“I sure could use a holiday, but I don’t know where I’d spend my stay. Can’t afford it anyway. That permanent vacation.”
Jim Sclavunos – ‘Holiday Song’
‘Holiday Song’ is the debut solo single from producer, early Sonic Youth member, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds stalwart and Grinderman co-founder Jim Sclavunos. A pretty rumination on getting older, realising your best years are long behind you and a reflectiveness on your character flaws, ‘Holiday Song’ is delivered as a plaintive piano-led ballad, somewhere between jazzy lightness and folky earnestness. Sclavunos adopts a resigned, weary tone, yet one that is laced with a wry levity in spite of the song’s weighty themes.
For ‘Holiday Song’, Sclavunos’s celesta and vocals are joined by Dave Sherman (piano), The Pogues’s Spider Stacy (tin whistle), Gallon Drunk’s Terry Edwards (flugelhorn) and Sarah Lowe (backing vocals). Nick Cave describes the song thus: “Beautiful and complex song and a sweet and generous offering. Really beautiful and true to the bone!”
Profits from sales of the single go to the Music Venue Trust’s Grassroots Music Venue Crisis Fund, established to provide financial support to venues impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more about Music Venue Trust, click here.
Holiday Song by Jim Sclavunos is released January 1 2021 by Lowe Amusements Records. With thanks to Sarah.
It’s that special time of the year where the sounds of well-worn Christmas hits from yesteryear fill playlists and people begin to debate whether ‘Fairytale Of New York’ really is the best Christmas song of all time.
With some help from my good friend and Mute afficionado Jorge, I here present a trawl through the back catalogues of Mute artists past and present to deliver an alternative compilation of seasonal songs; songs that range from the traditional, the just plain festive and on to the downright tenuous. Jorge has meticulously prepared a Spotify playlist containing everything we could get our hands on, though for some of the songs you may need to hope Santa brings you a Discogs gift voucher. For your optimal listening experience, Jorge’s should be listened to while wearing this year’s limited-edition Mute Christmas t-shirt and drinking one of the cocktails from Erasure’s Snow Globe box set.
I often think of Erasure at Christmas, mostly because I remember receiving a 7″ of ‘You Surround Me’ in 1989 in my stocking. The year before, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell narrowly missed securing the coveted Christmas number one slot with Crackers International, an EP which led with ‘Stop!’ but also included the moving ‘She Won’t Be Home’ (renamed ‘Lonely Christmas’ on the slightly dubious The Erasure Christmas Gift 7″); elsewhere on the EP, the duo delivered a spooky version of the traditional carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ complete with authentic choir-boy vocals from Bell, while two years before the pair did a relatively throwaway take on ‘Silent Night’ for the US Yulesville promo LP. The limited formats of the ‘Am I Right’ EP (1991) featured a festive Me Company design of Christmas trees with a photo of a young boy holding presents, while Andy Bell co-hosted Channel 4’s Camp Christmas in 1993, with musical accompaniment from Vince. Andy also featured in a short film called I Hate Christmas as a market stall worker.
2013 was the year that Erasure went all-out Christmas with the celebrated release of Snow Globe. The album collected a number of classic Christmas songs, including ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in updated splendour, as well as some of Vince and Andy’s own tracks. The limited-edition box – or should I say the obligatory limited-edition box, since if Mute did one thing in 2013 it was to ensure that their avid fans went without their turkey after spending out a small country’s GDP on ever more elaborate and expensive box sets – included a bauble, balloon, a packet of sweets and some Erasure-themed cocktail recipes.
Other artists who’ve covered Christmas songs include Echoboy, who released a special split EP with Six By Seven for a Christmas show in Nottingham in 1999 which included a very alternative version of ‘Silent Night’. Richard Hawley also delivered a very easy listening take on ‘Silent Night’ for a special one-track CD given away to people who attended his show in Sheffield in December 2006; during winter gigs and on radio Hawley has also covered ‘Blue Christmas’, made famous by Elvis Presley, but I haven’t heard a recording of that yet (if anyone feels charitable enough at this time of giving to send me one in the name of research, please get in touch).
In the wake of their 2008 album Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp found time to record a beautifully jaunty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ for a US Starbucks compilation, while former Blast First act Sonic Youth recorded a sketchy and somewhat unpleasant version of Martin Mull’s ‘Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope’ for a 1996 compilation, which is definitely one for completists only.
