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 Please note – Some of the photos here do not appear in the actual book although many lovely, previously unpublished ones do.)
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.’
Sylvian and nelson at The Manor.
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.
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.
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.’
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.