29 January 2011

Virginia Astley - Promise Nothing

Promise Nothing

There are some artists who have had a significant presence in pop while staying very much in the shadows. One of these would be Virginia Astley, whose discography is (mostly) unavailable and in any case entirely obscure to most followers of pop.

Born to Edwin (Ted) Astley in 1959, he of "The Saint" and "Danger Man" themes, Virginia found herself in a musical family. Her elder sister Karen married Pete Townshend and her brother Jon was a noted producer and mastering engineer. Taking up piano and then flute, Virginia's initial recorded output was as keyboard player with Victims Of Pleasure, who released three singles between 1980 and 1982. During this same period she accompanied Richard Jobson's poetry on The Ballad Of Etiquette and sang on "La Chanson D'Helene" by The Dream Makers, included on the impressive Le Disque du Crépuscule compilation From Brussels With Love.

There was little here to suggest that Virginia Astley was soon to release some of the loveliest pop of the era. In fact I missed the release of the 10" EP A Bao A Qu in the first month of 1982 and was equally unaware of the single "Love's A Lonely Place To Be" exactly one year later. But, living in Canada, I was lucky enough to latch onto the compilation Promise Nothing when it was issued. The exclusive Canadian version of this lost album used the artwork from "Love's A Lonely Place To Be". Two versions issued in Belgium on Les Disques Du Crépuscule (in 1983 and 1985) have different, and to my mind completely inappropriate, cover art.

What we have here are the four tracks from A Bao A Qu on the first side, and the four from the 12" of "Love's A Lonely Place To Be" on the flip. One track, "Soaring", has been remixed. The last two selections are instrumentals most properly heard on her second album, here used to fill space -- though in the nicest possible way.

The result is an extraordinary melding of Virginia's girl-next-door soprano, chamber orchestra arrangements and bitter-sweet lyrics about the death of love. Her brother Jon's production is exemplary, with arrangements that could not be bettered. But it passed through the listening public like a ghost, some five years before its time (if I compare it to the success of Enya's Watermark).

Virginia AstleyThis debut was followed by From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, a lyric-free recreation of Hertfordshire ambiance, divided suggestively into Morning and Afternoon sides. Released through Rough Trade in July 1983, this is the only Astley album (out of an eventual five) to remain in print. Incidentally, it marks another Skids connection, being produced by Russell Webb. His sensitivity to the delicate and subtly evolving music is evident. The melding of instruments with location recordings creates an evocative aural space. If you like Promise Nothing, you owe it to yourself (and the artist) to buy a copy of this CD!

Virginia was to go on to have a taste of popular success. Signing to Elektra she released Hope In A Darkened Heart in 1986, performing a duet with David Sylvian on the lead-off single "Some Small Hope". This was enough to get the album released throughout Europe and even in the USA. While I dislike Ryuichi Sakamoto's overly slick production and don't think much of the single, the album has much to recommend it.

The Astley catalogue is currently in disarray. Hope In A Darkened Heart has been recently reissued in Japan without permission. Other master tapes are lost. Astley herself is not fond of Promise Nothing. Will we ever see a comprehensive re-issue of her catalogue?

Visit her excellent website for detailed discography information.

-- The Second Chameleon

Promise Nothing

A1 We Will Meet Them Again (4:00)
A2 Arctic Death (3:02)
A3 Angel Crying (3:46)
A4 Sanctus (2:08)
B1 Love's A Lonely Place To Be (3:27)
B2 Soaring (3:25)
B3 Futility (3:25)
B4 A Summer Long Since Passed (4:40)
B5 It's To Hot To Sleep (5:40)

LP Canada: Why Fi Records / Sire [WYFI 14] 1983 [cover from "Love's A Lonely Place To Be"]

LP Belgium: Les Disques Du Crépuscule [TWI 194] 1983 [cover by Catherine Lazure]

LP Belgium: Les Disques Du Crépuscule [TWI 194] 1985 [cover by Joël Van Audenhaege]

We have done a special mastering job on Promise Nothing, replacing three of the tracks with superior CD rips and using spectral analysis to clean out clicks and pops. Unfortunately there is some distortion that simply could not be removed without significantly damaging the music, but it shouldn't be too noticeable.

P.S. We are experimenting with offering alternatives to Rapidshare. If you like, you can download from Mediafire by clicking on the appropriate icon above.

11 January 2011

The Human League - The Dare! Demos

It remains one of the great mysteries of the age. Like who built the pyramids, or what was the purpose of Stonehenge. How did Phil Oakey come up with Dare!, one of the defining statements of eighties synthpop?

The odds were certainly against him. When the League Mark I split, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware took all the song writing and production skills with them. Oakey was left only with Adrian Wright, the guy who did the slide projections for their live shows, and his trademark hair cut. Neither Oakey nor Wright had any real experience playing an instrument, let alone knew much about writing a hit single. And Oakey's first move was hardly one to inspire any confidence: rather than hire some musicians to play the backing parts for a European tour that had been booked before the split, he recruited a couple of school girls he had spotted at the local disco to be dancers for the band.

