Pre-History

April 6, 2012

30 years on from my first attempts to make music, it would be wonderful to think that when I started I had the natural gifts and maturity of the teenage Kate Bush, Steve Winwood or Tim Buckley.

Sadly, my abilities were more akin to the average elderly pub drunk singing at a karaoke. My ambitions were admittedly a little more grand, though.

30 years on seems as appropriate a time as any for a reassessment of what led to the here and the now.

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Horizon (April 1982-June 1982):

Horizon was very much a first band in that four totally incompatible musicians gathered together purely for the thrill of wanting to make music.

It was post-punk, pre-Smiths 1982 in North West England and locked away in the Latchford Brass Band rehearsal room, a quartet of disparate individuals struggled to navigate one another’s conflicting musical visions.

The keyboardist and bass player wanted to be in The Stranglers, the drummer worshipped at the altar of Weather Report and the guitarist was in thrall to Rush. For my part, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Peters Hammill, Townshend and Gabriel were my heroes.

The sound we accidentally made was an amalgam of Velvet Underground-esque pneumatic noise and pretty Fairport Convention-tinged Folk Rock.

In principle potentially interesting, but in our hands, a less than compelling choice of direction.

That said, occasionally we hit on something. The song Silence (hasn’t every band had a song called Silence at some point?) was heartfelt and seemed to go on forever (in a good way). Its repeating four chord pattern didn’t go on to make a million, but it did point to the fact that something transcendent could be created (or felt) in even the most unlikely of circumstances.

After two months, Horizon was no more and the brass band had its rehearsal room back.

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The Roaring Silence (June 1982- March 1983:

TRS were musically in a different league from Horizon. The musician’s tastes were equally diverse, but there was a greater cohesion in terms of the way everyone worked towards a common musical goal.

The band’s sound evolved dramatically over its nine month existence.

Starting out as a pop band with elements of funk in the mix, the early songs had a similarity to then popular music by Aztec Camera and Orange Juice. All that is bar the 8 minute Black Sabbath inspired rifferama that was Vision (hasn’t every band had a song called Vision at some point?).

In October 1982, the drummer Mark Olly – who went on to be a history presenter for Granada television – was joined by the drummer (not the) Howard Jones.

After one peculiar sold-out gig featuring both drummers and two very long drum solos, Howard took over permanently.

Small of kit, large of chest and fiercely intelligent and gifted, Howard’s musicality altered the band’s sound significantly. He was inspired by Jazz and Progressive Rock and was a big fan of King Crimson, XTC, Genesis and Weather Report.

Guitarist Robert Whitrow (now a successful photographer) and I had been friends at school and had discussed the idea of making music together for years. Between us, we wrote the band’s songs, while the easy going and thoroughly professional Chris Bolton sure played a mean bass part. Live, Chris and I played primitive organ lines on selected tracks.

By the time of the band’s first and only demo – recorded in a studio belonging to local c&w band, Poacher – the music had become multi-sectioned and ambitious. Under the influence of Howard, Robert’s writing and playing had become increasingly sophisticated and the two songs on the demo possessed an odd combination of New Wave derived economy – with a sonic quality recalling The Cure‘s Seventeen Seconds – and time signature driven Rock. Alongside The Cure, King Crimson‘s Discipline and Rush‘s Moving Pictures were strong influences on the demo’s drum and guitar heavy mix (band rehearsals often involved an attempt or three at YYZ), while the vocals were enthusiastic and distinctive, but undeniably weak.

Frustrated at the lack of progress we had in acquiring gigs, shortly after making the demo, Howard left to join the Manchester based Babel and introduced me to friends of the band who were looking for a singer.

Cue Still (hasn’t every band been called Still at some point?).

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Still (April 1983-July 1983):

TRS was good, but in Still I’d found what I’d been looking for.

Stuart Blagden (aka future no-man member, The Still Owl) and Tony Cottrell were older than me by four or five years and were the first people I’d worked with who had record and book collections bigger than my own.

They were also open to influences outside of Rock, which matched my emerging interest in Minimalist Classical, Jazz and electronic music.

Stuart was primarily a Classical musician, but with a great knowledge of Jazz, Prog Rock and singer-songwriters, while Tony was heavily into Electronic music, with Klaus Schulze a particular favourite. Together we produced a music unlike anything any of us had done before.

Combining inventive drum machine patterns with evocative synths and delicately virtuoso guitar work, the band’s sound echoed elements of the scene around us (Associates, Durutti Column etc), while having a strong identity of its own. Some of the music even suggested elements of what no-man and The Cocteau Twins would do later in the decade.

