As an early no-man lyric once stated, sometimes, ’Too much life gets in the way.’ Well, that’s my lame excuse for months of non-blogging and I’m sticking to it!
As it’s been such a long wait, here’s a long update.
As mentioned what seems like an age ago, completing Late Night Laments was something I felt compelled to do. Despite the serene nature of much of the material, there was a genuine sense of urgency as regards completing the project.
One of the last songs written for the album – the outtake, Beauty In Decay – came about in early February 2020. The lyrics revolve around the function of art and artists in a time of crisis and though I was partly reflecting on the plight of ‘creatives’ in oppressive regimes, a fair chunk of the emotional inspiration came from my reading the earliest accounts of the Wuhan Coronavirus outbreak and imagining the impotence of ‘decadent’ creativity in the heat of revolutionary changes. Re-reading the lyrics now, for me, they seem to have summed up a big part of my last year fairly well.
After completing the writing for Late Night Laments and the companion outtakes collection Cheerleaders For The Damned, like many people, I felt slightly lost in the currents of history. It’s been a turbulent 12 months and attempting to imaginatively filter the experience of living through ’this’ while trying to maintain creative, working and family lives hasn’t always been easy.
The Album Years – with my old sparring partner Steven Wilson – has been a fantastic means of keeping my ’skin in the game’ during this difficult period. It’s also provided yet another (enjoyable) way of reassessing my tastes (a constant over the years).
Normally by the end of any album, I have one or two projects bubbling away in the background that are ready to grab my attention and become the new focus. As the final note of LNL faded, this time there was nothing.
Between April and September, I recorded a handful of covers with Bobian Hulse just for the hell of it. And that was all. I didn’t feel compelled to write anything new as I didn’t feel I had anything in me to express or the ability to fully concentrate on it if I did have. Even completing books and films became a slog as everything – both internal and external – seemed suspended and impermanent.
Luckily, by September I felt the need to write again. Since that point I’ve written 12 new songs, re-recorded 7 old Plenty pieces and 2 MoM tracks, and contributed to several interesting (and wildly different) sessions. Heck, I also started completing books and finishing films again.
At the beginning of Autumn (or ‘the dawn of Fall’ as the more poetic North American variation has it), the floodgates opened and, thankfully, have remained open since.
Roughly, just under half of the new songs seem like a logical extension of Late Night Laments. The rest are more unexpected, dynamic and rhythmic. Most of the new pieces have been written with the best thing to come out of St Helens outside of Clock Face crisps, Bobian Hulse. Others have been created with synth-maestro Richard Barbieri and rhythm-slave Pete Morgan.
Although I’m strongly drawn to a certain kind of melancholy and glacial serenity in music, this dominant impulse is always (eventually) undercut by a kind of restlessness and creative ADHD. Ultimately, I feel the need to challenge my instincts as much as I feel the need to stay in the same place refining a very specific vision.
On some level, part of me has always wanted to do a Hollis, a Buchanan, a Pärt, a Richter, a Budd and just explore the rich possibilities of a deliberately limited set of sonic approaches and emotional states. It sometimes feels like I could spend my lifetime listening only to the likes of Alina, Pink Moon, Hejira, Sketches Of Spain, the second side of Low, Laughing Stock, Hats, Electric Counterpoint, Vespertine, Secrets Of The Beehive, or the exquisite new Floating Points / Pharaoh Sanders album, Promises: Music that possesses a singular purity of focus and sound. These are the sort of inspirations that underpin Speak, Together We’re Stranger, California, Norfolk and Late Night Laments. After a certain point though, a need for noise and surprise takes over. This part of me is blown away by the likes of Remain In Light, Close To The Edge, On The Corner, For Your Pleasure, Loveless, the first side of Low, The Dreaming, Amnesiac and so on. This is the creative energy that feeds into Wild Opera, Dry Cleaning Ray, Never Trust The Way You Are and Love You To Bits.
Of the sessions (some of which I’m not allowed to mention yet), one is an unexpected Country cover with a well-known guitarist, one is a 17 minute all-star ‘tribute’ (wherein I massacre a Prog classic!), one is a ballad for a Musical, and four – including three with Peter Hammill – are for a Saro Cosentino album (featuring Gavin Harrison, John Giblin, David Rhodes and others). I’ve also recorded a favourite Peter Gabriel piece with Peter Chilvers for an upcoming PG tribute release.