So where did Dare! come from? Well, the simple answer, and the one most commonly advanced, is: Martin Rushent. Having cut his teeth producing first-wave punk and post-punk acts like The Buzzcocks, Generation X, and XTC, he had spent the better of a quarter million pounds setting up Genetic Sound Studio, the centre piece of which was a Linn Drum machine. Where earlier drum machines could only play a fixed number of preset rhythm patterns, typically associated with rather dated dance styles like the Cha Cha or Bossa Nova, the Linn could be programmed to play anything the programmer liked. What was more, the Linn could be synchronized with arpeggiators and sequencers, allowing each part to sound perfectly in time with every other part. Rushent's mastery of the Linn drum machine, together with an innovative production style that isolated each instrument, affording each its own precise place in the acoustic field, gave the album its air of sleek, cool modernism.

The other answer looks past Rushent's studio skills to credit Ian Burden and, especially, Jo Callis, the hired guns that Oakey belatedly brought on board to help work out the musical backing to his and Wright's early song sketches. What this two cd set shows, however, is that neither answer fully suffices. The demos present here show that even at a very early stage in the album's development, and certainly well before Rushent was to add his distinctive touches, Oakey and Wright had begun to forge a very different conception of the band's sound. Where the songs for Reproduction and Travelogue were audio collages, built up from tracks painstakingly pieced together from individual modular synth patches, the songs for Dare! began with simple chords, mostly picked out on on the new generation of cheap polyphonic synthesizers (such as the Casio M10), and plaintive one-finger melodies that express an aching romanticism that was new to their sound. The League Mark II wrote songs, in short, with memorable lead lines and a distinctive tone--the very limitations of their abilities seem to have kept them from becoming overly predictable or formulaic.

The story of how Oakey and Wright, together with Callis, Burden, and the school girl dancers, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, developed these songs from the most rudimentary sketches to dance floor classics that still inspire shrieks of recognition whenever they're played, is presented in wonderful archaeological detail in this two cd set. There's plenty to intrigue the dedicated League fan who doesn't already have this set: alternate lyrics to "The Things That Dreams Are Made Of," early versions of "Do or Die" and "Open Your Heart" (here titled "Letting It Show" and "Banjo Song," respectively), and songs that didn't make the album, such as "In The Park" (a variation on Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" I suspect), and "Boxing on TV." But to my mind, the real answer to the question with which we began can be found at the very end of the second set, a methodically worked out bass line for the Ike and Tina Turner classic, "River Deep, Mountain High." The League Mark I was keen on on sixties r'n b standards, and even included "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" on their first album. Clearly at some point there must must have been some thought of doing something similar for Dare!

In the end, however, there would be no Phil Spector covers on Dare! Instead of RDMH, they included the haunting, austere, vaguely sinister theme from the film "Get Carter." That choice, and I suspect it was Oakey's choice, speaks volumes about how clearly the vocalist understood what he wanted from this album: romantic but danceable, glamorous but minimal, modern but nostalgic. If the success of Dare! belongs to any one, my money's on the guy with the lopsided hair cut.

-- Crash the Driver

The two cd set posted here is identical to that which was posted over at Going Underground, the links for which have now been dead for some time. We're posting it here following repeated requests from the members of the Blind Youth list, the place to go for all things related to the League Mark I. Our thanks to Going Underground for making it available.

The Dare! Demos CD One

The Dare! Demos CD Two

07 January 2011

Mick Karn RIP -- Sensitive

"Dead at age 52, of systematic cancer, Antony Michaelides of Nicosia, Cyprus, lately residing London."

This might be any announcement in the obituary columns for 4 January 2011, where it not that this was the alter ego of Mick Karn, a musician everyone reading this site has heard and loved, knowingly or not.

Self-taught to a high degree of accomplishment first on the bassoon, Karn rose to prominence as the bassist with Roxy Music disciples Japan. Treading shaky stylistic ground from their 1974 beginnings through to their glam debut Adolescent Sex (1978), this group of increasingly adept musicians transitioned by way of the Eurodisco-influenced Quiet Life (1979) to Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) in short order. Listen to the title track launch of this assured album and hear Karn (already) at full maturity, fretless bass sensuously throbbing and imperiously questing above the other instruments. It formed rhythm, melody and counter-melody in one. We'd heard nothing like it before.

Where the bass disappears it's only because Karn has taken to the saxophone. "Burning Bridges" is the spiritual descendent of Bowie's Berlin trilogy instrumentals -- in some ways Japan just wanted to keep rewriting "Art Decade" -- but, unlike all the other copyists, it's just as good. When Japan broke up after the resplendent Tin Drum (November 1981), Karn was the first of the group to release solo material in the form of the album Titles, available just a few months later. He had so many ideas, so much music in him, always trying to find that bridge between Motown funk and Turkish mystique.

