Fripp only ever plays something once. The next take is completely different – so you have to do lots of editing.’ This would be done to tape rather than digitally, ‘I’m not a big computer fan,’ confirmed Nye, although computer editing in music was still in its relative infancy in 1986.

Once the backing tracks (often with guide vocals) were completed, Sylvian would add further guitar and keyboards, often replacing his initial parts. Then, the ‘sweeteners’ were added. Nye: ‘These are instruments that are not vital to the compositional structure of the song but add that something special; trumpets, [harmony] vocals, bits of keyboards and stuff. They’re usually pretty straightforward.’ Among those adding ‘sweeteners’ were Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett on flugelhorns, King Crimson associate Mel Collins on saxophone, B.J. Cole on pedal steel guitar and Richard Barbieri providing programming and atmospherics.

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These musicians’ impressions of Sylvian varied. Harry Beckett: ‘[David] was a quiet guy, not at all that talkative. But his identity is all in his compositions and arrangements. You’d think he would have been a bigger name.’ Cole: ‘He seemed moody. Self-consciously arty, if you like. He was very specific about what he wanted me to play. But then, with a pedal steel guitar it’s very easy to play in a clichéd ‘Country’ way. And David was very dismissive of me when I started to play because it was leaning toward that style. Ultimately I became good at playing the instrument without using the clichés of it. I got the impression David hated Country music, basically. And in the end, my contribution to ‘Silver Moon’ sounded fantastic but I had to do it without bringing any hint of ‘Country’ to it.’ ‘Silver Moon’ was one of the more conventional songs on the album. ‘It’s quite a romantic piece,’ said Sylvian, ‘It’s almost a love song. The nearest I’ve got to writing one for a while.’ Sylvian was a fan of the beautifully left field ECM Jazz group Azimuth, which was made up of Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler and pianist John Taylor. Taylor: ‘He likes our playing and I think he wanted to incorporate the feeling of what we did in his music.’ On ‘Laughter And Forgetting’ Sylvian would work out the chords on piano in his own rudimentary style, show the progressions to Taylor and have the ace pianist reassemble the piece in his own nervous, fluid style. Taylor: ‘[The song took] only a few hours …we tried a few other ideas but only a few …I’d not really worked with anybody…in the world of more popular music …so I had very little comparative information …[yet] I was very aware that David was a seriously involved musician that realised using improvisers was something that could be of benefit to his music…’ Sylvian: ‘A lot of Jazz musicians think this is easy money, ‘cos it’s ‘Pop music’ and we pay a decent fee. But Kenny (for example) is a perfectionist, so I’ve enjoyed working with them.’ In using such consummate and highly regarded musicians, Sylvian himself was raising his game in part by association, yet at the same time was (and is) proud of his own ‘non musician’ status. ‘It’s almost like being a director getting the right cast together for a script I’ve got,’ explained Sylvian of his process. ‘I’m very good at creating the right environment for people to work in.’ In the end the material spoke for itself, beautifully.

As always, vocals were the last element to be added. ‘The voice is there to give out a human emotion and lyrically to give clues to the listener,’ explained Sylvian. ‘The lyrics come before almost everything else…’ Wheatley: ‘Steve Nye had an interesting mic technique to do David’s vocals. David would be pushed as far as possible into a corner and his head would bend down looking into a Neumann U47 FET mic, which was low and angled up to him very close to his mouth.’ Sylvian’s vocals were a highlight throughout the album. Stronger and more consistent than ever before, Chris Roberts would call Sylvian’s one true instrument ‘the coolest voice in the world.’ Yet Sylvian himself lacked confidence in his voice at this point: ‘I feel I can convey what I’m trying to put over in music more successfully without vocals. Maybe it’s because I’m not that good a singer and my vocals will always be mannered to a certain extent, whereas the instrumental work won’t suffer from that.’ Mark Prendergast recalls an informal conversation with Sylvian around this time. ‘He told me that he didn’t feel his diction was very good,’ recalls the journalist. ‘He was worried that people couldn’t understand what he was saying. This led him ultimately, to publish his lyrics.’

Original Label Credits for GTE. Note alternate and as yet unnamed titles.

The second disc of Gone To Earth did not feature Sylvian’s voice at all and Nye loved this instrumental aspect of the album. ‘I think that a lot of the time vocals take away from the music,’ Nye reckoned, ‘and it wasn’t called ‘New Age’ when Eno was doing it, ‘Ambient music’ is a much better phrase for it.’ For a while Sylvian would prefer the term ‘Environmental music’. Sylvian: ‘Music has to serve a different purpose nowadays. I don’t think people want to be overwhelmed by music. I think they really want it to enhance their own moods.’ This was apparent even as Nye and Sylvian were recording the pieces. Sylvian: ‘…it’s funny but you tend not to notice that it’s [the music] stopped. I thought that was very good. I liked that …the instrumental half lends itself to the way people don’t sit down and listen to music anymore. They aren’t as rewarding as vocal songs, no, but they’re not meant to be listened to in the same way. I wrote hundreds of them and recorded them very quickly, randomly, because Virgin weren’t really interested in them. I paid for most of them myself.’ Still, voices were used on the instrumental section of Gone To Earth. The writer/poet Robert Graves could be heard reciting his poem The Foreboding on ‘Upon This earth,’ and German artist Joseph Beuys featured on ‘The Healing Place’. (Oddly, Graves was not credited). Beuys would perhaps surpass even Cocteau as a kind of personal talisman for Sylvian. In particular it was Warhol’s portrait of the German artist that initially piqued Sylvian’s interest. ‘An abiding interest in contemporary art eventually led me to the work of Joseph Beuys and his theories regarding the role of art in society,’ Sylvian would explain. ‘Again, there is this reference [in the Beuys sample] to the alchemical process of transforming the base elements of society. Working with ideas and a strong sense of community to uplift society, restructure it, empowering the individual via recognition of their own creative impulses, etc. In relation to his own physical work I respected the way that he was able to transform the most mundane of materials, lending them magical properties. My original idea was to meet with Joseph Beuys and record a conversation from which I was going to take extracts to be used throughout the instrumental portion of Gone To Earth. We were in the process of making contact with him when he passed away.’ Sylvian actually heard the news of Beuys’ death on the car radio while travelling from Jam studios on 23 January 1986. ‘As I was driving back from the studio one evening I heard that he’d died. But he’s been so present in my life at different points in time. He’s turned up in dreams and his presence has been very tangible…’ Sylvian’s use of spoken word in his work had begun as far back as 1978 when he had French girls simulate a radio broadcast in the breakdown of ‘Automatic Gun’. He’d next used this device when Sakamoto spoke the lyrics to ‘Bamboo Music’ on the same track in ’82. The comforting, fatherly tones of Czukay had then turned up on ‘Backwaters’. Cocteau appeared on Steel Cathedrals. This device reached its summit on Gone To Earth. In his use of these authoritative voices perhaps Sylvian was inviting in a hallowed European sensibility he himself aspired to. ‘David told me that he thought of himself in the European tradition,’ confirms Prendergast. ‘He didn’t relate to American music forms at all at that point, besides Jazz. Of course, Fripp had also done the same thing – using ‘samples’ of J.G. Bennett – on his Exposure album. That may go some way into explaining the particular voices Sylvian used in his work at this point.’

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Sylvian abandoned his coke habit half way through the recording of Gone To Earth, apparently never to return to it. This was an audacious decision to make while halfway through an album. The first half of Gone To Earth was recorded with Sylvian under the influence but thereafter he swore off it for good. Sylvian: ‘I used to do all sorts of things. Alcohol enables me to forget myself, drugs don’t. I was only really using cocaine. It tends to intensify the mood I’m in. It began as a total boost but after a few months I found myself taking it in the morning, and I found that worrying. I never took heroin, no. I probably would have when I was younger, to find out.’ With the majority of the actual recording completed, he and Nye relocated to Eel Pie to add overdubs and then onto The Townhouse to mix it. For an album at times so densely layered, Sylvian was apparently keen not to ‘overpaint’ the musical canvas. Sylvian: ‘I tried not to decorate anything, and used more organic sound; everything drifts together. This album is getting everything out of my system. I would understand if the public wasn’t interested in it, because it’s the end of a period. Brilliant Trees is probably more successful in that way because I was entering into the dark; but I knew what I was doing this time. I can’t deny that musically it may be safer, but it’s certainly not safe in terms of sales.’ By the summer of ’86, the album was as complete as it ever would be, the canvas had taken as much oil as it could. Sylvian: ‘At this point in time, I can’t say I’m happy with the new album, there are elements of it that I would love to change. I could still go back and redo a vocal and remix a couple of tracks, but it’s got to the point where I’ve had to let it go, partly because my enthusiasm for it has begun to wear thin, and that’s worse than a bad mix or a bad vocal.’ With the album being mastered and the artwork printed, Sylvian celebrated the completion of Gone To Earth in a reassuringly down to earth fashion. ‘Getting drunk is the only way in this country of forgetting yourself,’ he explained to journalist Jim Shelley. ‘I do it frequently, yes. Especially when I’ve finished recording. I went through a week of getting totally drunk every evening. I never feel guilty, no, not at all.’

The cover of Gone To Earth, based on the ideas of English philosopher and alchemist Robert Fludd and painted by Russell Mills, was a work of art in itself and the first Sylvian album proper not to feature a portrait of its author. This was not something Virgin were happy about initially, but Sylvian was keen at this point to distance himself from an image of himself. (‘Is it harder without the mask?’ Jim Shelley asked Sylvian. ‘It’s a lot easier.’ ‘Don’t you miss it, the beauty?’ ‘I don’t think about it at all.’ ‘Did you fall out of love with it?’ ‘No, I still like the look. It just stopped being important.’ ‘Do you recognise yourself in those pictures?’ ‘Yes. I always thought I looked pathetic. I always used to laugh at them. It never meant much to me. I hate having my picture taken anyway, even still.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s like being asked to perform. I always thought I looked pathetic on stage.’) Thus the cover of Gone To Earth would use a painting to represent the music and ideals within and not to promote Sylvian as a ‘personality’. Sylvian had been overjoyed with Mills’ effort for Exorcising Ghosts. ‘I think it’s one of his best paintings,’ Sylvian reckoned, and had promised himself that the artist would provide another original work for the next available album. Sylvian would buy both original paintings, and Mills’ work for Gone To Earth would adorn the wall of the Opium offices for years to come.

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Robert Fludd Illustration.

From ‘Cries and Whispers : Sylvian/Jansen/Barbieri/Dean/Karn – 1983-1991.’

Published by Burning Shed Ltd.

Buy the book

Here

or

Here

 

ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN. ST DAVID’S HALL. CARDIFF. WALES. 15TH OCTOBER.2018.

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You have to wonder how each artist feels at the enforced meet and greet in this age of ‘VIP’ tickets.

For a few extra quid the punter gets a branded tote bag of goodies, a good seat and five minutes to nibble peanuts and gulp wine with their heroes in an awkward pre- gig rendezvous backstage.

Each artist gets the audience they deserve and one ponders at Will Sergeant and Ian McCulloch being called from their inner sanctum to shake hands and wag chins with a parade of boozed up middle aged men in Mod suits and feather-cuts, and women dressing for one night only as they did back in 1983. (And why not)?

Do they see an alternative reality in this awkward parade? A life they escaped in another age, one that could still befall them if ticket sales ever dried up?

Not that that seems likely tonight. This 2000 seater venue is full and the punters resent being seated.

The Bunnymen now are Mac and Will with a backing band. And it works. The two original Bunnymen have been everywhere and maybe seen too much of not enough in their 30 Odd year odd career but the drummer, rhythm guitarist – at least two decades younger – are still star shaped at this trip, the drummer in particular playing as if our lives depended on it. The keyboardist and bassist are competent and slightly more worn but together it’s a good combination, hot in the basement, median in the middle and icy and imperial on top.

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Will – heavy but well dressed and with great hair- is still the guitar scientist in love with his instrument. Mac – thinned down after a couple of years of bloat looks long and regal, focused and game and compared to the last time I saw him in his solo show- cool and sober  – although it’s wrong to see him denied his Marlboro.

‘Going up’ from 1980 begins the show (although it could have been written at any time after that) –and the sound is heavy and clear, Mac’s voice is worn but still impressive, like a battered, mighty Chesterfield in a neglected stately home. On cue the loaded fans directly in front of me…get up. One gangling chap, dressed like The Joker, shades on, Renaissance hair dyed blue black begins his own one man festival in the aisle. He’s rushed by gentle security. Handled back to his seat among protests from his neighbours. He continues to groove in his seat occasionally Jack in the box leaping to his feet and pointing at an invisible sky.

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Between songs, Mac invites the audience to Dance. Cue ‘Rescue’ a fistful do just that, bobbing in their seats, rushing the front of the stage, clogging the aisles. This brings in more security. ‘They won’t let us dance, Mac’! Shouts one forlorn forklift driver from Newport.

A subdued but amused Mac gently addressed the security : ‘Come on mate, it’s a concert…’

Security looks confused. The man in the Joker suits wiggles his hands while pointing at the ceiling.

The band power on.

Seven seas, Cardiff.

 

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‘Over the wall’ is astounding. The drum machine makes the song macro. When the real drums come in on the chorus we are widescreen and massive. Its epic, death valley stuff, reeking of stadiums and ballparks but the Bunnymen were never blank enough to be U2…

The mania slips a little mid set. ‘Nothing lasts for ever’ isn’t greeted like the great ‘comeback’ single it was and to me still sounds more like a solo McCulloch song with Will unsure of where his place in it is. During this and ‘Rust’ – sounding like a massive hit that never was – more Neil Diamond than Diamond White- most of the boozy blokes head for the bar.

‘Never stop’ brings on another onslaught. It’s like the Somme out there. And the jigging men and women, addled by lager and age, debt and divorce, loss and disappointment (like most of us) now confounding the sober security with their ad-hoc dance moves are right to do so. This is music that demands full physical expression, not polite nodding and finger tapping. As the security manhandle people back to their seats someone shouts ‘Have you got Bupa, Mac’?  ‘Have I got Bupa?’ retorts the singer. ‘Eh’? As Bowie said in the opening scene of Just a Gigolo ‘Get your own Pig’!’ There follows a rambling but accurate assessment by Mac of said film and director David Hemmings.

By now the man in the Joker suit and his beau have given up and leave.

Bad timing. There’s a temporary lull but by the time of ‘Lips like sugar’ the audience have won and the security have given up. The crowd are crowding the front of the stage, throwing shapes and spilling cider and at last everything is in place. Me and my partner vacate our seats and head for the top stalls. Going up we pass the Joker and his Girl, drinking forlornly and alone at the bar while behind the doors the venue goes ga- ga. Maybe some people want to be the only ones seen dancing.

The timeless majesty of ‘The Killing Moon’ ends the night. At last it allows the audience to connect with a Golden summer a lifetime before Mortgages and male pattern baldness… but it also connects us with something much more eternal…something that’s impossible to put into words outside of a song.

 

The Killing Moon, Cardiff.

Sylvian and Warhol. (Excerpt from Chapter 10 of ‘A Foreign Place’.)

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Sylvian and Warhol.  April 23. 1982. NYC.

(Author’s note :  I’ve been a ‘fan’ of Warhol and his work for almost as long as I have been of Sylvian and his work.  So I was always intrigued by any connection between them.  For a short period in 1980 Sylvian roughly approximated two looks from Warhol : The Bold ‘Two Tone’ hair with the battered brown leather jacket.  (Circa Warhol 1974). Then there was the tortoise shell glasses and suit jacket look, which in his autobiography, Mick Karn says Sylvian saw Warhol wearing on the cover of a magazine during their holiday in NYC, 1979. Sylvian wore both well and the affectation was short lived.