For Can completists, the veteran Krautrockers put out an ultra-twee take on ‘Silent Night’ way back in 1976 on Virgin in the UK. The Residents launched their audacious avant-garde music career with Santa Dog in 1972, a double 7″ single mailed out to various people featuring four tracks by various pseudonymous artists, all of whom were actually The Residents themselves (whoever they are). The band have released several other versions of Santa Dog since 1972 – in 1978, 1998, 1992 (‘Show Us Your Ugly’), 1999 (Refused), 2006 and 2012 (SD12). Way back in 1956, occasional Blast First artist Sun Ra co-opted the alias The Qualities and issued the doo wop 7-inch ‘It’s Christmas Time’. Backed with the sincere blues of ‘Happy New Year To You!’ this curiosity remains one of the most surprisingly accessible pop releases in the expansive Ra catalogue, and proof that they celebrate teh holidays on Saturn just like they do here on Ra’s adopted home.
Einstürzende Neubauten stalwart F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann recorded an album called Merry Christmas which Paul Smith‘s label put out in 1994, but it isn’t at all festive and, besides, it was released in May that year. Still, the album’s sleeve of a hand-drawn tank reminds me of troops putting down arms during World War II, so maybe there’s a connection to the festive season somewhere on this album after all. Mute US duo The Knife recorded a song called ‘Reindeer’ for their eponymous album in 2001; as if the song wasn’t festive enough already with its lyrics about Santa, The Knife issued a version with Christmas bells (renamed ‘Christmas Reindeer’) in 2006 as a free download. Holger Hiller’s eponymous last album for Mute in 2000 included the track ‘Once I Built A Snowman’, while Ben Frost’s 2017 album Music From Fortitude opened with ‘This Is Not Christmas’.
Andreas Dorau, he of one-time Mute group Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, has recorded two Christmas songs. ‘Weihnachten Ist Auch Nicht Mehr Das Was Es Mal War’ is a bouncy electropop track that appeared on Staatsakt’s Santo Klaus sampler in 2016, and just over ten years earlier, he released the track ‘Weihnachten Im Wald’ as a limited-edition of 100 CDs for a Carhartt jeans promotion. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s 1992 Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inch paired together two excellent tracks – the wild rockabilly gestures of ‘Big Yule Log Boogie’ and the ‘Blue Christmas’-esque ‘My Christmas Wish’.
Josh T. Pearson became the first Mute artist to deliver a whole EP of Christmas songs, with his maudlin Rough Trade Bonus disc getting released in 2011 as a Rough Trade shop exclusive accompanying his Mute debut, Last Of The Country Gentlemen. This year, Pearson issued a new song, ‘2020’s Silent Night Hindsight’ straight to YouTube, and a more perfectly cynical take on a shit year you will be hard-pressed to find.
In 2012, Canada’s Ladan Hussein, variously known as Al Spx and later Cold Specks covered Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ‘Christmas Evermore’ for a Christmas compilation, complete with brass and obligatory messages of peace and hope and a bit of Diamanda Galás-esque tremulous wailing. The debut Cold Specks album, I Predict A Beautiful Expulsion (2012) also features the stirring track ‘Winter Solstice’.
Looper‘s 2003 album The Snare features the haunting and evocative ‘New York Snow’, while the ‘Intro’ track on M83‘s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has dreamy lyrics about walking in snow. Way back in 1982, Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric‘s included the sparse ‘Winter Kills’ and an orchestral version of ‘Only You’ was used in a Boots TV ad in 2017. A year before Upstairs At Eric’s, future Mute artists A Certain Ratio recorded the irrepressable long-form funk track ‘Winter Hill’ for their To Each album, while, some twenty years later, Nick Cave& The Bad Seeds released the wintery ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ in 2001, regrettably the closest the songwriter has yet come to recording a seasonal song. Surely there’s a Christmas album in St. Nick somewhere? Moby‘s never done a Christmas track either, though he did remix arch-crooner Tony Bennett’s ‘I’m Coming Home For Christmas’ in 2007, but the track was only ever released as a promo.
Maps, known to his parents as James Chapman, kicked off his pre-Mute career as Short Break Operator, including the haunting ‘Some Winter Song’ as the first track on his debut EP from 2003. In fact, of all the Mute roster, Maps is easily the most prolific Christmas-loving artists. He recorded the frosty ‘Sparks In The Snow’ for his second single, went on to cover East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ for a promo CDr and released ‘Merry Christmas (My Friend)’ straight to Soundcloud in 2013, which is among the most atmospheric things Chapman has ever recorded.
Later still, 2016 Chapman’s collaboration with former Mute artist Polly Scattergood, On Dead Waves, yielded two Christmas songs in the form of a cover of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and the track ‘Winter’s Child’ that closed the duo’s only album together. This year, Polly Scattergood released her own Christmas track, ‘Snowburden’, which followed this year’s career-defining and intensely personal album In This Moment. The new song found the singer somewhere between Laurie Anderson-esque sound art and sensitive balladeering.