Mark Radcliffe all too kindly called us the greatest band since Joy Division and the likes of Roger Eagle (a Liverpudlian music legend) joined in the praise.

The band appeared to have few boundaries in terms of what it might take on or how it might evolve. Additionally, we were oblivious to the fashions of the day, so what we did was what we did. Still’s was an unfettered, genuinely progressive approach to making music.

Towards the end of the band’s life, Mark Olly joined, giving the group’s ethereal sound a more solid backbone.

Three months and two four song demo tapes into its life, Still suddenly split. I went on to create the painfully earnest solo project Always The Stranger and Still temporarily replaced me. Both sides lost out.

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Always The Stranger (July 1983-July 1985)

The horror, the horror!!!!

To this day I’m not sure what possessed me during the writing and making of most of Always The Stranger’s music. I’m only thankful that it existed during my pre-contract and pre-release days.

Between April 1982 and July 1983, my voice had been weak, but was getting stronger by the month. It was far from great (or good!), but in its favour, it was a natural voice and very much my own. Post Still, the influence of Peter Hammill (in particular), Nico, and Kevin Coyne strongly informed what I did. My voice strength improved immeasurably, but its combination of grunts and screaming was not one made for listening to. My voice was an insensitive bellow that would make Starsailor-era Tim Buckley wince with embarrassment. In retrospect, I apologise!

The uniformly bleak lyrics were a juvenile approximation of TS Eliot’s style combined with ideas taken from existential philosophy. I apologise again!

The music, which I mostly wrote on a cheap organ and a battered acoustic guitar I’d borrowed, had a Nico-esque primitivism and a touch of the wannabe VDGGs in its brutal, dissonant riffing.

On the plus side, I was only 19 and the music was pretty much beyond category in the way that In Camera, Desertshore and the aforementioned Starsailor were. On the minus side, what I did was pompous, over-written (did any band use words like ‘ineffable’ and ‘propitious’ in their lyrics?) and vastly inferior to my core inspirations.

I suspect that the combination of losing a band whose music I loved and finally coming to terms with my turbulent adolescence conspired to create the monstrous music of Always The Stranger, but I really don’t know. The seeds of my more aggressive style were apparent in the later Still demos, so perhaps it was just a logical extension of some of my interests at the time.

My tastes were eclectic and becoming ever more so, but little of the light and shade of my reading and listening made it into my music.

Until….

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After The Stranger (July 1985-May 1987)

Comprising a pop song in 15/8 and a semi-decent ballad called Innocence Lost, perhaps the best ATS 1 demo was a 1984 collaboration with Andrew Bramhall, Robert Whitrow and (not the) Howard Jones.

Soon after, the last Always The Stranger demo was made in collaboration with Suffolk based electronic composer Robert Cox. He was in his thirties and had been making interesting music for decades.

Our collaboration received some great reviews in the monthly musician’s magazines and even received a ‘demo of the month’ accolade from Martin Aston in One Two Testing. My favourite review, however, was one that said, ‘A distinctive Morrissey-esque croon makes interesting sounds over some mad computer bastard. Very strange.’

Today, I’d prefer the computer bastard to the crooner, no doubt.

By this stage, my lyrics and vocals had lightened up (a bit) and I was asked to join a new band featuring (not the) Howard Jones on drums.

The name After The Stranger came from a typo in the One Two Testing review.

In some ways, the band sounded like The Roaring Silence might have done had they carried on. Quickly evolving from a funk-rock unit into a King Crimson-esque noise machine and finally into an atmospheric Indie Rock band sometimes compared to The Chameleons and The Comsat Angels.

The band’s one album, Another Beauty Blooms, was a creative turning point. Containing elements of all the above musical approaches, it was a mess beyond compare and I was the main reason why. The music was well played and versatile, while the voice was extreme and immature.

The album came together very quickly, both in terms of its writing and recording. Better material had been written before and better would be written after, but the feeling was a vinyl album (any vinyl album) could take us out of the demo, local gigs, demo cycle. In an unexpected way, it did. After seeing a couple of reviews of the album in fanzines, a young Steven Wilson wrote to me to see if ATS 2 would contribute to a compilation album he was putting together. More of this later.

Hearing Another Beauty Blooms on vinyl for the first time (the format I listened to everything on in those days), I realised my vocal inadequacies and lyrical failings in a way I’d never done before. In many ways, this was one of the greatest learning curves I ever experienced. Hearing myself as I heard others, I knew I fell way short of anything approaching competence. Although my conclusions were painful to confront, that one listen changed the way I sang and wrote forever.