 

Sylvian also cited Warhol’s excellent ‘Autobiography’, ‘A to B and back again, the philosophy of Andy Warhol‘ as his ‘favourite’ book during interviews in the early 80’s. Warhol’s influence on Sylvian’s work and persona during this period are harder to quantify. The two would finally meet in NYC in early 1982.  I was elated to find contact sheets of their night out together in Warhol’s late work.

Regarding Sylvian’s visit to the Factory and his appearance on both Warhol’s cable TV show and in Interview magazine. (Mentioned in the excerpt below.) The former never aired and the latter never ran. (Sylvian wouldn’t appear in Interview magazine until 1988.) Sylvian’s appearance on MTV, filmed during that same trip has yet to surface. However, video footage of Sylvian by Warhol does exist.  The Warhol foundation told me :

“I’ve checked our database and files regarding David Sylvian. He appeared on an unfinished episode (# 19) Andy Warhol’s T.V. from 1982. Our database shows that there is a camera original tape labeled “Japan” that is 15 minutes in length which is the master tape containing the footage that would have been used for the show. The tape has not been preserved / restored so it is unavailable for viewing at this time.

The camera original tape I mentioned in my previous eMail does not have a date but the edited master of the finished show in which some of the material appears is dated May 1982. Here is what is written on the tape:

[on video cassette case – spine] #1 Japan
[on video cassette case – front] # Japan At Factory
[on video cassette] #1 Factory – Japan –

This tape would need to be sent out for preservation work before it could be viewed. The edited but never broadcast 19th episode of Andy Warhol’s T.V. is available for viewing but not outside of the museum at this time.”

While a diary entry of Warhol’s meeting with Sylvian probably does exist it is not published.  (Those dates are skipped in the book.))

 

Sylvian in NYC April 1982. Photographed for Life magazine.

Excerpt from Chapter Ten :  “Voices raised in Welcome.”

By the spring of ’82 America had once again taken an interest. For the first time since ‘Life in Tokyo’, Japan had a licensing deal in the US with CBS/Epic. That March they released a compilation entitled simply Japan, comprising songs from both Gentlemen take Polaroids and Tin Drum. In addition, a flexi-disc featuring ‘Life Without Buildings’ – hardly Japan’s most commercial sounding track, although perhaps that was the point – was given away free with Trouser Press magazine. Although Sylvian was offended by the Frankenstein approach the American album employed, he took the opportunity of a trip to New York to promote the release. He would go so far as to dismiss the album release in an interview with Trouser Press: ‘I’m not happy with it,’ he said, ‘I didn’t like the idea of splitting up two albums.’ At this point, some were still hoping that Japan would tour the US and that Tin Drum would earn a domestic release there, but neither would ever happen. Sylvian himself must have known that the group had no long-term future and such a trip, which he took with his manager and Fujii, was more akin to a short holiday. ‘Number one albums and hits in the States . . .’ Sylvian would reflect a few years on, ‘these things already seemed unimportant when Japan split up; I’d already lost that.’

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Blond and Sylvian.

Sylvian was chaperoned in New York by Susan Blond, one time Warhol ‘Superstar; and by now head of CBS. Aside from an awkward interview on MTV and some low-key magazine interviews (Japan would never be accepted by Rolling Stone magazine), her first remit was to introduce Sylvian to his long-term hero, Andy Warhol. ‘I remember David because he was so attractive and also a real artist,’ recalls Blond, ‘so I knew Andy would love him. Anyone I liked I would take down to the Factory, which was then at 860 Broadway. I believe David had his girlfriend with him. He was very beautiful at that point in time and Andy was smitten with him. In fact Andy would have always wanted to look like David. Andy was never really good-looking, but so wanted to be.’ Warhol filmed Sylvian wandering around the Factory and interviewed him for his cable TV show although the material was never broadcast, and resides in the Warhol archive in Pittsburgh. Sylvian and Warhol, along with Yuka Fujii and various friends of Warhol would share a happy evening in NYC on April the 23rd and Sylvian was not disappointed by the encounter.

 

‘I met him recently in New York,’ he would recall a few weeks later, ‘when I did an interview for Interview magazine, plus an interview for Andy’s cable TV show. You know that image he portrays, that of banality, like going along with everything that you say, everything’s great and wonderful? Well, he’s not really like that, you can tell that there’s something deeper than that. Most people have the impression that he doesn’t speak very much, that he just responds to people’s questions in that “Yeah, great” manner, but really he talks quite a lot and he’s a very interesting person.’ The two artificial blonds got on to the extent that a musical collaboration was planned although, like a similar venture planned with fellow New York resident Quentin Crisp, nothing would come of it. Warhol would shed some light on this a few years down the line in an interview with The Face magazine:

The Face: ‘Are you still working on some lyrics for the group Japan or did that all fall through?’

Warhol: ‘Oh, what is his name? David something.’

The Face: ‘Sylvian!’

Warhol: ‘Yeah, oh, what happened to him?’

The Face: ‘He hasn’t done very much for ages.’

Warhol: ‘Oh really, why? He was so cute. God, he was so cute. I really liked him a lot. He’s not doing anything? Why not? Does he wear make-up?’

The Face: ‘God, yes, he wears tons! What did happen to the lyrics?’

Warhol: ‘Well, because he went back to England and then he went to Japan, it was sort of hard for us to get together. Anyway, it was only going to be one line.’

The Face: ‘What was the line?’

Warhol: ‘That’s what we were having trouble deciding.’

 

Taken from “Japan.  A Foreign Place. 1974-1984.

Published by Burning shed LTD.

(Please note. The photos above do not appear in the book.)

You can order the book  here Japan Biography.

And Here.

 

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Sylvian by Warhol.  NYC. April 23. 1982.

NEW RELEASE – ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKS

I have a new release.

It’s the soundtrack to a French Noir crime Novel.

CD Only.

No Digital.41797174_10217497952304469_6659913255684669440_n

It’s 12 euros in France, 15 anywhere else.

This includes P&P.

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This is the opening song from it.

Pour Luna

Here’s another-A Detective state of mind.

Please pay-pal the author of the novel if you’d like a copy.

PayPAL.ME/vincentlissonnet.

 

Lastly.

A film I’ve scored, ‘Adrift in Soho’ will be shown at the Prince Charles cinema in London for a week from November 14th. See you there.

Soho Movie in Soho

 

 

Excerpt from Japan : A Foreign Place. Chapter 8 : “The Tin Drum.”

Author’s note :  “I consider this to be the best chapter of any book I’ve written. Worthy of a stand alone release.  (A Kindle download?) This is because of the input I had from the two Steve’s – Nye and Jansen. They were kind enough to answer every nerdy question I could come up with and then some. Mr Jansen even dug into his diary from the time!  I did ask him to send me the whole thing so I could save him the trouble of transcribing but he declined for some reason…I also spoke to an engineer on the sessions as well as the stalwart Nick Huckle.  And I was honoured and blown away to sit with Mr Barbieri for an afternoon while he played me rehearsal tapes from the period.

Mr Jansen also supplied many photos from the sessions, which at the time were not widely seen. These appear in the book but not here.  You can of course view some of them at Steve’s site. Jansen Pics.

This excerpt starts at about a quarter of the way in and ends about a quarter before the end.  Links to buy the book so you can read the whole thing follow.”

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1981

Japan had rehearsed many but not all of the songs they were due to record. Rehearsal tapes from 10, 11, 15 and 16 June show Jansen and Karn in particular struggling to agree upon exit and entry points of songs like ‘Still Life in Mobile Homes’ to the point of exasperation. Jansen: ‘That was six rounds, I come in on eight.’ Karn [sounding impatient]: ‘It’s four rounds, then six rounds.’ Jansen: ‘Rubbish!’ Such stresses were a part of any serious band’s make-up and such efforts were more than worth it. It was essential, especially with this innovative new material, that the groundwork was paved before entering the studio. As Jansen explained, ‘We usually have a certain amount of the songs arranged before we go into the studio and once we get in that’s usually the most spontaneous part.’ Nye: ‘There were no demos and we made no plans. The only remit for me was to get the album done as efficiently as possible since the budget was so tight. I believe we were allotted six weeks in total to get the album delivered. Had I known what was in store in terms of the complexity of the tracks, I may have been daunted by the prospect, but I was blissfully unaware and that was a blessing.’ Nye was not particularly familiar with Japan’s previous recordings and didn’t make any effort to listen to them in preparation. As a result, Nye ‘had not formed any opinions as to their strengths and weaknesses. As it turned out, I don’t think there would have been much to gain in this particular instance, since Tin Drum was such a unique album and not really comparable, which I’m sure was the way Japan wanted it anyway.’

Karn and Jansen. Rehearsals, London. 1981.

After a restful night in their variously tiered bedrooms, Japan awoke on Monday 22 June, to begin their chef-d’oeuvre. That first day mostly involved the setting up of drums, microphones and any other instruments that would be needed at this stage. ‘Most of their equipment came down in a van with one of the regular “man with a van” guys we used,’ remembers Huckle. ‘Other bits and pieces were hired in as required and usually delivered by the Maurice Plauquet company. I remember on this occasion we rented a marimba and various bits of percussion and a Prophet V.’ The setting up of equipment and sound levels on that initial day had exhausted all concerned, but they still attempted a start. ‘In the evening we tried to get into working, but for some reason we couldn’t quite get the song ‘Talking Drum’ worked out so we left it for the night,’ recalls Jansen.

By the Tuesday, some actual recording had been accomplished, with the drums and bass to ‘Talking Drum’ being completed. At this point the song was mooted to be Japan’s next single with ‘Canton as the B-side. Sylvian would always see ‘Talking Drum’ as a personal favourite and as the key track to the album. Jansen’s drums were vital in this respect. Throughout the album, Jansen’s drumming is more expressive and yet in some ways more deadpan than ever before. Each beat and each hit sound exquisitely thought-out as if the drummer had programmed himself before recording the track. Unlike ‘Talking Drum’, some of the drum tracks on the other songs on the album would combine a mix of real playing and programmed drum sounds. In addition, Nye would add FX to the drums as they went along. ‘On “Talking Drum”,’ he states, ‘a lot of the sound comes from the room it was recorded in. That big stone room at the Manor had a great ambience, a natural reverb. Then, when you feedback the harmoniser I added to it you get a weird, unnatural sound. But I would only use the harmoniser on the ambient drum mics. Then I added a noise gate, which cuts off the reverb and makes it sound even more unnatural and I’d add a harmoniser in stereo. So the left-hand side is pitched down and the right-hand side is pitched up. It adds a queasy feeling to the drum sound.’ Whatever the methods of drumming, Tin Drum is far from devoid of feeling; on ‘Talking Drum’ itself, Jansen is almost aggressive in his authority, even as the drum pattern seems to de-construct and reconstruct itself as the song moves forward in zigzags. Their actual sound suggests a slight vertigo; a disturbance of the inner ear. Usually the drums and bass for the whole album would be set in place first before attempting overdubs, but instead – perhaps because it was a planned single – Japan decided to complete ‘Talking Drum’ as soon as it was begun. Karn added his bass immediately after Jansen finished. ‘The rush to finish it as we went along,’ says Nye ‘could also have been down to Virgin wanting to know what they were getting as soon as possible.’ The resulting rhythm track was a proto-funk scaffolding strobed with odd-angled grooves and holes with plenty of space left for Barbieri and Sylvian to interject their meticulously programmed synth lines.

Talking Drum. (Out of Phase).

Talking Drum. (Rare live version).

Gavin Harrison, a world-renowned drummer who would one day go on to play with Barbieri in the band Porcupine Tree explains the rhythm section thus: ‘[They] fascinated me. They broke all the rules; there was no sort of “follow-the-bass-drum-with-the-bass” Motown style or putting the snare drum on the 2 and 4. They just made up weird, quirky rhythmic patterns where Mick would play between Steve’s notes. Steve is a very stylistic drummer, but he’s very, very simple. I don’t think he’s ever played a hard fill in his life, and he would probably tell you that he can’t. He came at drumming like a photographer, or somebody who’s not a drummer. Pretty much any drummer I listen to, I can hear where they’re coming from; I can tell their historic path. Steve Jansen might as well have stepped off another planet. I couldn’t understand where he got any of this stuff.’ Jansen was never particularly keen on theorising his playing, but did at least attempt to explain some influence at the time. Jansen: ‘I’ve always admired [Yukihiro] Takahashi since I saw him in the Sadistic Mika Band [supporting Roxy Music] years ago, and he struck me then as being a really good drummer. Then when I heard he’d worked with YMO, I was convinced. He has influenced me – he’s about the only influence I can pick out.’ Takahashi and Jansen would go on to become firm friends and decades later Takahashi would return the compliment: ‘I did feel an immediate affinity with Steves drumming,’ he says. ‘This feeling grew stronger when he started playing in sync with the computer, but its hard to explain precisely why. What I can say with certainty is that his meticulously calculated and sophisticated drumming style felt very familiar to me.’ Karn and Jansen were the (drum and) base architecture of Tin Drum, but it was an architecture that showed its skeleton on the outside, an aural equivalent of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This was a startlingly unique basis for a pin-up pop band in their early 20s.

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Working around the clock on Wednesday 24 June, Japan began recording the planned B-side to ‘Talking Drum’. ‘All was going well until we started work on “Canton”, Karn would remember, ‘and the Travis Bean bass began to let me down.’ The problem was that on this particular track the bass part required Karn to rub the aluminium neck ‘quite frantically, sliding notes continuously in one small area, and the heat generated from my hand was enough to bend the metal out of pitch.’ As a result, Karn would have to leave the bass to cool down mid-recording, which was interrupting the flow of the session and the tight schedule imposed upon them by Virgin. The ever-resourceful Huckle phoned round and had located a local bass manufacture, Wal Basses, who invited Karn into their workshop. Thus Karn, due to the pure luck of Wal having a workshop in Oxford, switched from Travis Bean to the bass that would become his signature. ‘The Wal worked perfectly on the first take,’ says Karn; it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Soon after, Wal would build Karn a custom-built bass with a Brazilian mahogany core and African tulip top, adding humbucking pickups and an active pre-amp. With this problem overcome, both the bass and drums to ‘Canton’ were soon completed. ‘Mick and I nailed it on the fourth take,’ says Jansen. An unusual looking instrument was found under some tarpaulin; constructed from bamboo and the height and width of several feet, the unknown instrument was an incredibly fortuitous find. The unique sound it produced by rattling peas within the bamboo suited the pentatonic Orientalism of ‘Canton’ perfectly. That Friday, Karn and Jansen recorded the ‘bamboo rattles’ that duplicate the piece’s main melody. It was a two-man job. ‘The two of us had to duck and dive in all directions to avoid hitting each other,’ recalled Karn of their playing of the instrument, ‘a synchronised choreography full of grunts and groans from stretching to reach the appropriate tubes.’ ‘Watching them play that,’ says Nye, ‘was comedy.’

With the foundations of two tracks laid down, the shape and direction of the album were beginning to reveal themselves. Sylvian: ‘We started with “Canton” which was the first thing we recorded along with “Talking Drum” and we just decided that they worked so well we’d arrange the rest of the album around the same ideas.’ Less than a week into recording, the two main men at Virgin – Branson and Draper – arrived to check on the progress. ‘We would visit them during recording,’ says Draper; ‘they were very self-contained and sure of who they were, but it wasn’t a closed set. They were very confident of who they were musically by now, but there was no sense of us or Virgin being cut off or alienated.’ Later that day on Thursday the 25th, Simon House, who had previously played violin on ‘My New Career’ and the unreleased ‘Some Kind of Fool’, arrived to add his arabesque contribution to ‘Talking Drum’. He would also double the melody part of ‘Canton’, but this remained buried in the final mix.

Canton (out of Phase).