Also this year, one of Mute’s longest-serving sons, David Baker – one half of I Start Counting, Fortran 5 and Komputer – released ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a charity single under his Joanna-tinkling alias Dave The Keys in aid of his local London boozer, The Lamb on Holloway Road. Inspired, in part, by ‘Fairytale Of New York’, ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ has the requisite mix of memories, festive bells and a Dickensian air of that which has been lost. Read more about ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ here.
Speaking of charity, here’s a shameless plug: in 2012, Documentary Evidence compiled MuteResponse, a double download charity compilation album intended as a tribute to Mute’s legacy, and also to rule off the first ten years of writing this very site. On MuteResponse #1, I was able to include one-time Credible Sexy Units act Vic Twenty‘s ‘Christmas In Korea (New Year In Japan)’. Angela ‘Piney Gir’ Penhaligon and Adrian Morris recorded the track years ago but it was never officially released until the MuteResponsecompilation. I first heard this track years ago during an interview with Morris, and I always wanted to make sure that others would get to hear it, and so I was delighted to let the song see the light of day. Incidentally, Piney’s done plenty of other Christmas songs, one of my personal favourites being the lovely ‘For The Love Of Others’ in 2009. You can find MuteResponseover at Bandcamp.
So we’ve surveyed the traditional and the festive – what about the tenuous? Look no further than Mute’s most bankable act, Depeche Mode, whose only obvious Christmas connection was Dave Gahan delivering a festive message on the aforementioned Yulesville compilation. However, a year earlier, Depeche’s Alan Wilder and Martin Gore penned the track ‘Christmas Island’ as the B-side to ‘A Question Of Lust’; it isn’t remotely festive, it was released in May that year, it’s named after an island in the Indian Ocean, but it’s got the word Christmas in the title and so, dubious though it is, onto the Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas playlist it goes.
Christmas is supposed to be fun, and so here’s a version of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Bombshelter Brigade, re-titled ‘Merry Christmas’ and taken from the 1988 compilation Christmas At The Bombshelter.
On January 10 2020, producer Kevin Paul begins a series of podcast interviews with fellow studio stalwarts including fellow former Konk resident Dave Eringa and other names familiar to Mute collectors such as Dave Bascombe, Flood, Danny Briottet, Pascal Gabriel and Gareth Jones.
“It came out of listening to podcasts about the recording studio and music production,” explains Kevin. “I could hardly find anyone talking about people from the UK. I thought, ‘I know a few people, so I’ll call them and ask if they want to speak to me and if I get 5/6 then I’ll start a series.’ Incredibly, everyone said ‘Yes’ and I thought ‘Oh my god, I’d better get going!”
Key to the format of the podcast is a relaxed, accessible tone distinct from similar podcasts which go heavy on technical detail. “It’s just me and my guest talking informally about their career and their approach to music,” continues Kevin. “It’s designed to let the guest just talk openly about whatever they want, really. There’s plenty of people who do super technical podcasts already and they do that very well. I’m hoping anyone interested in how records are made can enjoy my podcasts.”
Kevin is himself no stranger to Mute, having worked on countless records for the label between 1992 and 2012. His association with the label began with work on the Pro-gross Three remix of Nitzer Ebb’s ‘Ascend’ and Phil Kelsey’s expansive remix of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ from Erasure’s chart-topping ABBA-Esque EP. “I ended up at Mute through my time at Konk studios,” he recalls. “‘Ascend’ was actually the first record I’m credited on so carries a special place in my career. Mute was such a creative place to be that there are too many highlights to list: I worked with pretty much every artist on Mute and its subsidiaries at one point, including The KLF, Appliance, and Paul Smith’s Blast First. I mixed Goldfrapp’s first album, Lovely Head. I met and worked with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and David Bowie, who spent time at Worldwide Studios recording some of his Hours… album, and I worked on the 5.1 remixes of the Depeche Mode back catalogue. That’s just a few of the things I’m really proud of.”
Nitzer Ebb – Ascend (cdmute145, 1992) featuring Kevin Paul’s first credit (track 2).
Kevin’s series arrives at a time where the ease with which artists can make music without relying on expensive studio time potentially puts the traditional roles of producer, mixer and engineer under threat. Nevertheless, he still sees the value that a good quality studio team can provide. “Studio people are there to help artists make the best music they can make, in whatever form that takes,” he says. “In order to achieve that, we must do whatever that entails.”