Cursed with a cover fit to hex an entire career, Titles was a masterful demonstration of this synthesis. Perversely the a-side contained only instrumentals, leaving it to the flip to launch the catchy arrangement of "Saviour, Are You With Me?" Here Mick was showcased as lead singer for the first time on record, though he'd shared this task with David Sylvian in the early days of Japan. But that's not all. A complete listing of his credits here includes saxophone, ocarina, bassoon, clarinet, recorder, African flute, Mellotron, percussion, bongos, and computer & keyboard programming. Not to mention album production and mixing, a task he now shared but would later take on completely.

The album continues with "Trust Me" and "Sensitive," two more first-rate tracks. I swear that if the vinyl sides had been flipped, a photo of Mick in designated designer wear and make-up substituted for the ugly illustration and a video made for the single, this could have been the hit follow-up to Tin Drum. Instead Karn's solo career was shafted until 1987's lumbering Dreams Of Reason Produce Monsters and dalliances in the world of jazz-fusion (Bestial Cluster).

But in the meantime he paid the bills with a laundry list of excellent collaborative ventures and guest slots, starting with bass and sax on four tracks for Gary Numan's Dance album (1981), including single "She's Got Claws". Following the Japanese connection, Karn was all over Masami Tsuchiya's solo venture Rice Music (1982), returning for two tracks on Horizon (1988).

In 1983 his distinctive bass flavoured "Glow World" on Bill Nelson's Chimera (1983), a track later packaged into Vistamix (1984) and making best-of compilations like Duplex (1989). Elsewhere on Chimera Nelson himself channels Karn -- just listen to "Everyday Feels Like Another New Drug".

Karn managed one moment in the charts, paired with Midge Ure for the "After A Fashion" single (1983), returning for "Remembrance Day" on the Ure LP Answers To Nothing (1988). (In his final year on earth, Karn was assisted by Ure in fund-raising mode, in an effort that moved the artist back to London from Cyprus for the expensive medical treatments he needed. But which alas came too late. "Another New Drug" indeed.)

Of all such pairings, the highest profile was Dalis Car (sic), a venture with Peter Murphy that was to prove worthy of one album and accompanying single. Too strange by half, The Waking Hour (1984) is essential listening. Falling out over ego in an echo of the Karn-Sylvian feud, it took until 2010 for Murphy to state he was going to rejuvenate the project -- too late by half.

Mark Isham, Lonely Universe, Kate Bush, Joan Armatrading, Kim Wilde... the guest appearances continued apace through the nineties, including some with former band-members Steve Jansen And Richard Barbieri. Stories Across Borders (1991) presaged the Japan line-up reuniting for the one-off Rain Tree Crow album, the result far better than it had any right to be, maybe because the sessions were kept loose and improvisational. But perhaps more important for Karn's own development was his collaboration on David Torn's Door X (1992). Torn was to become a full musical partner on releases under Karn's own name, alongside monikers like "David Torn / Mick Karn / Terry Bozzio", issued in a steady stream by Germany's CMP label.

Fans will excuse me for finding little enough of this output vital, even if it continued the admirably free-wheeling imagination of a questing artist. An accomplished sculptor, trained psychotherapist and much more besides, Mick Karn was a Renaissance Man in a world that prefers easy pigeon-holing. Judging by his releases in the last decade he was not standing still. Check out Three Part Species from 2006. Though bass takes a back seat, Mick's production of this fractured music is excellent.

We honour the premature passing of this fine artist by returning to his very first solo offering, never since made available. Our own vinyl rip of "Sensitive" includes the mix that differs from that used on the 12" vinyl and album. The b-side is also a shorter earlier version of what was to appear on Titles (the 12" single version is different again).

Imagine if in some bright alternative universe this Fin Costello photo had graced the album itself. Mick Karn, superstar? He came so close.

-- The Second Chameleon


A Sensitive [7" single mix] (3:55)
B The Sound Of Waves [7" single mix] (3:42)
7" UK: Virgin [VS 508] 1982

For more, search YouTube for the music video for "The Judgment Is The Mirror" and Dalis Car's appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, performing "His Box." There you'll also find "After a Fashion" with Midge Ure, "She's Got Claws" with Gary Numan, "Wedding List" (live) with Kate Bush (featuring Pete Townsend, Phil Collins, Midge Ure and a famous wardrobe malfunction), plus a strange pairing with Angie Bowie -- reciting poetry.

Mick Karn's autobiography, Japan And Self Existence, is available on Lulu. Innerviews has a fine interview. Finally, visit the dedicated Mick Karn website, sometimes overloaded these days. They have free downloads from Karn's later work for you to sample.