Tin Drum was a different recording experience from previous Japan albums, both in content and context. The Manor was a world unto itself and one Sylvian wouldn’t return to until 1986. ‘Virgin were always trying to get him to record at The Manor,’ says Huckle, ‘but after his initial experience with Tin Drum, he wasn’t into it for some reason.’ Sylvian was a self-confessed hermit and it was perhaps the communal living aspect of the studio that didn’t agree with him. Nye: ‘The Manor was residential, so we were together for meals and after work for a beer or two and a game of snooker, but usually tiredness would put you quickly to bed.’ Huckle: ‘Unlike all their other albums where I spent most of the time in the control room, at the Manor there was tons to do if you weren’t recording. Steve, Rich and I spent a lot of time playing snooker in the games room. They also had a great lounge with a VCR and loads of what was then the latest thing – videos! Dave barely left the studio as I remember, apart from mealtimes. There was a huge kitchen where everyone assembled for meals. We had home-cooking for a change unlike the McDonald’s fare we lived on at AIR.’

The Manor even came with its own menagerie. Barbieri: ‘There were two giant Irish Wolfhounds at the Manor, Willie and Bowser. They used to come inside the studio for biscuits, but couldn’t stay long because the warmth caused arthritic problems for them.’ Huckle: ‘Yes, I remember the giant Wolfhounds that just seemed to sleep all day. Then there were the swans. There was a hysterical moment when Mick, in his inevitable fashion, managed to upset the swans in the lake, and was chased across the expansive front lawn by a giant, irate swan flapping its wings wildly. I think Mick did claim he’d caught a nip on the bum. A few of us were watching, doubled up with hysterics, from the games room.’ Nye himself was a refreshing, down-to-earth presence. ‘He would seem to eat a vindaloo every day, which resulted in much breaking of wind,’ laughs Barbieri. Jansen: ‘He was proud of his flatulence. He’d do so and say, “right, now get out and walk!”’ Barbieri: ‘He would also pinch our arses as we went up the stairs, but he was incredibly sensitive and tasteful when it came to artistic matters. A great musician, with perfect pitch I think, and very open to our ideas, however abstract they might have seemed. I consider him the fifth band member on that album. He had the patience and creativity to cope with some quite demanding sessions. It was intense at times, but we still had fun. That’s the weird thing with making albums. You take it so seriously and put every creative ounce into it, knowing you’ll never be able to change anything once it’s completed. Yet on the other hand, at times you can be joking around so much, you’re nearly incapable of recording an overdub.’

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Kate Bush with Willie and Bowser. {Or Bowser and Willie. I’m not sure.}

On Saturday 27 June, Japan awoke late and started final overdubbing on ‘Talking Drum’ at 2.00pm, which was mixed by midnight. They then did the rest of the overdubs on ‘Canton’ and finished mixing this it at 10.00am the following Sunday. This was the first Japan song to be co-credited to Jansen as a writer and, indeed, the drums on ‘Canton’ are a lead instrument, propelling the track forward before all else, almost dominating it. ‘Steve wasn’t a particularly loud drummer,’ says Nye. ‘He didn’t play hard, but didn’t play soft either. The sound of the room had a lot to do with it. His patterns were so unique, he would never play anything that was just “straight” and that was a relief to me, after years of recording straightforward drummers.’

There were no gigs booked that summer and any offers that came in were refused. The only focus was to write and record the new material. Japan’s approach was more meticulous and yet freer than on any previous album. For some this was down to a feeling of having nothing to lose; apparently Karn did not see much of a future for the band beyond the next year. ‘We started from the feeling that this would become our last album, so we only did what we felt like ourselves,’ he’d reason, ‘[it was] very spontaneous, and that put the frame for the whole album. That’s the strange thing about Tin Drum. It was made on instinct.’ Karn was hinting at the pressure exerted upon the group by label and management that if they did not secure a commercial breakthrough soon, then they would be dropped. Sylvian, seemingly aloof from such considerations, never saw this as a factor. ‘There were always worries that we would be dropped by our record company,’ he’d explain years later. ‘There was always that threat of being dropped, but I can’t ever say it affected my attitude to the writing of the music.’ Huckle says that, ‘I’m not sure whether Virgin actually could have just dropped them because they had a three album deal. But having lived under that threat almost since day one with Hansa, I don’t think the guys took too much notice of such threats by that time.’

Karn was also possibly considering a solo future, his confidence empowered by recent session work and the fawning reaction to his exhibitions. He and Sylvian were their least close during the recording of Tin Drum, with the bassist absenting the studio when he was not needed. Sylvian, on the other hand, never left Nye’s side and when he wasn’t contributing to a mix or recording vocals or guitar he was alongside Barbieri programming synths. Karn and Sylvian were fire and earth, the former with his outgoing, humorous personality, precocious sexuality and love of the hash pipe; the latter quieter, not given to demonstration, his humour rarer, dryer and more refined and his use of drugs confined to the occasional toot of coke to keep him focused and working long into early morning. In company, Karn invited you into his world and entertained you there, while Sylvian stood aloof but coldly charming, neither courting nor rejecting your friendship. When these two elements worked in harmony, as on stage, the effect was uniquely beguiling and dynamic; in day-to-day life, less so. ‘Making that album strained relations within the band considerably,’ Sylvian would recall. ‘We were beginning to close off from one another, which meant that we couldn’t give musically to one another. There were differing ambitions, and I was at odds with the band. They were also very dependent on me to write material.’

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Sylvian. London. 1981.

Sylvian would often speak of the pressure he felt in having to come up with an album’s worth of material each year. The problem was, of course, a matter of qualitative not quantitative control. Sylvian was capable of bashing out songs at will but such songs rarely meant anything to him and consequently he was unable to muster enough enthusiasm to record them; he wasn’t in the habit of mustering enthusiasm for anything. Even wonderful pieces like ‘Some Kind of Fool’ had been abandoned because their author had not sufficiently believed in them. Possibly because of this, Tin Drum would be the first album to feature co-writers, with Karn and Jansen being officially recognised as composers on three of its songs. Unlike all the previous albums, there was no surplus material begun and abandoned, and no out-takes. The group used everything they had. Tin Drum was the first Japan album properly to use space and sometimes even silence as an instrument in itself. In fact if Rob Dean had been replaced by anything, it was silence. Guitar on the album was so minimal that Nye can’t even recall recording any. It does of course feature on ‘The Art of Parties’ and ‘Still Life’, but on the former, the guitar tracks were used from the previous Punter sessions.

With Dean now gone (although he did visit the Manor before leaving for America), the group were a more efficient and finely honed unit. ‘Although I do think they lost something when Rob left,’ says Punter. ‘He grounded them in a way and his more traditional playing allowed them to go further afield as it were.’ Relationships in the band were generally amiable, although as they were all much more confident in themselves and their instruments, they were also becoming more independent. ‘We’d learnt to stay out of each other’s way,’ opined Karn. ‘There was much more individual time allocated to working alone with Nye, instead of everyone passing judgement on each other’s work.’ ‘David tried to keep a very loose reign on Mick,’ Huckle would explain, ‘he didn’t want him doing too much outside of the band, but he would be pissed off when Mick had been smoking too much hash and turn up late for a session with his eyes all bloodshot.’ Although Sylvian would later remark that Karn’s role was that of ‘a session musician’ during the recording, Nye says that, ‘I don’t recall any palpable tensions in the studio and certainly no bickering that I noticed, so mediation was never required. Anyway, I don’t see being “schoolmaster” as part of my job description. If there were any conflicts going on, then the participants were certainly professional enough not to allow it to manifest in the work.’ Huckle: ‘It generally felt like there was a high level of creativity and confidence among the guys. There was a different atmosphere from the previous two albums – it was much more workmanlike, which was partly down to Steve Nye producing; there was less larking about and he had a drier sense of humour than previous producers.

Further rehearsals of the new material began on 10 July for a period of three days and then again during the last week of July into the first sunny days of August. Nye was present at the latter, taking notes. Between rehearsals, Sylvian would continue to work alone on material at home, presenting it to the group during the intensive rehearsal periods at Nomis. The Nomis studio complex in Hammersmith was by now a commercial concern; a melting pot of successful names and faces of the time. Japan, however, didn’t mix. ‘Everyone who was anyone was there during that period – Police, The Jam, Adam and his Ants, Haircut 100, Graham Parker, David Essex,’ remembers Huckle, ‘and they were always kind of mingling during breaks in the large reception/relaxation area over coffees. However, Japan would avoid them by using the back stairs to and from the SNB office on the second floor and slip in and out of the building almost unseen. Not out of arrogance or rudeness, but from shyness. Mick perhaps would have been an exception to this, but had he lagged behind to chat he’d have been chastised for holding everyone else up.’ Although down to a four piece, Japan were now at their most formidable and Karn alone would have been a key player in any group, continually expanding his arsenal of instruments and bringing something new to the sonic table. On 3 August, he and Jansen took a trip to Ray Man, a music shop in Chinatown, where he purchased a dida. ‘I kept hearing a shrill but melodic sound on some of the records in Chinatown that I guessed was probably a reed instrument; it doesn’t follow Western scales and a lot of the notes had to be found by squeezing the reed with my lips or blowing harder, instead of fingering alone.’ The early 80s pop scene in Britain was infused with cod Oriental musical flavourings and pseudo pentatonic piddling – the aural equivalent of soy sauce with fish and chips – but what other groups were seeking out the source and adding arcane, authentic Asian instruments to their work? And which groups would have someone as talented and versatile as Karn to play such instruments? Japan were now an utterly seductive anomaly, the most beautiful looking freak in the pop circus.

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Barbieri, Karn. 1981.

On 5 August the band met with Fin Costello to shoot the initial photos for the cover for the, as yet, only half-finished album. Karn’s version of events concerning the photo shoot for Tin Drum casts Sylvian in a questionable light. He recalls that the singer arrived at the shoot ahead of schedule, presumably to dominate proceedings. ‘He had, behind our backs, arranged an alternative time for the session to begin,’ reckoned Karn. Nevertheless, a full band photo session was duly shot which Sylvian would reject and, according to Karn, go so far as to put a needle through the negatives of any Barbieri pictures of which he didn’t approve. ‘I don’t remember that,’ says the keyboard player, ‘but I know that Dave didn’t like the suit I was wearing so we had to do them again.’

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Initial Photo shoot for Tin Drum. Photo by Fin Costello.

Jansen’s diary notes that Sylvian didn’t like the look of either Barbieri or Karn in the photos and thus asked for a reshoot at a later date, but no one except Karn recalls the needle incident. Fin Costello: ‘I don’t want to get into a dispute over how the Tin Drum cover came together, but I will explain how it came about. I had a large number of books of photographs in the waiting area of the studio, one of which was Marc Riboud’s Visions of China, which was shot in China in the 1950s. There were several pictures that David saw in it, which we discussed. Coincidentally I had been building a set for an Ozzy Osbourne shoot, which looked like the Chinese peasant rooms in Riboud’s book, so I called David and suggested a test shoot. Mick and he came over that afternoon while the plaster on the set was still drying and we developed the shot there and then with them and my assistants Denise Richardson and Tony Harrison. The props in the picture are all from my kitchen except the poster of Mao, which we bought from Chinatown for 50p. Mick cooked the rice, which we ate while Tony developed the film (2 roll HP5) and made contacts. I still have the contacts and there are no pinholes in any of them, just chinagraph marks on the selected frames. The rest of the band were always going to be on the back cover in another shot based on an image from Riboud’s book [a photo of a divorce court]. Incidentally, technically it was a bit of film/chemical trickery to get the 1950s look in the texture of negative as the original type of film used by Riboud [orthochromatic film] was no longer available.’ Whatever the due process, the cover image would become a classic. It represented the music perfectly with Sylvian and the group as glam tourists in a contrived scene that was faked so sincerely it was almost more authentic than the real thing. The epitome of modern Western pop music. When he was later accused of Tin Drum being nothing more than ‘cultural tourism’, Sylvian, rather than take such an accusation as an insult, instead responded thus: ‘Of course it is. That’s obvious. But it led us to invent instrumentation. And that, as kids, is an exciting development.’

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The next day the band reassembled at Odyssey Studios near Marble Arch in central London to resume recording. ‘It could be a bit of a drag setting everything up every time we moved,’ says Nye, ‘but then again it kept us out of our comfort zone, which was a good thing.’ The group rarely all turned up at the same time. Outside of the studio there were still the ongoing day-to-day duties of interviews and photo shoots to be getting on with, many of which increasingly involved Sylvian and Karn only. Sometimes the recording sessions seemed to operate on a shift system, with different members working on separate parts at different times that occasionally overlapped. Barbieri sometimes sat programming in the control room with headphones while the painstaking process of assembling the drum parts took place or while Sylvian did a vocal.

On 6 August Jansen began building up the drums for ‘Cantonese Boy’ piece by piece, working solo in Karn’s absence until 4.00am. When the day’s studio session was over he continued to work back at Stanhope Gardens, programming a Linn drum part until 6.00am. He worked with headphones. ‘Steve also had a Simmons kit set up at home to practise on,’ says then flatmate Huckle, ‘and it’s fair to say the neighbours didn’t like it.’ The work ethic on Tin Drum would have impressed Chairman Mao himself. An excerpt from Jansen’s diary reveals the agonising attention to detail and the hours well spent:

07.08.81 ODYSSEY STUDIO. MICK WASN’T READY SO CAME IN LATER – I DECIDED TO RE-DO THE DRUMS ON ‘CANTONESE BOY’ BECAUSE THE SNARE WAS BUZZING TOO MUCH – TOOK A FEW HOURS – STARTED ON THE BASS – I THEN DECIDED THERE WAS ONE BASS DRUM BEAT THAT WAS TOO OUT OF TIME SO RECORDED THE DRUM TRACK AGAIN – DONE BY 11.00PM – MICK STARTED AGAIN ON BASS – BUT HE THEN DECIDED TO ALTER IT – SO INSTEAD I PUT DOWN THE LINN DRUM BASS DRUM FOR ‘STILL LIFE IN MOBILE HOMES’ – THEN STARTED RECORDING REAL HI-HAT AND SNARE WITH THAT.

08.08.81 – FINISHED PUTTING THE SNARE TO ‘SLIMH’ – MICK RECORDED THE BASS ON ‘SLIMH’ – FOLLOWED BY ‘C BOY’ – FINISHED AT 4.00AM.

09.08.81 – MICK FINISHED HIS BASS ON ‘C BOY’ EXCEPT FOR THE CODA – I PUT THE OCTOBANS AND CODA FLOOR TOM ON ‘C BOY’ – MICK THEN COMPLETED THE CODA BASS PART – STARTED ON KEYBOARDS – FINISHED 5.00AM.

Sessions continued at Odyssey for the next week, with more foundations being built for ‘Still Life in Mobile Homes’ and ‘Sons of Pioneers’, the only Japan track ever to credit Karn as co-writer. After initial difficulty (Jansen had a problem finding a suitable pattern for the track which was solved when he switched to beaters instead of sticks), the bass and drums to ‘…Pioneers’ were quickly completed. This was one of the most original pieces of music Japan recorded. Aside from the title, which could be traced back to the name of a 1930s American country and western group (The Sons of Pioneers) it was hard to link this piece with any of Japan’s obvious musical influences. Although Karn would claim that he did not begin composing seriously until 1982, this was not the first time he had offered a bass line for consideration by the group. Huckle: ‘Mick would sometimes play something in rehearsals and if it was rejected he’d simply say, “OK! That’s another one for the solo album then.”’ ‘…Pioneers’ was unique sounding, hypnotic and trance-like. It laid out an unfamiliar sonic terrain for the listener and like the group itself you either got it or didn’t. Sylvian: ‘[You could say] “Sons of Pioneers” is just a bass line over and over again with just a few things thrown on top. It will bore you if you don’t like the feel of it or if you don’t, for want of a better phrase, get into it, but that applies to all of our music.’