The KP MixBus podcasts will be available from January 10 2020 on your favourite podcast app on iOS and Android, and from www.kpmixbus.com. The first in the series finds Kevin chatting with Catherine Marks (St. Vincent, Local Natives, Wolf Alice, White Lies, PJ Harvey, Frank Turner and many others).
Upon the release of his career-surveying Memento Mori compilation, I will have the enormous pleasure of talking to Barry Adamson at a very special Rough Trade East event on 7th November from 7pm.
Barry Adamson talks to Mat Smith about his 40 years in music, taking in his formative beginnings with Magazine, his time as a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, film soundtracks and his solo career, as a musician and composer.
This will be followed by a short set of songs from his new 40 year anthology ‘Memento Mori’.
After the performance there will be a signing where Barry will be available to sign his new album and items from throughout his career.
Tickets can be obtained through Rough Trade’s website here.
I was tempted to write this review with just one word. That word is ‘beautiful’. Written by Nick Cave at exactly the same time as Murder Ballads, these songs were written with simplicity in mind, and as such the majority of these superior compositions feature a stripped back Bad Seeds, and a heavy dose of piano. The contrast with Murder Ballads could not be greater, taking a deeply intimate, romantic and often spiritual tone. No one dies here, one may be relieved to know.
But maybe a little part of Nick Cave died in order to make a collection of songs; that part of him would be the preacher, the aggressor, the dervish spirit howling and caterwauling over a maelstrom of sensational music. It genuinely isn’t a criticism – I happen to think that this is among Cave’s finest work. Everything about The Boatman’s Call is black and white – the Johnny Cash-esque Anton Cobijn photo of a particularly harrowed Nick Cave on the front cover, through the predominance of the piano keys across the LP, through to the downright clarity of Cave’s songwriting. What’s most clear about The Boatman’s Call is the often obvious theme of these songs, for this is Nick Cave’s most directly personal collection of songs, from the post-PJ Harvey reflectiveness of the quirky folk leanings of ‘West Country Girl’ and ‘Black Hair’, through to his ruminations on his failed marriage on ‘People Just Ain’t No Good’ or ‘Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere’.
However, aside from a fair amount of openness from our tortured songsmith, The Boatman’s Call also features two generally beautiful love songs – ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ and ‘Brompton Oratory’. Like much of the album, these have a musical accompaniment from The Bad Seeds that is directly informed by subtle jazz but the latter also features a perfectly twee Casio rhythm that sounds like it survived from Cave’s original demo. The latter describes a trip made by Cave to Kensington’s famous, and imposing, landmark, and finds Cave wishing he were one of the stone apostles therein, just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with his muse’s intense beauty. It perfectly captures the intensity of romance’s first flourishes, that feeling of not being able to cope anymore. ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ is just mystical and beautiful, its waterside setting making me think of Murder Ballads‘ ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, with all the same romantic longings, just none of the death; an alternative ending, perhaps?
The album features the full Bad Seeds line-up (Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, the late Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis), albeit in controlled doses, and benefits from an unusually restrained production job from Flood, who also produced the oft-slated U2 album Pop the same year. The style of production is subtle and delicate, and Cave’s vocal is dominant in the mix, casting a personal, intimate shadow over proceedings. It feels like a one-to-one connection between the narrator and sympathetic listener. Warren Ellis’ violin is also an important element here, receiving greater space in the mix than it had been given previously, bestowing the gypsy folk of ‘West Country Girl’ with a rabidly maudlin edge. His work on ‘Idiot Prayer’, perhaps the track closest to a classic Bad Seeds ballad sees his violin overtaking Blix’s fuzzy guitar as lead instrument, a sign of the sea change that was to come.
I have my own, highly personal reasons, for counting this among my favourite albums of all time. Suffice it to say, many years on, it’s the more miserable tracks here – like ‘Far From Me’ – that I find myself reflecting on when I think of that period in my life. ‘Can’t you find somebody else / That you can ring and tell?’, Cave sings on that penultimate, delicately poignant song. Wise words that I wish my younger self had heeded.
It’s been a while since I wrote about Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – I think the last thing I put online was a not especially positive review of Push The Sky Away, and Skeleton Tree consequently just passed me by. I feel that I’ve rectified that with this review of the new Distant Sky (Live In Copenhagen) EP that was released last Friday.
You can read my review for the Clash website here.
I also reviewed the new Marianne Faithful album for the latest print issue of Clash, which features a wonderful new composition – ‘The Gypsy Fairie Queen’ – co-written with Cave; Marianne’s new LP was co-produced by Bad Seed stalwart Warren Ellis.