The band’s demos after this point were far better and far more powerful. My singing became more focused and appropriate to the material. Like Still, we also amassed a great deal of local radio play and media praise from the likes of Mark Radcliffe and Mick Middles. At one point, along with local legend Frank Sidebottom, we were asked to make a radio ident for Phil Corbell’s BBC Radio Manchester show.

At various times, the band was made up of Ian Simpson (who has since made waves in the Experimental music world), Stephen Sharrock (cousin of The Icicle Works’ drummer), (not the) Howard Jones, Robert Whitrow, the excellent saxophonist/flautist Ian Wray and the 16/17 year old guitar prodigy, Michael Bearpark.

Michael was introduced to me by Andrew Bramhall and we got on well from the start. In Knutsford, during the Summer of 1986, ATS 2 rehearsals would stop at 9pm prompt. As the rest of the band played on gamely, Michael and I would sneak off to the stairway and watch Brideshead Revisited on my portable TV. At 10pm, the rehearsals would resume. Clearly, the spirit of Rock’n’Roll was with us!

Perhaps the most enjoyable studio session was for The Water’s Edge demo EP. In order to initiate a totally different approach to what we did, I suggested that we adopt entirely new identities and act them out during the recording process. Ironically, the result was that freed from being ourselves, we played more like ourselves than ever before.

The end came when Michael and I started writing with Brian Hulse and David K Jones, who had been in the wonderful Liverpool based Post-Punk band A Better Mousetrap with singer Peter Goddard. I felt both bands could have existed side by side, but the other members of ATS 2 weren’t happy about this extracurricular activity. Inspired by Brian and David’s talent and track record, Michael and I took the road to Merseyside, while ATS 2 eventually employed another singer and made a decent demo EP soon after.

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Plenty (May 1987-October 1988):

Like Still’s Tony and Stuart, David and Brian were older, wiser and in possession of intriguing large book and record collections. The music they made was naturally artful and sophisticated and had echoes of many of my favourite artists of the then present, The Blue Nile, Talk Talk, David Sylvian, The Smiths and This Mortal Coil, and the past, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp, Kate Bush, Eno etc.

They were also perfectionists in terms of both production and composition. If much of what I’d written before had sprung from improvisation, the songs I co-wrote with Brian were texturally and compositionally crafted affairs. Wanting to impress people I admired, my lyric writing and vocal melodies improved at a rapid rate. Even today, I’d be happy for any of Plenty’s songs to be heard by a wider audience.

Plenty’s style was a strong influence on aspects of no-man and no-man’s early ballads were a logical continuation of Plenty’s. Two Plenty songs, Life Is Elsewhere and Forest Almost Burning, were staples of the early no-man live repertoire.

While the songs were uniformly strong, Plenty’s flaw was that its productions were too closely tied to the era in which they were made.

DX7, check. Linn Drum, check. Stratocaster, check. Gated chips and cheese, double check. Over-emotive singer with a touch too much of the Scott Walker about him? Why yes indeed, Sir!

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no-man (July 1987-)

I first met Steven Wilson in July 1987. He’d asked After The Stranger to contribute to his Double Exposure compilation album, but as the band had fallen apart, I offered two Plenty tracks instead. Luckily, he seemed to like what he heard.

Following an inspiring two hour phone conversation, in which we discussed the idea of me singing on one of Steven”s solo tracks (the unreleased, Give me The Needle), I made my way from Warrington to Nomansland, Hemel Hempstead. ‘Needle’ was dropped and we wrote two new songs within an hour or so of meeting one another.

We both worked very quickly and could both talk for hours (and hours) about music old and new, fashionable and tragically unhip.

There was little we wouldn’t consider discussing or pursuing musically and that felt like a first for both of us.

We continued to work together over the next year and the resulting work – documented on Speak – was something we both felt excited by.

In October 1988, Steven suggested we take the music we’d been writing more seriously and that we both move to London to pursue ‘the contract’.

This inevitably led to the demise of Plenty, although I sporadically worked with David and Brian on a variety of projects over the next decade and remain in contact with both. Brian is still making excellent solo work, while David is in the very fine Nerve Toy Trio.

25 years later, no-man is still an item.

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30 years on from my faltering beginnings as a singer/musician, I still enjoy making and listening to music as much as I ever did and that’s everything I would have hoped for in those Falklands War/Thatcher/Reagan days.

If nothing else, the above constitutes something of a belated thank you to all the musicians I worked with between 1982 and 1987, all of whom helped shape my tastes and musical abilities in some way. Special thanks go to Stuart Blagden and Brian Hulse for opening me up to so much new music and guiding some of my creative decisions. Mark Olly and Ian Wray also deserve thanks for enthusiastically encouraging me to continue doing what I did/do.

The anniversary band reunions beckon!

Tim Bowness, April 2012