On the 13th, Japan and Nye moved once again to the less expensive Regent’s Park Studios. (‘A distinct lack of home comforts,’ noted Jansen in his diary). A 24-year-old Phil Bodger was there to welcome them. ‘I was the house engineer, the tape op. Any band might bring in another engineer as well as producer, but I came with the studio. I’d invariably make tea. Regent’s Park was about half the price of AIR. It would have been classed as a budget studio. I got the impression that they were on a budget and had to do things fairly cheaply. There was talk about that. I remember them coming down for the very first time because they all turned up in full make-up. That was quite striking. I knew who they were vaguely, but I didn’t know much about them. I was really into YMO at the time, so there was a connection. They were impressive looking . . . their make-up was great, they looked great. The studio was in a basement, quite a small room. They came with Steve Nye who brought a quarter inch tape just to test the monitors. I remember Nye was a bit abrupt. I asked him if I should set the tape machine up – pretty dumb question, admittedly – and he didn’t say anything, just looked at me with a disdainful expression, kind of like “of course! Don’t ask, just do it.” It was an odd room; heavily carpeted and very dead sounding.’

The varying studios and their respective acoustic qualities would work in the album’s favour, adding subtle colours to the recording. Nye: ‘I liked the heavily carpeted rooms at Regent’s Park. You can hear that “dead sound” perfectly on some tracks.’ Bodger was impressed by the dedication and skill of a group who many still regarded as faux musicians simply because of their appearance. ‘Their commitment was obvious,’ he says. ‘They were completely focused. I’d get in about 10 o’clock and open the studio up, set up the desk. Steve Nye would come in after that and then the group would drift in. I’d fix them a coffee. We’d do a 12-hour day, breaking for lunch; I’d get a sandwich for us all from a shop across the road. Jansen and Sylvian weren’t the easiest people to get along with, although Steve was friendlier than David. David was a little bit odd, very detached. I think I barely spoke to him. They weren’t overly friendly. Rich was nice, but incredibly shy. Hardly said a word. Very quiet. Steve Nye was the same as David in that he was detached but also, as I’ve said he blew hot and cold. One day he’d be fine and another day very moody. But you know, aside from being a producer he was a fantastic engineer, trained at AIR. I remember him telling me about working with Frank Zappa, who was a huge hero of mine. And the idea of this very English engineer working with Franz Zappa, who only worked with the best, kind of proved Nye’s credentials to me. He was obviously a brilliant engineer and they were all well into it.’

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Phil Bodger. Regent’s park studios. 1981.

Bodger was one of the few outsiders allowed a glimpse into Japan’s insular, workaholic world at this time. ‘The warmest one was Mick. He was lovely. Mick made the sessions fun. When he was doing his bass parts he cracked a lot of jokes, but apart from that it was hard work. Whatever David went on to say, Mick didn’t appear like a “session player” to me at all. He seemed very much a part of the band during those sessions. He was the most charismatic member too. He’d often play from the control room, straight into the desk rather than through an amp. And I’d be sat next to him operating the tape machine. That was an experience. He was unique and impressive and quirky.’ Bodger was obviously used to more traditionally rock and roll clients, but Japan had never fitted this archetype and were in the studio to work, not socialise.

There were few visitors during recording and little inclination to party afterwards, as Nye explains: ‘While we were in London I had an hour’s journey straight home after the sessions and an hour back on the train in the morning, so there was little time for anything but work, travel and sleep. There was not much in the way of socialising apart from the odd sake-lubricated visit to a Japanese restaurant. The levels of concentration for me were intense during the sessions. I always strove to do my best, as I believe I owed it to whoever I was working with to match their level of commitment and professionalism in order to achieve the desired result. That is not to say it was a chore, just the opposite. Itt is a joy when you love the music and admire and respect the musicians.’ The minimalism of this new material Japan were recording actually called for more effort. Sylvian: ‘We worked much harder on these arrangements simply because they’re so sparse; everything had to have the perfect sound for this or that line and it had to do just the right amount and no more because we wanted to leave it as barren as possible. We didn’t want to clutter it up like Polaroids where there were so many underlying things you don’t actually hear those that just work as texture.’

Such was the nature of this stripped down music that it was difficult for the ordinary listener or even other musicians to work out exactly where these songs on Tin Drum came from. It was hard to imagine any of them, with the exception of ‘Ghosts’, being written on an acoustic guitar. This would form part of its appeal. Japan themselves were discovering the album as they created it. It was even hard to hear a traditional triad chord played anywhere on the album; they were there, but far from obvious. Nye: ‘There are many chords on Tin Drum. Rich happened to mention that he and David used to tune their second oscillators to a fourth or fifth interval, thus providing a harmony of sorts, just played monophonically.’ Of course, Karn would sometimes play chords and Jansen’s drums were uncommonly musical, but this new music was as far away from ‘Adolescent Sex’ in its arrangement as London is from Bali. ‘Despite their glam image, I wasn’t surprised that they could play,’ says Bodger. ‘Steve and Mick stood out, but they were all good. Rich basically sat in a corner with a synth and headphones on. The genius of his programming to me was that the sounds he created sounded like real instruments. From my point of view – as someone who worked with loads of different bands in a short space of time – it was very impressive and it was very different.’

If Tin Drum was pop music, then the phrases, parts and the sounds used were shockingly unconventional. Sometimes it seemed as if Karn in particular would overstep some unwritten musical boundary – but he never did and neither did Nye have to curb his playing. ‘I never heard any bass parts prior to actually recording them,’ says Nye, ‘I remember spending time with Mick one-on-one recording some of the bass parts and they are treasured memories. Mick was always fun to be with and working with him was no exception. We all know what a great, innovative player he was. Technically and musically he was of the highest order and, although he took his playing seriously, it was always undertaken with such joyous panache and freedom of expression. It doesn’t get any better than witnessing Mick Karn transform a track with his trademark sinuous creations so effortlessly executed.’

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On 14 August work began on a song called ‘Ghosts’. It would take a while for this track to take shape, but it was instantly apparent that it was something special. Time was used efficiently, however, and another song, ‘Visions of China’, was attempted simultaneously with Jansen and Karn struggling to find a working rhythm part in an ante-studio. Meanwhile, in the control room, Sylvian, Barbieri and Nye began building the foundations for what would become, for many, Japan’s greatest song. Various synths (although no more than three at any time) were set up around the room, some anointed with an ashtray or, for the sugar-hungry Nye, chocolate digestives. Sylvian and Barbieri had spent hours programming these keyboards, laboriously searching for the correct sound for each phrase for each part of the song. Sylvian: ‘Tin Drum was a wonderful challenge to work on. Richard and I were stretching ourselves enormously in terms of programming new sounds. We only used a Prophet 5 and an OBX and tried to emulate fictitious musical instruments. It was really hard work, but it was worth it.’ Despite the incredibly rich variety of synth colours, Barbieri and Sylvian used only the aforementioned Prophet 5 and OBX, and some Roland System 700. Barbieri remembers: ‘We took such care over each individual sound that we got quite paranoid about all sounds being new and different. My big influence on that album was Stockhausen, especially the abstract electronic things he was doing in the late ’50s. Listen to a track like “Ghosts”, for example, and you’ll hear all these metal-like sounds that hardly have a pitch, yet subconsciously suggest a melody.’

There was no fanfare or announcement heralding this new ballad. It was introduced to the sessions as simply one more track to be recorded, as Nye recalls. ‘I knew absolutely nothing about the song until we started recording it. I imagine we started with some SMPTE time code and a rhythm box [later removed] of some description. Obviously without bass guitar and drums it was always going to be a bit different.’ It would be a cruel irony that the song which would go on to be Japan’s most respected and successful song in terms of chart placing would not even feature Karn. But no one was thinking of that then. Nye continues: ‘The first musical part we recorded was the synth-bass drone part of Dave’s. We had to leave plenty of space on the tape before the bass notes began to allow room for Rich’s intro sounds. The long sustained bass note in the bridge before the second verse was a bit of a mystery to me at the time, but it was early days.’

Barbieri and Sylvian sometimes played the same keyboard simultaneously, hip to hip, while a Gitane-smoking Nye looked over his shoulder at them to cue the track on tape. ‘Next were the three rhythmic “stab” chords at the beginning of the chorus part of the song [Dave again] and the answering “churchy” organ chords from Rich,’ explains Nye. ‘That’s the first familiar sound we hear on the track, somehow warm and comforting amidst the unnerving strangeness. Steve’s marimba part was added at a later date. I think this is when the melody and lyrics made their first appearance.’ Working tapes of the song – recordings made in the studio as the piece was developed – reveal different lyrics from the final version. Sylvian originally sings, ‘When the room is quiet/The day is dead and gone/And I feel like walking’. However, even while the lyrics are in flux the structure of the song is already firmly in place and there is absolute conviction in the voice. It’s as if Sylvian knows that in ‘Ghosts’ he has finally found the voice he has been working towards since ‘The Tenant’. It would also point a way forward for him personally and thus chime as the keynote in Japan’s demise. All of this lay in the future. Such notions were not yet an issue at Regent’s Park Studios in the summer of 1981.

Even hardened professionals like Nye, who had previously worked with many ‘highly esteemed’ artists, couldn’t help but be taken aback by the power of such material. ‘That vocal,’ says Nye, ‘when David first sang it as a guide . . . There are times when the first time you hear a singer put the vocal onto a track it is a moment of complete transformation. A revelation. Unexpected and instantly recognisable as something special. I remember recording Bryan Ferry singing “Love Is The Drug” for the first time on a completed backing track to which we had hitherto all sung “pirate tunes”. Suddenly it was a different track altogether. “Ghosts” was one of those occasions. Spine-chilling. Not a scary spine-chilling, despite the ghostly connotation, but an emotional one. A beautifully constructed melody and a lyric that touched something deep inside. I remember thinking, “Bloody ’ell, this is really something.”’ It wasn’t in Nye’s nature to be awestruck and, after this initial jolt, through a fug of coffee and cigarette smoke, work continued apace. ‘OK, that’s the song,’ says Nye, ‘now it’s time for the decorators to move in. So then we go to Steve with his hands full of marimba mallets, well two in each hand to be more precise. I don’t remember if he played them like that, but it looked good anyway and, as we know, Steve always looked good. It’s a tricky thing to have to play musical notes when you’re used to just hitting things, but Steve came up with a great part for the solo and after a while he mastered the instrument and also played, for him, the slightly easier rhythmic parts in the choruses. To be fair, Steve was not a stranger to the piano, but although the keys are laid out the same on a marimba, they’re huge and you have to play each note separately with a mallet so it’s a bit tricky at first. The way Steve played it, with a slight feeling of awkwardness, gave the part a kind of fragility and demented, childlike quality which, to me, greatly enhanced the unsettling atmosphere.’

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Jansen no doubt appreciated working with such an open-minded producer, one who did not baulk at the drummer effortlessly moving from drum stool to keyboards and onto marimba, (although it should be noted that this was the case since the band began working with Punter). ‘Working with Steve Nye you got the sense you were in some sort of boot camp together,’ says Jansen. ‘By this I don’t mean to imply he was strict and bound by routine; on the contrary he was quite laid back despite the constant filter-less Gitanes and strong black coffees. I mean that he had expectations. There was a standard of musicianship that needed to be maintained. He would mock any shoddy playing, much to the amusement of those not playing. He was very focused and serious about the discipline of getting things right, but not in a regimented way, more with the attitude of “well, you’re the musician, you really think that’s good enough?” And when inspired moments arose he would genuinely enthuse, by his standards. He was a real musician’s musician and loved to explore all possibilities as though there were better things being overlooked by leaving efforts unchallenged. I think Steve showed us that. I can recall that when I came up with the marimba solo on “Ghosts”, he was really engaged with where I’d stumbled to with the melody, but I just couldn’t figure out where the ending ought to go, so he was making suggestions from the control room through the headphones, until I said, “Please come out and show me what you mean,” which he did. That solo was subsequently tagged with the moniker, “the end is Nye”. I reckon he was in it for those moments and that’s where he really came into his own. Being a musician, his input on that level can not be overstated.’

Outtakes of the Tin Drum cover. Photos by Steve Jansen.

Ghosts. TOTP. March 1982.

This an excerpt from Japan : ‘A Foreign Place’.  Published by Burning Shed LTD.

You can buy the softcover here –  Book

And here – Book

The sumptuous Japanese edition can be found here. Shinko Edition

The latest reissue of Tin Drum can be bought here. Tin Drum 2018 edition.

You can also read my account of the making of Gentlemen take Polaroids Here

Or Here

TinDrum

Excerpt from an unfinished novel. “The Charles Carver mystery hour. Book One : Looking for Alan Leach.”

Author’s note :  A few years ago my then agent Helen Donlon suggested I write fiction.  I don’t consider myself a novelist, I wish I was, but I just can’t get with it. It doesn’t turn me on. Still below is an excerpt…Tragically I recently found out that Helen died.  Far too young.  R.I.P. Helen and thanks for the push.  At least I found out I’m not a real writer…”

 

I am Charles Carver and I’m tired.

Camden, London. It’s five to eleven on a Tuesday morning in 1995 and I feel like I’ve never slept. I’m in my so called office above the Marathon Bar ‘Restaurant’- actually it’s just a kebab shop you can sit down and get fucked in at any time of day – and I’m fixating on the miles of sleep behind my eyes.

Somewhere, Sammy Davis Jnr. is playing but I’m fucked if I can find the source.

I know there’s a grapefruit and a half bottle of Blavod Black Vodka in the mini fridge in the corner but if I start drinking now, after an initial lift I’ll get even more tired. By the afternoon I’ll have to sleep or score some coke to knock me straight and I can’t do either because I need to work. There’s a client coming in at one. And I do need to work. I need to work so I can maintain an office to work from… And to buy Vodka to make me feel better when I’m not working.  And when I’m working. And to buy blow to make me feel awake when I’m drunk and working. So I need to work so I can afford to get drunk on Blavod and score coke to stop me falling asleep on the job.

And…Fuck this Dante shit.

Where’s Henrik’s number? I’ll fix to score some Coke at noon and have a vodka now. Fuck the grapefruit, too. I need a drink. I’m tired. Really tired.

Sammy is singing ‘Spinning Wheel’ but again, I’m fucked if I know where from.

“What goes up/Must come down.” Sing it Sammy…

I need a drink before I call Henrik, who unusually for a dealer, has multiple other interests and gets up early. (Henrik is even in possession of a time machine for fuck’s sake. Yes you heard right. A thing that looks like a Porta – loo in his office that can take you back in time. Not forward. And not through space either…You can go as far back as you like but you’ll still come out in Camden. How’s that for a plot device? More of which later.)

Anyway. Nothing personal, Henrik but I’m already dreading calling you. I don’t feel like talking to anyone so early. Fuck it, the Blavod will take care of that. It’s one minute to eleven and so what? Like Ma used to say : “The pub’s are nearly open…”

I negotiate my way through the various boxes of old copies of Sounds, Look-in, Deadline, Ritz Magazine, Escape, Blitz, Weirdo, New sounds-New styles, Elle, Starlord, Spare Rib, Toxic, Crisis, Revolver, Inter-View and Time Out… the open files, the unopened mail, the closed files, all shadowed by the dead plant I never knew the name of that I bought in a fug at Woolworth’s two Christmas Eves ago.

I bend to the mini fridge and feel a sting in my lower right side. A pain I’ve had for five years that despite a Cat and ultrasound scan remains un -diagnosed. I’m so tired. So very very tired. Can I be out of breath already? I’m 34 years old and just starting to lose what looks I had, but not my health already, surely. Anyway. I open the fridge door. And there it is : The Vodka bottle chill against my hand. It feels like home, it feels like shaking hands with Henrik Kissinger in 1967 whatever that means. I’m starting to feel better already.