(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash
That Old Jazz Devil Called Love: The Barry Adamson interview
I completed this email interview with Barry Adamson back in 2004, just after he’d left Mute, released a new rough track called ‘Harlem’ as a free download, performed with Russell Maliphant at The Barbican and was experimenting with making music on Macs. It was only just over ten years ago, but releasing music as a download was still something pretty new, hence his comments on the ‘political’ nature of releasing music this way. Back in 2004 I was still pretty new to conducting interviews, hence why this appears as a question and answer-style feature.
Former Magazine bassist Barry Adamson was for over ten years the very essence of the quintessential Mute Records artist – eclectic, prolific and highly popular, just thankfully never a chart act. His work traversed many, many musical boundaries and genres from soul to hip-hop through to noir film scores. Parallel work as a remixer saw him reconfigure tracks by Recoil, The Wolfgang Press and Nitzer Ebb, drawing on his considerable skills as a sound designer. His work has received plaudits from the likes of Portishead and Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor, who picked Adamson to provide tracks for his Natural Born Killers soundtrack. Barry left Mute in 2003, and Mat Smith caught up with him the following year for a few questions.
MAT SMITH: I’ve just visited Manchester for the first time. I imagine that the city’s changed quite considerably, and now looks to be a carbon copy of the trendiest parts of London. Does the city still provide you with as much inspiration as it did for Moss-Side Story? What does inspire you?
BARRY ADAMSON: Well. I left Manchester some time ago, before the Happy Mondays and all of that era, but the city as I knew it then provided me with a historical noir backdrop of crime and decay, which I was completely drawn to. I guess my youth was impressed like a thumb into clay by the spirit of people living the way they did, when they did and how. How they relieved poverty through a whole myriad of entertainment; how the influence of black culture affected this and how movies might mirror these events. This model dominated my work for some time and perhaps other versions in other towns offer me similar yet different interest. I’m writing a screenplay which is clothed by London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, and New York. So this kind of inspiration continues.
MS: Manchester is an important part of the history of the UK music scene – like London and Liverpool – and you were a player in that nascent scene with Howard Devoto in Magazine. Are you able to look back on those times now happily, or are you glad they’re behind you?
BA: Magazine was an incredibly happy time for me. It was like going to a school where you had a laugh all the time and the girls fancied you and the boys thought you were cool as a fuck. A bit like the juniors where it’s OK to fall over and cry at the blood spilling down your leg and then to get running again, laughing your ass of. None of which could have ever prepared me for the psychological, physical and spiritual slaughter of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds!
MS: Mute Records was your UK home for many years, and I was somewhat surprised that you have jumped ship. What prompted the move from the label? Your (presumably tongue-in-cheek) press release on the website states that you were given a gold watch, and I kind of got the impression that you were glad to be free?
BA : Well. There comes a point in everyone’s life… This was my point. I’d been here before: a kind of giddiness at the possible betrayal but knowing that the car you’re driving needs to go and a newer model (plus the fear of the possible cost) has to become the next avenue to walk/run down. As Joy Division once said – ‘A change of scene / A change of style / With no regrets.‘
MS: The new track, ‘Harlem’, is absolutely superb – obviously Adamson in an instantly-recognisable way, but a progession of sorts. Does the fact that this was made available as a download indicate a shift in the way that your music will be marketed? Are you in favour of downloads, or do you fall into the camp that would be against the widespread development of this?
BA: Without getting into this question too much from a political standing, yes absolutely on the idea that BA will now be a download purchase affair with ideas about having a specific photo info section available for each project. I guess for a while some hard copies will be available but it won’t be long before you can download your whole day! ‘Harlem’ was a tiny experiment. the standards were just above demo as far as I was concerned. I did it in a day but thought it good enough to give away I wanted to give something to the people who bother to sign up and they say such incredibly supportive things. In the future the songs and music will be mastered and obsessively detailed as usual.
MS: Many of your songs have an improvised tone to them, but you are credited as the sole author. How do your songs come about – what’s the process of getting them from an idea to being fully recorded? How do you decide which instruments / players will be used?
BA: Wow. The secrets of the BA? Let me see. Starts in the head. That fool was me was in a dream I had in Australia. The lot. Words, music, melody. Boom. I woke up and copied it up in 15 mins. That’s rare. Normally? You hear it and then the job is to arrange it so folk can dig it. Starts with me. Do I dig it? Do I get off on you diggin’ it? Instruments are tried and tested. Some come without effort, others you must wait for further inspiration. There are players who are so connected to themselves that they understand even my crudest of languages that rely on feeling and movie image. Those are the cats you keep in your book. It’s all a process.