As with It Could Be Home, the recent Plenty re-recordings have been enjoyable and energising. This time we’ve approached the material as we are now. There’s been no attempt to recreate the period 1980s soundscapes of the original recordings or directly ape the spirit of the songs. This is music from the distant past tackled in a contemporary way. Plenty has also recorded a series of unexpected covers which, in all but one case, deviate massively from the source material.
Post It Could Be Home, there’s been more of a sense of abandon in Plenty recordings. ICBH was the album we always wanted to make, realised in the way we felt it should be. It was our imaginary 1988 debut delivered more confidently than it would have been at the time we were an active band. By comparison, for better or worse, the forthcoming Plenty release is a snapshot of where we currently are sonically and emotionally.
2021 is also looking like it’ll be ’the year of the reissue’. The early no-man back catalogue is (finally!) set to come out in a remastered and respectful form. Additionally, the Memories Of Machines album Warm Winter is about to be unleashed again. Remixed and remastered, it features two very sweet new recordings of songs Giancarlo Erra and I wrote around the time we recorded the original album.
One of no-man’s three performance on ITV’s The Beat was recently rediscovered. This was recorded about a week before a disastrous video for Only Baby was filmed.
We were all wearing ‘designer’ outfits (think Seinfeld and his ‘puffy shirt’!) that were foisted on us by the record company who were none too happy with the band’s standard ‘all-black’ uniform. We went around to various designers – including the world-renowned Paul Smith – and ended up being dressed by students at a school of design. Bloody-minded as always, we wore the clothes for this TV appearance only and reverted to type the next time we got together (for the fateful OB video shoot).
I had to sing live against a miming band of Steven Wilson, Ben Coleman and Chris Maitland (his first performance with no-man), but I couldn’t hear myself at all. The music was incredibly loud as it had been left at the volume The Fall, who’d just left the Astoria stage, preferred.
The Fall had taken hours recording their epic version of Lost In Music (the band’s then current single), so we were left – at just after Midnight – with a fractious camera crew and 15 minutes to set up and record three songs (we’d been allocated an hour and a half). Understandably, after dealing with an irascible Mark E Smith and running well over schedule, the crew just wanted to get home. As a result, we got no sound check and no second takes.
The first piece to be recorded (and shown on TV) was Only Baby, which was even more disastrous than the video to come. It was the first time I’d sung the piece live and I couldn’t pitch due to the extreme volume. I knew my performance was bad, but as no-one in the band could hear me, I didn’t know quite how bad it was. The camera crew and ITV sound engineers – desperate to leave – just stuck their thumbs up and said, ‘Great’. Somehow, probably because we’d played the pieces countless times live, I managed to pitch Housekeeping (a favourite no-man piece for me) and Heartcheat Pop pretty much correctly.
The pieces were spread over three episodes and saw no-man perform alongside the likes of other ‘up and coming’ bands including Radiohead (whose version of Creep was fantastic) and legends such as The Fall. Unfortunately, Only Baby was the first song to be broadcast. I was as flat as Flat Stanley wandering around the Norfolk countryside (which is very flat indeed!). For a week, until the broadcast of Housekeeping, people in the band and at the record label avoided me. If they weren’t avoiding me, they were berating me. Even my own then girlfriend wouldn’t look me in the eye for a few days. The (correct) consensus was that I’d single-handedly ruined no-man’s first exposure on national television. The later broadcast of Housekeeping and Heartcheat Pop (all recorded during the same 15 minute slot as Only Baby, of course) somewhat redeemed the situation and later acoustic sessions on the likes of Channel 4’s The Big E were good. Fairly quickly all was forgiven and forgotten. On one level, the experience was hilarious (ridiculous clothes, bad-tempered camera men, the latest victims of Mark E Smith’s whims etc), but on another it was awful. Trivial as it was (and is) in the scheme of things, the week following the broadcast of Only Baby still looms large in my memory!.
Amorphous Androgynous with Peter Hammill – We Persuade Ourselves That We Are Immortal (2020)
Black Country, New Road – For The First Time (2021)
Clark – Playground In A Lake (2021)
Roger Doyle – Time Machine (2015)
Floating Points / Pharaoh Sanders – Promises (2021)
Japan – Quiet Life (deluxe reissue) (1979)
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Sketches Of Brunswick East (2017)
Lightin’ Rod – Hustler’s Convention (1973)
The Moody Blues – Seventh Sojourn (1972)
Jane Siberry – The Walking (1988)
Kevin Barry – Dark Lies The Island (2012)
Peter Guralnick – Feel Like Going Home; Portraits In Blues & Rock’n’Roll (1971)l
R.C. Sheriff – Journey’s End (1928)
R.C. Sheriff – The Hopkins Manuscript (1939)