I don’t wait until I get back to the desk. I pour the Black stuff into a dirty promotional ‘Menswear’ mug that’s festering on top of the mini fridge. Menswear are a sorry bunch of mugs but as alcohol receptacles go they’ll do. The Blavod is so cold as to taste of nothing. It burns my throat and sets off a cosy black depth charge in my stomach, scouring the inside of my chest as it goes down. ‘Boof’ it says to my stomach. ‘Take that’!’  ‘OOf’. ‘Bam’ ‘Karplunk’ Et Al. Huge captions behind my eyes, cartoon bubbles in my gut. Like in the old Batman shows. I take another chug from the bottle. Black milk. The years of sleep behind my eyes momentarily disperse and then resettle into new patterns further away. I shake the sleep up again with another slug from the bottle. An Orchestra is tuning up in my skull. Another slug. This time there’s an uppercut to my esophagus. ‘Kapowee’! It’s a welcome pain. It reminds me of something…

Holding the bottle in my left hand I walk back to the desk and attempt to find Henrik’s number in one of the various address books I keep losing and replacing. I’ve got an hour to get to Henrik’s and back to prepare for the client. By prepare, I actually mean repair. Somehow, after another extended chug, I’ve spoken painlessly to Henrik – a conversation I’ve already forgotten – and am taking another gasp from the bottle which is now coming out in condensation. Sammy is singing “For once in my life/I have someone who needs me” somewhere on the periphery of something while I seem to have misplaced the Menswear mug. I find a multi pack of cafe crème on my desk and attempt to open the wrapper with my left hand whilst still holding the bottle in the right. A false economy. It doesn’t work and the multi pack scatters to the floor. But in doing so some flyers on the desk are moved about and I spy a pack already open. I plug my mouth with one. I’ll light it later. I fold the packet into my navy blue Cardin Blazer pocket. I need to be out of the door. I need to go. I don’t know where my keys are. Where’s my wallet? I take a final – for now- shot from the Vodka bottle that is alarmingly approaching room temperature. I think about taking it with me but it looks bad, a man of my reputation slugging from a bottle in the street at this hour.

Who am I fucking kidding…

I find room for it on the magazine spunked thing that was once a desk. I tap the bulge atop my thigh. That’s my wallet. Forget the keys, I’ll leave the door open. I hope I have a lighter on me somewhere and then somehow am finally out of the door. When did leaving anywhere become such a military fucking operation? I’ll buy some more Blavod on the way back. Or maybe on the way there. Details. The devil is in the details…

Did I mention I was Tired?

Outside the morning is catching up with me. In fact, it’s gone already.  I wade through a fresh afternoon that still looks like morning. I move onward searching for a lighter as the pavements below turn from Camden to Chalk farm but then I decide against the off licence and they become Camden again. The pavements are losing their morning sheen. The sun is upon us. The air is still nearly new. I kid myself it all is. This fresh Tuesday. New, I mean. The buses are running. People are starting to shop. The Birds above it all.  The sky above them…My mind is wandering. I light a Cafe crème as I await a gap in the traffic, crossing the too wide road to Camden stables puffing as I go, feeling old yet ageless. No, aged. Feeling fucking tired.

Life has long since lost it’s lustre.

“Charles! How are you my friend? How’s business? You look exhausted. We have a cure for that. Ha ha.” Henrik lets me in and goes to the computer thing on his desk to tap the keyboard. He then looks up, takes off his tiny round glasses and rubs the lens with the sleeve of his purple hoodie. Somewhere a bass drum is pounding. Joss sticks fill the air with a Cunty bloom. Henrik is into cyber- something. His cave place is full of tubes that light up and things called glow sticks. He likes Sven Vath. I don’t know Sven Vath but I’m sure if I did I would hate Sven Vath. Henrik is friends with The Aphex twin. Or one of them, at least. I don’t know much about the Aphex twin apart from what a client told me once. The Twin lives in a converted bank, gets stoned and projects “Pong” (an ancient video game) onto the bank wall opposite his. Someday I’d like to pay Mr Aphex a visit…

“Charles?”

“I’m fine Henrik. The usual. Please”.

I think Henrik is Norwegian. Or Scandinavian. I’m not sure what Scandinavia is. I have a vague idea it’s cold and Ash Blonde. I’m not big on Geography. Or Maths, physics or economics. But I’m especially dumb when it comes to Geography. I don’t know my North, South, East West either. Don’t know where they are I mean. Why the fuck would I…

“OK, Charles. Just a moment. Please.”

Henrik’s place is big and full of stuff, but unlike my office you get the idea that everything here has a purpose and he knows where everything is. He stoops to the computer keyboard once again and then gets up from that and the fibre glass desk and walks to a filing cabinet that’s just in front of the Porta Loo/Time machine.

“What’s this shit playing?” I ask Henrik as he unlocks the third draw down of a filing cabinet that has a digereedo leaning on it.

“This is The Future sound of London, Charles.”

“Some future..sounds like…sounds like a knees up at The Tomorrow’s world Christmas party, circa 1980.”

“No. That’s what they’re called, Charles. The Future sound of London. And actually they’d take that as a compliment. Three?”

“Yeah three. My favourite number.”

Henrik returns. Puts three little bags of white stuff on the desk.

“Put it on my account, Henrik” I tell him, thinking one isn’t enough and four is too many.

“You mind?”

Henrik is already at the computer. “No. Its fine. Go ahead.”

I separate one bag from the others and bring out my Zippo. I bash the fuck out of that bag, crushing the rocks and the baby rocks. I know I should put a cloth over it to save the bag from splitting but I’m tired. Henrik pays no mind. I crush and obliterate some more and then reach into my left Cardin pocket where there are various McDonald’s straws cut down to size. Some cut with a scissors, some with a Bread knife, some bitten in half. I don’t bother racking up, just poke a straw into the bag. I sniff and gag. There follows a distant roar. Surf on sand. I gag again. Sammy flares in volume and shuts up.

I’m now very thirsty and not for water.

“Anyone used the time machine thing lately, Henrik?”

“Yeah. Some guys out of Paul Weller’s band. They went back to see a Small Faces gig or something. I warned them about the usual shit but they didn’t listen. When they got there they had no relevant currency. No money, I mean. Couldn’t get in the gig. The usual catastrophe…”

“Small Feces more like”. I return to the bag and gag again.

I’m slightly less tired.

Time to get to work…

EXCERPT FROM “The Impossible Dream : The story of Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers.”

Author’s note : “This was my first book and obviously a real learning curve.  It was fun to do although getting it published was tortuous.  Originally commissioned by Helter Skelter books, it’s publication was cancelled when the owner of that company tragically died.  It then went to Omnibus books where it was dropped at the eleventh hour, it’s subject matter being deemed ‘Old Hat’.  Eventually the wonderful Jawbone books picked it up.  I was delighted at the quality of the edition and yet still feel that this book never really found it’s audience.  (There was also a proposed follow up, covering Scott’s work from 1984 onward but that never came to pass either.  I still feel a decent book needs to be written on that period of Scott’s work.)

“The Impossible dream…” was written between 2004- 2005 and I was lucky enough to interview many people who are no longer with us.  Below is the final chapter. My only gripe regarding this chapter is that I was unable to find any photos of the boys at work in the studio.  Other than that, I like to think this is as definite an account of the recording of the last ever Walker brothers album that we’re likely to get…”

Chapter 16

Long Day’s Journey Into Nite

Now we’re writing our own material, finally, again, because we’ve decided to get off our asses because we’re basically very lazy, because the years have made us this way, because people would pay you a lot of money … not to write. So, you get very spoilt.”

Scott Walker (1977)

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Geoff Calver (Producer of No Regrets and Lines) : “In the purest sense of the term, Scott was an artist. As his subsequent solo efforts have been “art for art’s sake,” they are in contrast with what we were doing with the Walkers, which was blatantly commercial. I think Scott, ultimately, felt he should do things for the right reasons rather than take the obvious commercial route … He kept the Walkers going as long as he did because, you know, a guy’s got to eat.

“I didn’t do anything with him after Lines. I think he found the commercial thing a bit distasteful. I think he was a serious musician who wanted to make serious music for serious people. I don’t think he really was happy doing the pop star bit or ever had been. Obviously, it had been his living but I think he’d been a very reluctant pop star and I think that’s why he wanted a change in direction, and go off and do the more esoteric stuff that he did after Lines.”

As it had been exactly a decade before, 1977 was to be a year of unequivocal change for The Walker Brothers. Since the initial split, all three had, to varying degrees, tangoed uncomfortably with their famous past, both in their personal and public lives. During 1977, many of those associated with that past would disappear. Producer Johnny Franz died on January 29, at the age of 54, his early death hastened along by a chain of countless cigarettes. That summer, former manager Maurice King also died, from a cocktail of whisky and barbiturates, in the flat above his Baker Street office.  Maurice King

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Photo :  Johnny Franz and Scott Walker, London mid 60’s.

Franz and King had helped drive The Walker Brothers toward pop immortality. As far as Scott, John and Gary were concerned, with these men went the last nicotine-tinted vapour trails of swinging 60s London. But perhaps their passing was a liberation for The Walker Brothers. The London of early 1978 was abuzz with both the energy of the previous year’s punk storm and the new wave which would follow. On a superficial level, the Walkers were set apart from such a climate – and yet, on another, unquantifiable, level, they were saturated by the zeitgeist. Scott, Gary and John were writing up a storm, with no thought of consequence other than ‘to hell with it’.

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Photo : The enigmatic Ady Semel, early 70’s.

A further reminder of how the Philips years had dissipated came when the enigmatic Ady Semel retired as their manager. The Walkers’ (underworked) live agent, David Apps, would take over Semel’s role in a limited capacity. By now the trio were no longer living together, John and Gary having moved out of the flat above the King’s Road bistro, leaving Scott to write alone there. All three converged regularly, and Gary and Scott in particular still socialised frequently, clubbing into the early hours at London’s Tramp and Rags nightclubs.

Despite the tepid reception of everything since “No Regrets”, two years earlier, label manager Dick Leahy, who was about to sell GTO to CBS, was ever supportive. Consequently, the Brothers were in a position with nothing to lose. This freedom left them confident and energised. John in particular, going through one of his periodic dry spells, spoke with the conviction of a born-again. “Yeah, I’m teetotal these days,” he beamed optimistically, “I’m feeling in darned good shape too … Booze was my escape when I became a victim of The Walker Brothers’ success. Just as ‘No Regrets’ was sliding down the charts again, I found myself with some time to think. I woke up one morning and felt a new man. We’re going to be tremendously successful again and there’s no way success is going to almost destroy me this time round. I’m going to enjoy it. Already I’m writing some great songs and learning to play some good guitar again. We’ll make it because we’ve got something over most of the groups right now. We can sing and I can’t think of too many others who come into that category. Lots of acts put on a good show but have nothing for the ears. We’ll do both. I’m gonna love it – and I wont be looking for an escape through a whiskey bottle.”

The urge would, inexorably, return and John’s drink of choice throughout the coming recording sessions would eventually return to brandy and Cognac, while Scott and Gary, still perusing a strict health kick, threatened to overdose on a rainbow-coloured array of vitamin pills. Further ties with the more recent past had also been cut with regard to their place of work. The new studio of choice was Scorpio Sound, of Euston. Although it shared basic specifications with the Marquee studio (24 tracks at a rate of £500 a day), it was virgin territory to the Walkers and the crew manning the newly-assigned studio were all fresh faces.

Steve Parker was the mandatory teenage assistant engineer. It was obvious to him why the trio were not continuing with Calver. “Well, maybe because the first two albums they’d done with him hadn’t sold that great, it was obvious to try something new,” he reckoned. “I think with Nite Flights, Scott was trying to get an ‘off the wall’ vibe and Geoff Calver was very much a mainstream producer. Scott wanted a new approach and Dennis Weinreich, partly because he was from California, had a reputation at the time for having his own unique sound.”

Weinreich was an up-and-coming studio boffin whose already impressive resumé included big hits with Supertramp and Queen (including “Bohemian Rhapsody”).

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Photo : Dennis Weinreich at mixing desk. Date unknown. Although judging by the funky apparel, probably late 60’s, early- mid ’70’s.

“I think Geoff was probably the better engineer,” says Weinreich tactfully. “I was probably slightly more ‘down and dirty’ than Geoff was. His stuff was magnificent, his orchestral stuff. I respected what he did. But I think maybe that what The Walker Brothers were looking for with this album was something a little edgier. Not that he couldn’t do it, but my kind of records, the kind of records I used to do with Jack Bruce, Jeff Beck, had a certain atmosphere that I was known for. People liked to work with me for the atmosphere.”

Scott would no doubt have gone out of his way to listen to Weinreich’s work before considering him as right-hand man. But an equally important factor in choosing Weinreich as head engineer was that he be ignorant of the Walkers suffocating past. The young Californian was fully qualified in this respect: “I have to admit to not knowing The Walker Brothers’ material beforehand. I was aware of the hits but I wasn’t a fan particularly. They were one of those bands that weren’t particularly successful where I was from.”

On first meeting Weinreich was struck by Engel’s presence and sincerity. Within moments of the ‘job interview,’ arranged by manager David Apps, Weinreich was already thinking ahead, like a man who had already bagged the job. “I remember Scott arriving at the studio in his orange Volkswagen Beetle,” he says. “He had a white pork-pie hat on. Real low over his eyes, all the time. He never took it off. Constantly playing with it. So he talked to me about making records and stuff and he said to me, ‘We need to work out how to record the vocal. Because the thing that pisses me off is that, when I’m ready to sing, I’m ready to sing right now. And I need to be able to perform once and that’s it’. So, I got this idea of [Scott’s voice] sitting very, very compressed on top of the record without a huge amount of dynamic. I felt, from listening to him talk, that he had a natural dynamic, that it wasn’t based on level. It was based on this intensity he had in his voice.”

Scott and Weinreich hit it off immediately. “I told Scott that once we had found a vocal sound, we’d keep it for the album and when we’re ready to go! And then I’d modify it for the song. I said, ‘But when you’re ready to go, I’ll be ready to go’.” The younger Californian had the gig. Things moved fast and sessions were arranged for early February. Scott’s attitude was one of fatalistic resignation. It was a state of mind that was, ironically, empowering. He knew before beginning that this would be the Walkers’ last stand and as such was going all out to please himself for the first time since Scott 4. “It had gone on too long, the reunion, all the awfulness … I thought, I’ve had enough. We were told the company [GTO] were gonna fold, so went back and pow-wowed and said, ‘Let’s do something we wanna’ do’. It was as simple as that.”

The ever-amiable Leahy was right behind them. “Dick backed us on this and he wanted us to do it,” confirms Leeds. It was agreed by all three at the outset that this record would contain no cover versions. In anticipation of the early February starting date, the trio worked apart and in seclusion, honing their pieces as best they could. Even Gary was writing up a storm. By the time they had compared notes and headed for the studio, they were as ready as they would ever be.

“Back then, records came in different categories,” states Weinreich. “There were those long and luxurious ‘let’s book a month and go into the studio’ [ones], and everyone arrives on the first day and you kinda get some sounds up and y’know, ‘Ok, what’s the first song gonna be?’. ‘Ah, well, I got this little riff.’ And, you know, it’s all very slow and mellow. Nite Flights was not in that category.”

Steve Parker remembers the sessions as being “well prepared; there wasn’t much rewriting in the studio. We would have spent the first week doing the basic tracks; drums and bass. And then strings and voices etc. [Musical arranger] Dave McRae would have a chord sheet prepared and we all would have worked from that.”