MS: At the Barbican Only Connect concert in April, I noticed you were making use of a Mac. How has this changed the way you compose / perform?
BA: It’s amazing to sit with that thing and make very colourful sketches of ideas, some of which remain in the final mix. I remember recording Real Life with Magazine and after everybody went to bed, getting up again and making tracks into a cassette of sequences and stuff, using the keyboards and effects units. The G4 is kinda the same theory to me. I love the modern world of technology for the G4 alone!
MS: And finally, what’s next for Barry Adamson? New album? Tour? A totally different way of presenting your music? More soundtracks?
BA: I’m writing music everyday. Some for projects and some for myself. I’m gagging to make film. I’m preparing the way for this to happen. I would like to bring out some work online and then play live. The world is mine. Plus three weeks ago I had another son. Edmondo Lucas George Adamson. That’s my latest release!
I was tempted to write this review with just one word. That word is ‘beautiful’. Allegedly written by Nick Cave at exactly the same time as Murder Ballads, these songs were written with simplicity in mind, and as such the majority of these superior compositions feature a stripped back Bad Seeds, and a heavy dose of piano. The contrast with Murder Ballads could not be greater, taking a deeply intimate, romantic and often spiritual tone. No-one dies here, one may be relieved to know.
But maybe a little part of Nick Cave died in order to make a collection of songs; that part of him was the preacher, the aggressor, the dervish spirit howling and caterwauling over a maelstrom of sensational music, and that character wouldn’t emerge again until the later Grinderman project. It genuinely isn’t a criticism – I happen to think that The Boatman’s Call is among Cave’s finest work. Everything about album is black and white – the Johnny Cash-esque Anton Cobijn photo of a particularly troubled Nick Cave on the front cover, through the predominance of the piano keys across the LP, through to the downright clarity of Cave’s songwriting. What’s most clear about The Boatman’s Call is the often obvious theme of these songs, for this is Nick Cave’s most directly personal collection of ideas, from the post-PJ Harvey reflectiveness of the quirky folk leanings of ‘West Country Girl’ and ‘Black Hair’, through to his ruminations on his failed marriage on ‘People Just Ain’t No Good’ or ‘Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere’.
However, aside from a fair amount of openness from our tortured songsmith, The Boatman’s Call also features two genuinely beautiful love songs – ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ and ‘Brompton Oratory’. Like much of the album, these have a musical accompaniment from The Bad Seeds that is directly informed by subtle jazz but the latter also features a perfectly twee Casio rhythm that sounds like it survived from Cave’s original demo. The latter describes a trip made by Cave to Kensington’s famous, and imposing, landmark, and finds Cave wishing he were one of the stone apostles therein, just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with his muse’s intense beauty. It perfectly captures the intensity of romance’s first flourishes, that feeling of not being able to cope anymore. ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ is just mystical and beautiful, its waterside setting making me think of Murder Ballads’ ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, with all the same romantic longings, just none of the death; an alternative ending, perhaps?
The album features the full Bad Seeds line-up (Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis), albeit in controlled doses, and benefits from an unusually restrained production job from Flood, who also produced the oft-slated U2 album Pop the same year. The style of production is subtle and delicate, and Cave’s vocal is dominant in the mix, casting a personal, intimate shadow over proceedings, making this the closest Cave has yet come to the introspection of Leonard Cohen. It feels like a one-to-one connection between the narrator and sympathetic listener. Warren Ellis’ violin is also an important element here, receiving greater space in the mix than previously, bestowing the gypsy folk of ‘West Country Girl’ with a rabidly maudlin edge. His work on ‘Idiot Prayer’, perhaps the track closest to a classic Bad Seeds ballad sees his violin overtaking Blixa’s fuzzy guitar as lead instrument, a sign of the sea change that was to come.
I have my own, highly personal reasons, for counting this among my favourite albums of all time. Suffice it to say, seven years on, it’s the more miserable tracks here – like the personally chord-resounding ‘Far From Me’ – that I find myself reflecting on of that period in my life. ‘Can’t you find somebody else / That you can ring and tell?‘, Cave sings on that penultimate, delicately poignant song. Those would become wise words for my younger self.
I was minded to re-post this review after hearing the lead single from this album, the delicate ‘Into My Arms’ at the end of Richard Curtis’s About Time movie. It’s been a long time since I heard this album and for the personal reasons alluded to above, it’s one that I now find relatively hard to contemplate listening to. In the movie, Cave’s track is chosen by the dying Bill Nighy as the soundtrack for his own wake, lending the track a greater poignancy than perhaps Cave ever even intended.