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Once again, the dynamic of the unlikely trio made a unique impression on the studio crew. Weinreich thought that, “Scott was nice looking but nothing special, kinda like the type of guy I went to school with. John looked like a real man, you know, kinda hunky. Gary … I certainly felt that of the three of them, the one who was in the strongest financial position was Scott. But he certainly wasn’t wealthy. John was living out of town, on a council estate, I think. Hard to tell with Gary. Gary was kind of, like Dennis Wilson had been in The Beach boys: he could play, as long as you didn’t dissect it, but he was no Hal Blaine.”

Scorpio soon became base camp Walker and although superficially all would assume the usual roles, this time round John and Gary would be much more involved. For the first time both Gary and John would submit their own material alongside Scott, who throughout the sessions sat beside Weinreich at the mixing desk, the sonic equivalent of an actor-director.

There was a buzz in the air as usual, but this time its accent was skewed, edgier. The Walkers had never worked together like this before. “I got the feeling that they all, Scott most of all, just wanted a total break from what had gone before,” noted Steve Parker. “They didn’t bring any demos. I mean you didn’t even have Portastudios back then. Scott would play us records he liked the sound of.”

While Scorpio Studios no doubt felt like a universe within itself during the six-week sessions, the record being made there would ultimately correlate with the prevailing musical trends of the day: punk and disco. And then, as RCA’s advertising slogan for the album “Heroes” went, there was old wave, there was new wave, and there was David Bowie. In an interview following the sessions, Scott would state that, “David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I’.”

Parker affirms: “Bowie’s album ‘Heroes’ was the reference album while we were making Nite Flights. In fact, Scott himself bought me a copy when we started.” Parker also points out a major difference between the two albums. “[Nite Flights] wasn’t done in [the way] [Tony] Visconti, Bowie and Eno worked. We could have been more adventurous maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there it would have been even more stunning I think.”

The man closest to the Eno role, Weinreich, explains that, “It’s not unusual in the studio to have a record that you refer to. You’re not ripping it off or plagiarising it, you’re using it as a reference point and Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ was like that. And Scott bought me a copy. Scott was like that. There was a classical music magazine called Gramophone and he bought everybody subscriptions to it. He had a thing about Gramophone. He insisted that you read it.”

Chris O’Leary’s peerless blog on the Walker/Bowie crossover.

Now that the core crew was established, it was time to draft in the players. Scott, working closely with pianist and arranger David McRae, chose to employ the cream of the session circuit. This would result in the appearance of some familiar faces and in some charming incongruities. “Mo Foster on bass, Peter van Hooke on drums; these guys were the top session men of their day,” states Parker. “But it meant that they did a lot of different things. For all I know, the day before they did [Nite Flight standout track] ‘The Electrician’ they would have been playing on ‘Disco Duck’ or ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’.”

Sixties stalwarts Big Jim Sullivan and Alan Parker were also involved. Sullivan was glad to get the call and noted that the Walkers set-up was much more bohemian than it had been when he’d first encountered them back in 1965. So much so that he was under the impression that the Walkers were paying for the sessions themselves. “I just got the sense that they were going to do whatever it was they wanted to do,” he says. “It was much more experimental than it had been back at Philips.”

Weinreich remembers everyone being open to new approaches and technology. “Big Jim had a Roland guitar synth, one of the first,” he grins. “It was kind of a weird thing, it looked like a Les Paul, kinda, and I remember it being delivered, taken out of the box. I’d never seen such a thing! Nobody really knew how to use it but we had a lot of fun messing around with it.”

Sullivan: “I remember I plugged the guitar into the amp and it was set up in such a way that it started feeding back and the lead was crackling. I went to fix it and they said, ‘No! Leave it like that, it sounds great’. I didn’t go mad with effects, as I can recall, maybe some phasing. When I played on ’em, there was not much else going on. No strings, not much at all. So, I just tried to use my imagination. There was only a guide vocal, bass, drums, and perhaps keyboards here and there … And I don’t think the drums and bass were the finished article either. It was a bit different to working with ’em in the 60s. They were a bit looser now. Some of the things they’d ask me to do, you know, ‘Improvise! Go crazy! Make something up …’.”

Extract from my interview with ‘Big Jim’.

For those musicians new to the Walkers, it was essentially just another gig. Mo Foster: “It would have just been one session among many. I would have done my parts in about five days, recording two or three songs a session. One did the job as quickly as possible but also as well as one could … There was no ‘dark atmosphere’ though, no. It was lights full on and staring at music stands.” Foster also raised an eyebrow at the unique Walker trio dynamic. “Scott was the one who knew anything … the other guys weren’t that … they didn’t really play. Gary seemed lost.”

Weinreich, a perceptive Walker collaborator, is quick to defend the hapless Leeds: “The boys only came to the UK because of Gary,” he points out. “There was an incredible loyalty between the three of them. They all knew that the sum of the parts was greater than the individuals. From outside you may question as to why Gary was even there. But without him there was a key ingredient missing. John has a great voice but lacks focus. Step in Gary. Scott also took something … vital from Gary.”

Parker noticed that, “It seemed that Gary and Scott were mates and John was a bit outside of that … he was more ‘regular’. Scott and Gary had more going on between them I think. I could see Scott and John as a kind of Righteous Brothers thing, but I couldn’t see where Gary fitted in to that, although the outthere-ness of this album seemed to me to fit Scott and Gary more than it did John. Saying that, Gary was the most unlikely pop star in the world.

“With his denim, jeans and hair, you could see John out on the cabaret circuit but I couldn’t see him touring on the back of this. I think this shows in his songs too. Scott was obviously into his foreign cinema and all that but you got the impression that John’s favourite actor was John Wayne.”

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While the studio was Scott’s domain, he dominated without any untoward expression of ego. As a producer, he was less ‘hands on’ and more of a conceptualist, describing what he wanted to the engineers in sometimes slightly abstract terms. This was ably backed up by McRae’s sound musical training – a unique mix that filtered well through the self-contained climate of Scorpio.

“It was an intimate place with a family atmosphere,” says Parker. “No ego stuff at all, just a nice bunch of guys.” McRae, a veteran of various homegrown progressive rock and jazz-fusion groups, was the latest in a long line of foils for Engel. Throughout the recording process, Scott had always referred to an authorative presence outside of himself. This seemed to have started seriously at Stanhope Place in 1965. The lineage included Franz, Wally Stott, Reg Guest and, to a lesser extent, Del Newman. These individuals were visionaries in their own right but, while technically advanced compared to Scott, they were also unified in respecting his vision.

“McRae is probably not credited as luxuriously as he should have been,” considers Weinreich. “He was the interpreter of Scott’s musical vision into something that the musicians could cope with. McRae was the bandleader. He’d go to the piano and say, ‘Do you want this chord or that chord?’. He was a great interpreter. Scott knew music, no question, but he wasn’t schooled in music. His references were obscure and McRae would translate them … he was so important, I thought of him as the producer.”

Once Scott had the laid down the foundations of drums, bass and guitar, he would begin to layer and experiment on top, as a painter building from a wash. For someone considered such a ‘serious’, artist his methods were often playful. “Scott wanted us to go to a farm in Hayward’s Heath and set fire to a piano,” grins Weinreich. “He wanted to record the ‘ping!’ of the strings as they heated up and snapped. I wish we’d done it … .”

One extravagance was the recording of the Royal Albert Hall’s huge organ for the track “Fat Mama Kick”. The RAK mobile studio was hired and Weinreich, Parker, Engel and McRae booked the Hall for the day. McRae played some thundering chords which would be ‘flown in’ to the track back at Scorpio. GTO were hesitant at such expense at first but ultimately acquiesced. “Leahy was good on this project,” says Weinreich. “A lot of people would lose interest in this kind of project as it started to evolve but Leahy maintained interest all the way through.” Leahy: “I let them get on with it. My only reservation was that it was more of a Scott Walker album than a Walker Brothers album.”

True to form, as the actual songs slowly materialised, it was the Engel compositions that did so most vividly. As with the recording of No Regrets almost three years before, one track began to stand out amongst the others. “The Electrician” was a huge leap in Engel’s writing, drawing a luminous, gossamer thread between “Boy Child” and his brotherless future. With John’s voice haloing the least romantic vocal Scott had ever recorded, this was the closest The Walker Brothers would ever get to the 1980s.

Steve Parker ruminates: “It’s interesting that Midge Ure apparently wrote ‘Vienna’ after hearing this track. If we’d had the technology that was around in the 80s, ‘The Electrician’ would have sounded more like ‘Vienna’. I remember we recorded two versions.”

“There is another version that we recorded first,” confirms Weinreich. “It was identical really. What happened was that we had a metronome in the control room. And while McRae was conducting, Scott was varying the tempo for McRae’s headphones – the metronome was going right into his cans. And McRae was chasing it. But Scott wasn’t happy … So we’d completed it, vocals and all and Scott asked to do it again. So we were recording another bunch of songs and Scott says ‘let’s squeeze it in’. So we tried and it was better except … we lost the great drum sound we had on the first version. I was disappointed with that aspect. But overall, Scott had been right. The second version was better.” This was not an album with an unlimited budget by any means. GTO could not afford to have orchestras just hanging around. Scott had to seize his chance when the moment presented itself as Parker explains:

“These were the days when if you wanted strings you had to get in strings, you had no samples. The orchestra would be booked well in advance. And real strings always give a track a new dimension. And I think once we put the strings on ‘The Electrician’, then you kind of hear where Scott and McRae were coming from.”

Scott was probably working to a preconceived vision that everyone else would have to trust him on. As the recording progressed it became obvious that not only did Scott know what he was doing but that he had chosen the right personnel to help him realise that vision. “The guitar solo on ‘The Electrician’ is just scrumptious,” says Weinreich. “Big Jim [Sullivan] had ‘been there, done that’, but he still performed with energy and passion. Everybody did. Most of the time with session players, you’d struggle to extract a performance out of it. They could play it but could they perform it? The band who played on Nite Flights had passion.”

Of the ten compositions, four each came from John and Scott and the remaining two from Gary. Individual contributions to each track were less democratic, with John adding harmony to all of Scott’s vocals but singing half of his own songs solo. Scott would be present throughout the entire album, adding additional bass, textural keyboards, and uncredited backing vocals to “Den Haague”. The session musicians, reading from lead sheets and chord charts, were not made aware of who wrote what and the basic tracks of the songs were recorded back to back under unified circumstances. When the time came to record vocals, each singer would complete the lead on their own compositions in batches.

By working apart conceptually – there was still no co-writing going on – even Scott’s definitive production could not impose a unified sound. The result would be more akin to a compilation album. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to be three separate people on one album,” allowed Scott. “John’s on all my tracks but I’m not on his. That’s just the way he heard it.”

Gary adds: “This was three people writing in separate rooms and bringing together this bizarre thing that really worked. I don’t know how that worked ’cause none of us knew what the other was writing, what the sound would be or what the thread was and it turned out that the three different colours made it more weird than it was.”

Nite Flights would be the first (and last) album to feature a serious contribution from Gary. His vocals were recorded first. True to his ‘wacky’ reputation, Leeds did not record vocals like anybody else. “Gary had a nasal problem,” chuckles Parker. “And we got round that by laying him on his back to do his vocals. Gary was very hunched and one of the things we tried was laying him down flat. It opens up the tubes. Helps his breathing.”

Weinreich: “Oh yeah, Gary would have enjoyed being strapped down! We had a big grand piano in the studio and we made him lay down on the piano and put sand bags on his shoulders. And that’s how he sang it.” A supportive Scott ably coached Gary and the results match those of the previous Engel/Leeds collaboration on “You Don’t Love Me”, all those years ago.

Next into the booth was John. Although the studio lights would be dimmed as a matter of course during vocal sessions, John still had to move within the deeper darkness of Scott’s shadow. Weinreich was sympathetic: “I felt sorry for John because by default he was bound to be compared to Scott … he had high values, he was a decent guy and I liked him. But he had this monkey on his back called The Walker Brothers. But he had a great voice … although John wasn’t a ‘one-taker’ at all. Not like Scott. But he was not far from it. John would ‘produce’ Scott’s vocals and vice versa. There was a trust. Scott needed someone in the control room to tell him if something wasn’t right, if there was a pitch issue … and the only person who had that was John. No one else could say that to Scott. I mean Scott is one of the greatest vocalists of all time! So, who can tell him to do that verse again because it wasn’t good enough? John. And it worked vice versa.”

When the time came for Scott to lay down his vocals (which were usually done last), he tried, as ever, to move fast. It was less about performing and more about attempting to capture something; a mood, a fragment of a moment. He would occasionally sing while hearing sound effects on his voice, but any such technicalities would have to be set up and ready to go. “Scott had no time for that shit,” exclaims Weinreich. “But … he was an incredible vocalist.” Scott sang in relative seclusion, with only Weinreich and Maus in attendance. Parker and anyone incidental were, as usual, prohibited from the studio while he utilised the most powerful and sensitive instrument at his disposal.

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By the end of February, the album was complete and the mission accomplished. This was no follow-up to No Regrets or Lines … or anything else for that matter. The Walkers’ swansong is the most unique and daring album they ever recorded. It’s the sound of psyches crashing after the MOR indulgences of No Regrets and the aptly titled Lines. At its best, Nite Flights (working title: Death Of Romance) sounds like a comedown. Scott’s tracks in particular evoke the claustrophobic worldview that the worst drug and alcohol hangovers inflict. “I took drugs, but it was mostly cocaine in the 70s,” Scott would recall in the mid-90s. “It was mainly drinking that was the issue.” By his own admission, Gary states that he “Never really liked drugs. I like whiskey.” As for John: “In my bad days I was doing everything to excess, so if I’d gotten into drugs at all, it’s doubtful I’d have lived to tell the tale.”

Thus Nite Flights, their most narcotic-sounding album, was conceived and recorded, relatively clear-headed. “The sessions were 100 per cent drug free, as far as the band was concerned. Which was pretty odd for me at that time,” laughs Weinreich. “The focus was on health and well-being. Gary was not as committed to the healthy outlook as Scott. And John was not as committed as Scott. There was a bit of wine as I recall but it was no drinking session, either.”

Similarly, Parker remembers that, “They seemed to be clean-living boys, in the studio at least. Scott certainly didn’t smoke – I’ve no idea why he is in the cover photos of the album. John liked his brandy.”

Despite the influence of “Heroes”, Engel and Weinreich would only touch superficially on the innovative working methods employed by Bowie, Eno and Visconti on that album. No songs were improvised in the studio and little was left to random, certainly as far as composition went. Engel was still essentially old school and preferred to work quickly, using for the most part whatever tools were readily available. Scorpio, while new, was not specially equipped and the unique and progressive sound of Nite Flights was mostly down to the Walkers’ attitude and Weinreich’s imagination and technical know-how.

Nite Flights begins with the four Engel tracks. On “Shutout”, death goes to the disco. Scott’s lyrics are both vivid and impregnable: “There were faces bobbing in the heat / For some rising / From her zone / Moving / Hitting / Holding on … .” Driven by a crisp disco groove (Van Hook’s hi-hat work is particularly excellent), the effect is taut, powerful and punchy. The nightmare lyrics and ragged guitar work add a vague sensation of vertigo. John’s harmony work is perfect, hovering mosquito-like above Engel’s lead.

shutout

Another nightmare scenario, “Fat Mama Kick” makes the serious business of the opening track sound more like The Village People. The arrangement verges on the unmusical: Scott and John shriek above slabs of sound. Steve Parker: “That murky ‘wash’ sound is the piano chords left to ring and slowed down. The only effects we had really were delay and a harmoniser.”

Fat Mama Kick

“Nite Flights” is a perfect symbiosis of the album’s first two songs. It grooves more smoothly than “Shutout” whilst retaining the eerie undertow of “Fat Mama Kick”. It still sounds fresh and modern today, signifying some future that never was. John’s voices are as ever impeccable and Scott reports that the song was written with “[John] in mind [singing] above me all the time.”

Nite Flights

Dennis Weinreich: “Scott came up with basslines, musically he came up with everything. The blending of his and John’s voices was magnificent. You know, when you double-track somebody, you record a voice and then you say, ‘Ok, we’ll put the other voice over now’ and it’s always loose and you have to say things like, ‘Don’t say any S’s, only say the S’s on the first track’, because otherwise you just get a big ‘schh’, you know, it’s all funny-sounding, the overlap and all. But you never had to say that with John. If he was putting a harmony to Scott or the other way round, you never had to do that. They had something really quite special in that they knew how each other sang.”

“The Electrician”, according to Scott, is “about the Americans sending in these people who train torturers in South America,” and “I imagine these lovers in a conversation.” The lyrics are among the most explicit of Scott’s on the album. This piece is an epic in itself, starting off sounding like a painting of Hiroshima, before blooming into something akin to Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez”. It was written by Scott, “In a flat in Fulham [sic], above a very noisy restaurant, late at night. No one could hear me so I could work.” Dennis Weinreich: “Don’t you love the castanets on it? We were trying to get that South American vibe.”

The Electrician

Gary’s ambiguous but sinister lyrics on “Death Of Romance” are a revelation; he clearly has a natural gift for the poetic and sounds surprisingly natural singing them, except on the chorus. For a drummer his timing is particularly awkward, however. Steve Parker: “The phrasing on the chorus does sound uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s meant to be … more that he couldn’t really sing.” Dennis Weinreich: “Gary was either writing from his experiences or from his fantasies. Either is possible. When Gary wandered off on his adventures, I didn’t go with him. So I don’t know.” An unreleased outtake features a three-part harmony vocal by Gary.

The Death of Romance

Leeds explained that his “Den Haague” is “about the seediness of Amsterdam. I tried to make a comedy of it.” It’s among the strongest tracks on the album, slithering along at exactly the right tempo, suggesting seediness, shame and self-reproach. It was apparently born of true-life experience. Steve Parker: “I remember Gary saying at the time that he was sitting in this brothel [probably run by the notorious Madame Xavier Holland] and someone actually did come in and ‘hang their coat over a statue of Christ’.”

Den Haague

The arrangement is pure Scott, static strings, treated piano, and even some backing vocals by Engel himself. The Bowie/Eno influence is plain in the harmonised snare and the pitch-shifted tubular bell. The slightly flanged bass sound is actually two basses. Scott played along with Mo Foster’s line. Foster wasn’t impressed by Scott’s bass chops: “He was more of a bass owner than a bass player,” says Mo. Gary: ‘We always wanted to do something a bit funnier, that’s why we did the ‘Den Haague’ thing. That was why we had that radical change into Nite Flights from the romantic stuff.”

Of John’s four contributions to the album, “Rhythms Of Vision” features a down and dirty, bass-heavy groove, over which Maus rasps: “She knows the hard well / And making it twitch / Just waiting to open / Her sacred stitch … / You’ve lost to the bitch.”

Rhythms of Vision

Dennis Weinreich: “Regarding the lyrics: yes, there were discussions that went, ‘just what the fuck is this about?’. I think they were looking to create images with the lyrics, not necessarily narrative. Scott is very naturally narrative so his songs do have that quality. John’s lyrics were more obscure and I recall on a number of occasions Scott turning to me while John’s vocals were going down with that ‘What the fuck!?’ look on his face. There was quite a bit of re-writing during the sessions. Scott particularly had visual links he wanted to make. John, I felt, was looking to try and shock.”

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“Disciples Of Death” is a neutered, polyester-clad Satan, boogieing at Stringfellow’s … “I sing to the opening eye / Only fools live to die”. “Fury And The Fire” is more sadomasochistic MOR, with a faintly embarrassed Scott singing along gamely, almost inaudibly in the final mix, while Big Jim Sullivan et al provide moving, sterling performances.

Disciples of death.

The grand production on John’s “Child Of Flames” cannot disguise the vacuum at the heart of this song. At its best, it sounds like an outtake from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (and it’s a delight to imagine the bouffant John hand clapping along to a flamboyantly choreographed dance routine). To be fair, it suffers most its close proximity to Scott and even Gary’s compositions.

Child of flames

Dennis Weinreich: “My personal opinion: the lyrics were mostly contrived. Intended to cash in on some kind of punk/rock/glam ‘You can say fuck on ITV if you want to’ way. The four songs John wrote are not bad songs, but he was trying to do something, create some shock. They weren’t about anything. He was not comfortable in his own skin. A well brought-up, solid human being but you got the impression that all this wonderful stuff had happened to him and he wasn’t in control of it. He was looking for some control and I got the impression that this album gave him that. Y’know, ‘these are your four songs – go do what you want’. And Scott and Dave McRae helped him.”

By the summer of 1978, GTO was in a state of irreversible flux and about to be sold to CBS. As such, while Leahy had allowed the final indulgence of Nite Flights the general feeling at the GTO office was that Scott should have used the opportunity to record solo. Expectations for this record were the lowest of all three reunion LPs and such a pressure-free environment undoubtedly allowed the album to become what it was, a quixotic, three-headed mutant, the truest Walker Brother album ever recorded. But, whatever its pedigree, Nite Flights was still bona fide music-business product and GTO would process it as such.

 

Weinreich remembers the unveiling. “We had a playback for the album and everybody from GTO came down and it was really strange because it was like everyone was paying lip service. And no one was really listening to the record. It was more a social occasion. And we put the record on and that first side … it’s a funny side ’cause the first song is a good song but it doesn’t really do much. It doesn’t draw the listener in. And I had this horrible feeling that we lost them all. And after that everyone was completely blown away … until Gary’s song. And when ‘Death Of Romance’ came on, everyone was staring at each other thinking, ‘What the fuck is this all about?’.”

Gary: “Rod [Temperton, from GTO stablemates] Heatwave said that my two tracks on Nite Flights, were the best thing he’d ever heard. I liked him.” GTO pressman, Mike Peyton was politely understated in his response. “I remember hearing it and thinking that we were going to have trouble getting airplay.”

The album was released in the mid-summer of 1978. Although totally ignored by television and radio, the weekly music papers, by now staffed by those mostly too young to have properly experienced the Walkers first time round, were unusually perceptive and enthusiastic. Those that bothered to listen were duly intrigued and one can only speculate as to what may have happened if Nite Flights had been their first GTO release. The reviews, whilst refreshingly positive also matched the feeling of those at GTO, who felt that the album was not so much an LP by The Walker Brothers but more a Scott Walker EP with six B-sides. They weren’t far wrong. Nite Flights was less the death of The Walker Brothers and more the reincarnation of Scott Engel.

Weinreich: “It was a fun album to make. There were no jerks in it, the record company left us alone, Scott was great, John was great, Gary was … great. Musicians were great.”

Apart from the alternative vocal version of “Den Haague” and the alternative version of “The Electrician”, already mentioned, there were a couple of songs recorded during the sessions which never made it to the final release. Mistitled due to an admin error (the title actually belonging to a quite different, reggae song), “The Ballad Of Ty And Jerome” is one of the best things Maus ever wrote. Finally released on the If You Could Hear Me Now CD compilation in 1998, Maus also re-recorded it as “The Ballad” in 2005. Although of a higher standard than anything else by Maus on Nite Flights, this smooth AOR ballad would not have sat comfortably on the finished record.

The Ballad…

Scott’s futuristic, ARP-heavy instrumental “Tokyo Rimshot” owes more to Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds than anything from “Heroes”. It too was finally released, as an instrumental, on If You Could Hear Me Now, although a vocal version was apparently recorded.

Tokyo Rimshot

The Nite Flights cover, an abstract gatefold designed by the trendy Hipgnosis, attempted to depict all three reborn. Hair lightly permed and darkened, sucking earnestly on full filter cigarettes, the trio stare meaningfully into the bleak blankness of tomorrow. Maus, borrowing the jacket Bowie wore on the cover of “Heroes”, draws on his Camel Light whilst leaning against some corrugated iron, a man with no particular place to go. Scott’s facial expression veers between psychotically-wounded horror and that of a distracted model in a Marlboro advert. Gary looks like an existential icon; or at the very least like a sexed-up, world chess champion. Appearing like a set of stills from a Beckett-scripted version of Starsky And Hutch, the cover once again fails the record.

Covers

GTO had the balls to release a single, “The Electrician”/“Den Haague”, that July, but it and the album itself would go nowhere commercially. Walkers fans of old just didn’t know what to make of it.

It didn’t even make release in the US. Gary: “If it wasn’t country, blues, rock’n’roll … [America] had to have a category. And of course, there was no category for this. They didn’t know where to put something that was this extreme.”

Long-time fan Margaret Waterhouse dutifully bought it but would rarely play it: “My first reaction on eyeing up the cover as the sales assistant was wrapping it was, ‘Oh my lord – have they lost the plot?’. These were not the same guys as on the two previous albums, which I had actually liked a lot. I really didn’t care for it on first hearing. I was disappointed because they had changed style from a soft, well-rounded image to an altogether sharper, jagged edge. I felt this was not for the better.”

Unlike No Regrets and Lines, the LP would become a sleeper, gaining a reputation of quality and influence in the coming years, way beyond the miniscule sales it reaped that year. The cooler press ‘got’ it. “Hip or otherwise, this is frontline 1978 rock and roll,” the NME declared. “Engel has always had similar interests to David Bowie, his European consciousness and Jacques Brel fixation predated Bowie’s by several years. If there’s any influence at play here, it is latter-day Bowie/Iggy Pop.”

Melody Maker: “Nite Flights makes Bowie’s Low sound ‘high’.”

Although there was no fast return investment, almost everyone involved in the record would ultimately be rewarded. “I got a lot of work from being involved with ‘The Electrician’. It’s a lot of people’s favourite piece of music,” says Weinreich. “As the 1970s turned into the 80s, I got calls from people saying, ‘I want you to work on this record I’m doing. Because you did “The Electrician”, right?’.”

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Steve Parker would go onto work with some of the biggest names in the business but remains unconvinced by one of the most special entries in his resumé. “It’s strange that it’s seen as such a seminal album when the way it’s been done is a very traditional way to make an album. You would have thought Scott would have gone for an Eno-type character or a load of new musicians. Dennis was not a particularly ‘off the wall’ producer but he then was the most ‘off the wall’ guy they had probably worked with.”

Weinreich is philosophical. “The fact that Nite Flights didn’t do so well commercially at the time … well, there was a set of goals at the time of making the record that were either stated or implied. Whatever they were, there was a kind of honesty about the music you were gonna make. Only later did I add to the stated goals’ ‘commercial success’. It had nothing to do with the quality of the music.

“If we conveyed energy to you as a listener, 20, 30 years after the fact, then we succeeded in doing what we set out to do. We wanted to impact on an emotional level to the listener. This was the stated aim. We wanted to convey an emotion from the studio to the listener in their living room. Whether that was a good emotion, bad emotion, real, whatever. We wanted to impact. And there are moments on that record that do that.

“I don’t think it should have been a commercial success. I don’t think it was good enough to embrace a mainstream audience. I think it was slightly out of time. It was kind of … it was mature while trying to be young, youthful and dangerous. And it wasn’t … I recall a conversation with Dave McRae during the making of the album. I said, ‘I’d like to have an image of the guy whose gonna buy this record. I wanna know. Does he live in Essex, drive a Ford Escort, and have a banner across his windscreen that says “Brian and Shelly”? Or is he a guy in a blue suit with white collar and cuffs? I wanna know whose gonna buy this album because I’ve lost focus’.

“And Dave turned to me and said, ‘I have no idea, but it doesn’t make a difference.’ I said, ‘Well, it kind of does, because I want to make sure that what we’re doing satisfies that goal’. And I was completely dismissed. But I didn’t know who was gonna connect with [this] Walker Brothers record. And nor did they. It was their last go.”

Sadly, neither John nor Gary could seem to capitalise on what was, in effect, their debut Walker Brothers album. “It would have been fine if it made us some money,” bemoaned Gary. “The money would have given us that thing to be able to go a bit further … and do other things … it would have been good for the industry too. [But] it was a good stretch because it started Scott on the direction that he wanted, in a sense.”

John also felt an unfinished future: “We kind of went out leftfield and I think it was the beginning of something that could have happened – but it didn’t continue. The record company decided to sell itself to somebody else. All kinds of strange things were going on and none of it was conducive to actually doing anything beyond that point.”

One-time fan club president Chrissie McCall thinks that “Gary never got over losing it. He really enjoyed it all. It was his dream.”

For Scott, The Walker Brothers was all but over. Although as a unit they still had some unfinished business together, on stage, in effect, the dream was dead. Nite Flights was their flawed and warped swansong. In this respect, it suited the nature of The Walker Brothers aptly. And it was round about now that Scott Walker began to disappear.

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Steve Parker: “I used to see Scott in Chiswick a lot after the album. We lived in the same area. I’d see him queuing in the bank with his hat on, or driving up and down Chiswick High Street in that orange Volkswagen Beetle. The last time I saw him was on a bench in the park. He’d just bought a gatefold LP and was sat there looking at it.”

Weinreich: “I saw him twice in the immediate aftermath. I have an image of the very last time I saw him. It was at the end of Parkway in Camden opposite a pub that’s been closed down now for years, opposite where Regent’s Park begins. He was in his car sitting at the traffic lights and as I drove past I honked my horn and he rolled down the window of his car and said, ‘I’m gonna call you and we’ll go for dinner’. I went, ‘Great, Scott’. And I haven’t seen him since.”

John: “It was kind of weird, we just drifted apart. We were kind of floundering around and didn’t know what we were going to do. It seemed like we just drifted apart. It was really odd. Nobody said anything … nobody actually said, ‘Oh well, let’s do something else, this isn’t working out’. We just kind of said, ‘Ok, let’s get together and we’ll find out what’s going on, yeah? Ok’. And then about three or four months after that I went back to America and I didn’t hear anything from Scott and Gary for a while. It just dissolved.”

Finally, abruptly, The Walker Brothers story had reached its conclusion.

John: “It was a real strange thing. I still don’t know what happened. We just … disappeared.”

 

From “The impossible dream : The Story of Scott Walker and The Walker brothers’, published by Jawbone press, 2009.

You can buy the book here – The Impossible dream…

Or here – U.S. Edition

Jawbone Books.

 

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE OF : ‘JAPAN : A FOREIGN PLACE’. A Biography of Japan, 1974-1984.

Excerpt from Chapter One : ‘Back in the beginning’.

Author’s note :  ‘Despite having a dislike of the ‘Origins’ sections of books, both as a reader and writer I eventually got into this chapter.  The grim atmosphere of Catford in the early 70’s reminded me of my own experiences growing up in Splott and Tremorfa in Cardiff during the 70’s and ’80’s – Bereft of culture and heavy with fear.  More than that, I was lucky enough to track down both a friend (Nick Huckle) and a Catford Boys teacher (William Newton-Norton) of Mick, David et al who were there at the time. Invaluable!  (You’ll have to get the book for William’s recollections). This segment begins at just over halfway in to this first chapter and ends at about three quarters through and deals with the brief period in which Japan were a trio, prior to the addition of Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean. (The Chapter title, is of course, a Mick Karn song from his fine album Bestial Cluster.’)

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Photo : Andonis Michaelides, unknown photographer and David Alan Batt, taken in Andonis’ brothers bedroom 1974.  David wears a badge bearing the logo of the Soul magazine, ‘Black Music’.

Catford, South East London, 1973/1974.