A couple of years ago someone at Mute sent me a link to a YouTube rip of some songs that were recorded for The Boatman’s Call sessions but which have never surfaced except for on an expensive bootleg CD. The tracks that didn’t make it to the final album were every bit as perfect as the ones that were on the final release, a telling testament to the furious level of output that Cave was enjoying in this period of his life. The twin albums of Murder Ballads and The Boatman’s Call thus stand as one of the most pivotal periods in Cave’s career as a songwriter, marking a crossing place, a transition and the start of his wider public acceptance as one of the finest lyricists of our generation.
A1. / 1. Into My Arms A2. / 2. Lime-Tree Arbour A3. / 3. People Ain’t No Good A4. / 4. Brompton Oratory A5. / 5. There Is A Kingdom A6. / 6. Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere? B1. / 7. (Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For? B2. / 8. West Country Girl B3. / 9. Black Hair B4. / 10. Idiot Prayer B5. / 11. Far From Me B6. / 12. Green Eyes
The Tyranny Of The Beat – Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area was a 1991 compilation issued by Mute to showcase releases from its Grey Area sub-label. The Grey Area specialised in reissuing the back catalogues of Cabaret Voltaire (their Rough Trade releases), Can, Throbbing Gristle (plus various Industrial Records acolytes), Graeme Revell‘s SPK and many others. The label also became home to early albums by artists that had been signed to Mute, such as Nick Cave‘s pre-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door, D.A.F., Wire and Einstürzende Neubauten.
The reissue programme conducted by Mute through The Grey Area inevitably produced a varied counterpoint to the releases issued through the main Mute imprint, through Paul Smith‘s hugely diverse Blast First (which itself, at times, also reissued plenty of older material) and NovaMute. Alongside The Fine Line, specialising predominantly in soundtracks for TV, film and theatre, The Grey Area represented a hugely interesting opportunity to hear some out-of-print releases on CD for the first time.
There days, at least nominally, The Grey Area no longer exists. Can reissues have never officially carried the logo, and whilst Mute remains the custodian of the seminal Cologne unit’s back catalogue, it is done in partnership with Can’s own Spoon imprint; Cabaret Voltaire’s latest reissue programme through Mute is done through the main label and consequently all releases now carry stumm catalogue codes, and Throbbing Gristle effectively bought back their work to reopen the doors of Industrial Records. The opportunity to reinvigorate The Grey Area upon securing the opportunity to reissue the Swans back catalogue in 2014, alongside the Cabs programme, feels like something of a missed opportunity.
The Tyranny Of The Beat then serves as a useful overview of what The Grey Area were up to at this point in the early Nineties. A small four-page flyer inside the sleeve highlighted just how comprehensive the reissue programme undertaken by Mute was through the sub-label – after all, they were effectively re-releasing whole or sizeable elements of back catalogues, not sporadic releases. The flyer also included some items that were planned for releases but which have never materialised – chief among these was the Robert Rental / The Normal live album recorded at West Runton, which Rough Trade had released in 1980 as a one-sided LP.
The sleeve also features liner notes from Biba Kopf, famed NME journalist and currently (under his real name Chris Bohn) the editor of The Wire. Kopf also wrote the copy for the Documentary Evidence brochure which inspired this site.
The breadth of music included in sampler form on The Tyranny Of The Beat is impressive, taking in the grubby pulse of TG’s live track ‘See You Are’, their Industrial signees Monte Cazazza with the truly horrible ‘Candyman’, a bit of early electro from the Cabs, the detached punk of Swell Maps‘ brilliant ‘Midget Submarines’, the similarly aquatic ‘Our Swimmer’ by Wire (still one of their best Seventies pieces), a truly ethereal piece by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert / Graham Lewis as Dome with A.C. Marias and the still-devastating Rowland S. Howard-penned ‘Shivers’ by The Boys Next Door. Can’s ‘Oh Yeah’ – one of Daniel Miller‘s personal favourite tracks – provides a rhythmic counterweight to the urgent mechanical production-line beats of Neubauten’s ‘Tanz Debil’ and Die Krupps‘s ‘Wahre Arbeit, Whare Lohn’. Dark relief comes in the form of SPK’s ‘In Flagrante Delicto’, a track which suggests Graeme Revell was always destined to compose the scores for spooky, suspense-filled films like The Craft.
Like a lot of sampler albums, The Tyranny Of The Beat can sound a little uneven, and whilst a lot of these bands were part of common scenes – industrial, punk, the terribly-named Krautrock – it would have been a pretty weird festival if this was the line-up.