If the peerless glam pop of this era – made by working-class London boys just like themselves – provided a view on to a whole new vista, then maybe playing music seriously would provide an entry into that world. ‘It was the only open door on the horizon,’ says David, ‘I knew that I had to get out of that environment and that creating music was my only means of escape. Which is no good reason for making music. There aren’t that many noble ideas in a young boy’s mind, but at that time it didn’t matter.’ Looking the part would also help. ‘I remember when we were like 13 or 14,’ says David, ‘and Mick and I were getting our ears pierced at that time, and oh! the grief we got for it, you know, from everyone! The traditional, usual places, building sites and what have you.’ Changing their appearance was an important step towards self-sufficiency for David, and Mick in particular. ‘I would say there was a survivalist element to a lot of it,’ says David of the gradual manipulation of his appearance. ‘It was like putting on a spacesuit to walk on the moon. If you didn’t have it, you wouldn’t survive. That’s the only way it made sense to me.’

Around this time Stephen gave up his instrument of first choice –  the guitar: ‘Being left-handed I couldn’t keep up with the learning curve of chord shapes – everything upside down, with certain chord changes tough to implement because of having to use the wrong fingers – so unless I restrung the guitar it was too tricky.’ Steve ‘Playing’ guitar, 1987. ‘I then started to play an electronic organ for a while but it was too drab and limited the energy we were feeling and expressing. So I then got a set of bongos which were much more akin to the Bolan/Finn set-up, and things progressed from there.’

Bolan and Finn.

‘Steve was a pretty atypical younger brother,’ says Huckle. ‘He was in the same class as my brother who was two years younger than me. And my brother then was an embarrassment to me, but Dave and Steve hung out together.’ There was a moment when Huckle himself could have joined the trio, but he had already realised that while he loved music he wasn’t particularly musical. ‘Mick, of course, was learning the bassoon then,’ he remembers, ‘and I did try and join in musically. I took guitar lessons from an old granny down the road but I wasn’t very good – I didn’t have any talent! Unlike the other Catford boys, we weren’t into playing football at lunchtime . . . we used to go down to Dave’s house and listen to records. Either that, or hang out in a corner just talking music. It was literally just music, music, music.’ Mick, the most musically talented of all, struggled to find a place within Stephen and David’s musical activities. ‘I tried numerous ways to join David and Steve,’ he’d recall, ‘like taking up the Rosedale organ Dad had bought me a few years back, but it meant getting to know what chords are and all those black and white keys are terribly testing. I gave up on that and tried vocals next. David didn’t want to sing, so it would be easy once I’d learnt the words.’

With little money between them, finding their musical feet was an effort, mostly enabled by the kind of good luck that blesses the young. In a school corridor Mick had bought a battered bass guitar seemingly on a whim from Jack Stafford. In a seemingly random moment, Mick had found his calling. ‘It didn’t feel right until I got a bass,’ he’d say. At this point Mick was still concentrating on being a singer. Still, he reasoned that it wasn’t unheard of that a bass player could also be a vocalist. Although still nameless, Japan had begun. ‘In 1973, we formed the band and began to practise,’ confirms Steve. A few years later David would sum up their almost nonchalant formation: ‘We got together right, and I could only play a little bit of rhythm guitar right, and Steve could play a few percussion instruments. We said, “Mick, why don’t you try bass?” and that’s how it came about. None of us has been taught, none of us knows a technique. We only know exactly what we do now. That’s why we’ll be progressing for a long time.’ Now that Mick had an actual electric instrument, things were looking up. But this also posed a stumbling block. ‘I had no amplifier,’ says Mick, ‘so at the Batt household on Saturday evenings we used their hi-fi system, which enabled me to be just about heard against the acoustic guitar.’

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Photo: Steve with first drum kit. A rare occasion in a rehearsal room, 1974.

Right on cue, Steve got his first drum kit. At 13 he acquired it for £30 (the equivalent of over £200 in 2015). ‘I was very pleased when I got them; they were delivered at night and I sat in front of them smiling until morning,’ Steve says. The gift was from his parents, the wisdom of which they would question. ‘My parents were kind enough to buy it for me; it didn’t seem like such a lot at the time,’ remembers the drummer. ‘My mum saw it advertised on the noticeboard where she worked. She could have easily kept quiet about it, bless her. I can only wonder how many days they spent regretting that decision when we turned electric in the upstairs bedroom. I remember constantly being asked to go light on the floor tom.’ Thus another problem hovered into view. ‘At first we had a difficult time finding places to rehearse,’ continues Steve, ‘so for the first six months we played in our house and for the next six months in Mick’s house. We played for two hours every day. It was very noisy and my sister got angry, especially with the sound of the drums. After that, we practised on the third floor of Mick’s father’s butcher’s shop. Huckle: ‘The Batt parents were good people. They didn’t have any money but they didn’t put up any barriers between Dave and his musical ambition. One of my favourite memories is when I went round their house to listen to music in the evenings and you’d always get beans on toast.’ Thus the legendary rhythm section of Jansen and Karn was born. It was pivotal that they began playing seriously at the same time. Mick: ‘A lot of it [the rhythm section’s unique chemistry] has to do with the fact that Steve Jansen got his drum kit at exactly the same time as I got my first bass guitar, which was a very cheap and nasty instrument. It only cost me £5 at school and the action [distance between strings and fretboard] was very high, which meant I had to use a lot of strength to press down the notes. Because we were learning our instruments at the same time, we were both constantly pushing each other forward, constantly showing off to each other going “I can do this, what can you do?” and trying to keep up with each other. We’d also insist the other person progressed all the time.’

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Photo : Stephen Batt, Andonis Michaelides and David Batt rehearsing for the wedding gig. As evidenced by Steve’s bass drum they had now decided on the name. Photos again taken in Andonis’ brother’s bedroom. 1974. Note Bowie Pic on Fireplace and the steering wheel of MGC car owned by Andonis’ brother, most likely placed on door frame to avoid theft. (He still drives the car today). Nick Huckle : ‘Yeah I’m almost certain that’s Mick’s room. The door behind Steve is a cupboard, and whoever is taking the photo is sitting/standing on Mick’s bed. Unlike Dave’s or Steve’s rooms there are no posters on the wall. Micks parents wouldn’t allow the aesthetic of the flock wallpaper to be ruined by such things.’

In the spring of 1974, having given up on academia, David and Mick took to walking the streets of Lewisham when they played truant, dreaming out loud to one another. They would have looked an incongruous pair: the exotic looking Mick, still slightly overweight, brown eyes and skin gleaming beside the rail-thin, paper-white David. They often attracted aggressive unwanted attention and, even without make-up, were already labelled ‘weirdos’ and ‘poofs’. On one such wander, abetted by a recent photo of Bowie, they found a hairdresser who would give them a lookalike haircut. The crude mullets they now sported would have further alienated them from both skinheads and bus drivers alike.

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Pic : Japan in the Catford Gazette, summer 1974.

In late May 1974, Mick’s older brother offered them a spot at his wedding with only weeks to prepare. The trio were still rehearsing half an hour before the gig when the hired PA arrived. Barbieri was not involved at this point: Mick: ‘June 1st was Japan’s first ever concert. It must have sounded dreadful, but up to that point we had been writing music based around songs that David had written. We were only 14 [Mick was actually 15, David 16 and Steve 14] and I was the vocalist but it was only moments before the curtain went up that I froze and said, “David, I can’t do this – you should do it as they’re your songs and you know the vocals off by heart.” I was so nervous, I couldn’t even remember half of the lyrics. He reluctantly became the vocalist there and then.’

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Photo :  David Batt in Bedroom, 1974. Taken from Mick Karn’s autobiography. You can buy it here – Mick’s book.

Such was the panic in preparing for their debut ‘concert’ that the trio had forgotten to call themselves anything. When asked who they wanted to be introduced as, a hurried discussion followed. David’s suggestion, apparently plucked from the ether, was agreed upon. Thus the trio were instantly christened ‘Japan.’ Mick recalls that they performed covers of songs by Bowie (‘The Jean Genie’ was the opener), The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, as well as original material with some pieces as long as twenty minutes. Other songs included ‘The Man Who Sold The World,’ ‘Queen Bitch,’ ‘I’m So Free,’ ‘Sweet Jane’, and a Batt original ‘Tongues of China.’ The trio played heads down until the wedding guests wandered off to the buffet. And then they played some more. ‘How I wish somebody had recorded the event,’ Mick would say, ‘it must have been awful.’ (In fact an ad for a reel-to-reel recording of the gig did surface in the mid 1990s). The name ‘Japan’ would be dropped and taken up again over the coming months. It held no particular meaning for any of its members. David: ‘The name? No reason whatsoever. We just needed a name because we were about to do our first show and I came up with the name. I didn’t know anything about the East – it was a temporary name because no one particularly liked it and it stayed; you just get attached to things and think “why bother changing it?” so it stayed.’ Mick: ‘It came from a fascination with the country itself. We planned to use the name only once.’ Steve: ‘The name was chosen out of innocence, we had no knowledge of Japan at all. It may have come from a lyric or something. I often think that the influence might have all come from one of Bowie’s lyrics, maybe even “Ziggy Stardust” [‘Like some cat from Japan’]. This was about 1974, and so we named ourselves Japan. In those days we listened to Bowie and Roxy Music and things like that, and I think that might have triggered some imagery – I think Bowie had some costumes and things like that and it all just filtered through, but our actual knowledge of it [the country] was very little.’

Another influence on the name?

Taken from ‘Japan. A Foreign Place. 1974-1984’. Published by Burning Shed Ltd.

You can buy the softcover version here – Japan biography

And here – Japan Biography/Ebay

There’s also a typically gorgeous Japanese version featuring expanded content and additional photos. Buy it here – A Foreign Place. (Japanese version).

ME AND IAN McCULLOCH

Ahh…I’m fairly fucked on a Sunday afternoon. Outside it’s September 2012. My Albanian Chum stopped by at 3pm and I’ve been swallowing Vodka and cranberry since an hour before that at least.
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I’ve got a gig tonight but it’s not my own, thankfully…

I always loved the odd Echo and the Bunnymen song but the only albums I really got into were ‘Ocean Rain’ and ‘Live in Concert‘. And, uh… ‘The Best of Echo and the Bunnymen’. I also had an aural hard on for ‘Candleland‘ and ‘Mysterio‘ back in the day. I’ve revisited the former lately and it’s aged well, probably because it was so out of time when it was released.

It’s a lifetime later that same September Sunday and I’m being escorted to the dressing room of the Globe theatre in Cardiff to meet Ian McCulloch.

I think the chap with me is a lovely, mellow fellow called Jon Mouse. I think he’s arranged the gig. By now I’m not sure of much.
Mouse and I are talking as we walk : Me : ‘I think I’m gonna talk to him about the dereliction of beauty that comes with age’. Mouse : ‘I wouldn’t if I were you’. Me : ‘How was the soundcheck’? Mouse : “I was surprised at how, um, fat he is. But it was interesting. At one point Ian was drinking a glass of red wine at the sound-check and when it finished (The glass not the sound-check) Ian just looked over to his Tour manager without saying anything and he ran over and topped it up.”

Maybe the sound-check was better than the gig. I’ve loved a lot of what McCulloch has done over the years. There’s a Shakespearean quality to his best work, whatever that means. He rocks that uniquely English thing of self-sabotage. Then there’s his voice. He has one and also knows how to sing. The two don’t always go hand in hand. The occasional immortal lyric…That stance of not trying to hard, in fact of fucking it all up but succeeding anyway. As a young ingénue many folk commented we looked alike. With the arrogance of youth I always thought I was better looking…But the gig. The gig was full of ugliness. Crowd baiting, heckling. McCulloch barely finished a song and seemed to enjoy talking more than singing. At one point I tell a loutish, loud bloke in front of me to ‘Let the man sing’ and am faced up by him in full fury until his girlfriend tells him ; “Anthony, calm the fuck down”. Anthony Versus Anthony. Weird. The bloke from the Lightning Seeds is accompanying McCulloch to no great effect. There are moments of beauty but mostly it’s just a heaving, broiling football hooligan vibe.

 

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Anyhoo, I’m still en-route to Ian’s dressing room. Heart beating like a fucked clock. Head full of feedback and foggy stars. I am the man in the moon. The man IS the moon. I’ve no idea how we came to be walking up these old cinema stairs – how me and Mouse met- or even how I got into the venue but I know I was on the list. “I wanna talk to Ian about the deterioration of beauty” I tell Mouse again tediously, my hand white gripping the Bannister. “Honestly, I don’t think that’s appropriate”  he replies kindly. Talking of the decay of beauty I’m not looking good right now. Apart from the gurning I’ve just had a skinhead. I make a mental note not to have any photos taken. Something I sometimes regret now.

I enter the tiny dressing room. Ian is sat calmly with a woman. I’m introduced by Mouse. Before sitting down I help myself to some of Ian’s Courvoisier. He takes this graciously. “What’s your favourite Sinatra B-Side, Ian”? I ask somewhat cryptically. Before he can answer I launch into an acapella version of ‘Forget to remember”. Ian laughs, turning to his companion. “Who the fuck is this guy”? I sit down. “I actually preferred Frank when he was a bit heavier, Y’know” says Ian.  This concludes our Sinatra talk but at least I don’t mention growing old et al

Up close he’s surprisingly attractive. Doesn’t seem fat. The overall impression will be that he’s mellow and kind. Not what I expected.

Around now we are joined by my new best friend, a chap called Degsy who I met in the toilets half an hour ago. Degsy sings in an Oasis tribute band but despite this he’s sound. He’s accompanied by his beautiful wife. With six people the dressing room is full to bursting. Degsy engages Ian full on. Despite my intoxication I’m basically shy. I rack up a few lines for us. Ian is cool about it. We share and imbibe.

Me : “What’s the best gear you’ve ever done”? Ian : “Oh. Straight off the boat in Liverpool.”
Me : “Shall I get some more? We can go back to mine and talk about Hunky Dory for eight hours”.
Ian : “Uh…maybe…will your guy take long”?
Before I can answer, Ian’s female companion buts in : “No! Ian. We have got to get up early in the morning. You need an early night.”
There’s a beat of silence.
Me : “You got any Gitanes”?
Ian : “Ha ha..no. Just Marlboro. Here you go. But I don’t think you can smoke in here…”
Me (Lighting up). “It’s OK. I’m running this place now.”
Ian chuckles and lights up himself. “If you say so. “You got any Gitanes” he mimics in his attempt at a Cardiff accent, chuckling some more.

I spend the rest of our time talking to Degsy’s girlfriend about David Sylvian while Degsy corners Ian.
At one point Ian playfully says to Degsy “I think this bloke is trying to pick up your bird”.
I look directly at Ian. “I’m Gay Ian. In every way. Except sexually.”
More chuckles.

There was something I meant to ask him but it’s gone now. Forget to remember indeed.

Too much courvoisier later but all too soon we are on the stairs again. Walking down them this time. Mouse mentions to Ian that I’ve written a book on Leonard Cohen. “Oh! Why didn’t you say!” he exclaims properly piqued. In fact I meant to bring him a copy but forgot. I also forgot to ask him if he needed any help in finishing (starting)? His own autobiography, Silverfish which he did a deal for years ago. It still hasn’t appeared. Great raconteurs don’t necessarily make great writers.

Me : “I did a book on Scott Walker too. You into him”?
Ian : “Uhh. Some of it. Not all that plastic cellophane people shite though…”
Before we part he presses the pack of Marlboro’s into my hand. He sparks up his Cardiff accent impression : “Here ya go. Some Gitanes for ya”.
He disappears chuckling.
I vow to keep the Marlboros for evermore but smoke them the next morning.

 

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/showbiz/review-ian-mcculloch-globe-cardiff-2024261