Kopf’s liner notes deserve a mention, if only for the way that he positions the concept of a grey area as a place that people run to for escape or as a means of consciously assaulting musical norms, a place that both acted as a reaction against the regimentation of beats and simultaneously gave birth to the repetitive rhythms of techno. ‘In The Grey Area you get the sense of limits being pushed up against and breached,’ he says, and even now, listening to Genesis P. Orridge deliver a maniacal vocal over corruscating waves of sinister noise from a distance of thirty-five years, or Monte Cazazza’s detached multi-channel reportage of a serial killer’s victims and the nauseatingly vivid listing of the savagery he put those victims through, you can see exactly where Kopf was coming from.
1. SPK ‘In Flagrante Delicto’
2. Throbbing Gristle ‘See You Are (Live, The Factory July 1979)’
3. Cabaret Voltaire ‘Automotivation’
4. Chris Carter ‘Solidit (Edit)’
5. Die Krupps ‘Wahre Arbeit, Wahre Lohn’
6. D.A.F. ‘Co Co Pina’
7. Einstürzende Neubauten ‘Tanz Debil’
8. NON ‘Cruenta Voluptas’
9. Can ‘Oh Yeah’
10. Wire ‘Our Swimmer (Live, Notre Dame Hall July 1979)’
11. Swell Maps ‘Midget Submarines’
12. The Boys Next Door ‘Shivers’
13. Dome ‘Cruel When Complete’
14. Monte Cazazza ‘Candyman’
15. The Hafler Trio ‘A Thirsty Fish / The Dirty Fire’
Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention Mute acts appearing on covermount cassettes or CDs on this blog unless a track was an exclusive mix or edit, or if the compilation itself was Mute-focussed. However, whilst clearing out old CDs recently I came upon this one, which I’ve always loathed because of its sleeve, and inside the sleeve I found two clippings from the issue of the long-defunct Vox that this came with (June 1999).
The clippings were taken from the customary page in the magazine that described the tracks, and included explanatory comments from Nick Cave and Barry Adamson on the songs that were included on the album (‘Red Right Hand’ from Cave’s best-of, and ‘Jazz Devil’ from Adamson’s As Above, So Below). These have been reproduced below, mainly because I thought they were quite useful to retain. Also reproduced are the comments from the liner notes to the CD itself.
The CD also includes ‘Suzy Parker’ by The Hybirds, Richard Warren‘s pre-Echoboy band who had just released their debut album on Heavenly. The liner notes for that have also been reproduced (one wonders what the band made of the ‘dadrock’ comment), but as I had no idea that Warren would metamorphose into Mute’s Echoboy, I never bothered to keep the magazine notes on this song. The inclusion of The Hybirds on this CD in turn prompts the recollection that I caught the tail end of a live set by the band at Colchester Arts Centre on 16 February 1997. The band were supporting Beth Orton, who at the time was my then-girlfriend’s favourite singer. A bunch of us went to watch Orton at our local music venue; it was supposed to be our first Valentine’s weekend together, but instead we seemed to spend most of that weekend either apart or in the company of sundry friends of hers. Consequently I approached the Orton gig, and the Hybirds songs I heard, with a degree of disdain and over-critical resentment.
Nick Cave ‘Red Right Hand’
Sleeve: Originally from Let Love In, perhaps Cave’s finest LP, this also (rather bizarrely) appeared on the Dumb And Dumber soundtrack. ‘You’re just a microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan‘ moans Old Nick in this semi-comically melodramatic take on Stephen King’s The Stand.
Magazine: ‘I had a really wild band then, the best I’d ever had. They could all play, but they were ragged and raw, too. With The Birthday Party there was blues, soul and country, but it was all exploded, there was no kind of respect for anything. It was a machine that was whirling in its own direction and nobody knew what was happening really. The same musical influences are there, but now we respect then more, hold then truer.’
Barry Adamson ‘Jazz Devil’
Sleeve: He played with Magazine, Pete Shelley, and with Nick Cave in The Bad Seeds. Then he went solo to delve deeper into blues / soul / torch / pop / pretty much everything else and somehow remained cool throughout. This is as new as it gets.
Magazine: ‘People talk about the devil as some trickster, a cunning little devil. As far as the darker stuff on the album [As Above, So Below] goes, I wanted to be completely bleak and then relieve it with a humorous look at the dark side with this character that is destined to always be on earth.’
The Hybirds ‘Suzy Parker’
Sleeve: A crazy stream-of-consciouness tribute to the 60s model, and a prime cut from this increasingly popular, thrillingly realist Mansfield band’s eponymously-titled *****-rated debut LP. Dadrock simmering in youthful bile.