Sunday 24 May 2015

Chris DE BURGH: Flying Colours

(#373: 15 October 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Sailing Away/Carry Me (Like A Fire In Your Heart)/Tender Hands/A Night On The River/Leather On My Shoes/Suddenly Love/The Simple Truth (A Child Is Born)/Missing You/I’m Not Scared Anymore/Don’t Look Back/Just A Word Away/The Risen Lord/The Last Time I Cried

(Author’s Note: “The Simple Truth” only appears on the CD edition of this album, but is so central to the record’s emotional story that it would be remiss of me to omit it.)

To be considered in conjunction with:


Track listing: Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)/Lose My Breath/Cupid Come/(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream/No More Sorry/All I Need/Feed Me With Your Kiss/Sueisfine/Several Girls Galore/You Never Should/Nothing Much To Lose/I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)

A story here of two Irishmen, neither of whom was born in Ireland and both of whom travelled somewhat before settling in Ireland, not that far away from each other. Chris de Burgh was born in Argentina and spent time in Malta, Nigeria and Zaire before coming to County Wexford; Kevin Shields was born in Queens, New York, and grew up there and subsequently in Long Island before his family moved to Dublin. Both men’s early interests in music were sparked by close encounters with future musicians of note; de Burgh was keen on joining The Perfumed Gardeners, a group run by his peers at Marlborough College, only to be turned down by the group’s leader, one Nick Drake, for being either “too poppy” or “too pushy” (sources vary). Meanwhile, in late seventies Dublin, Shields and his schoolmate Colm Ó Cíosóig put together a punk band called The Complex. On bass they recruited another schoolmate, Liam Ó Maonlaí, but the group split when Ó Maonlaí left to form Hothouse Flowers.

From there we can proceed straight to the two records under consideration here, as this is not an encyclopaedia of rock. Flying Colours came out at the beginning of Ocfober 1988 and is the only Chris de Burgh album to reach number one in Britain; Isn’t Anything appeared seven weeks later, in mid-November, and did not trouble the charts at all until it was reissued in 2012. One received fulsome critical praise; the other was barely mentioned in despatches. But one earned its right to be in this story, and the other only by invitation. The one and the other in these two instances are not the same records.

Yet I believe they are linked. How so? Not just because of the nationalities of the musicians involved (although the two female members of MBV are English) but also because they also represent two extremities of how we view and treat love and our relationships with each other and with the world. One might invoke the old parable of the classicist versus the romanticist, except that there is clearly a lot about Chris de Burgh that is unashamedly romantic, and it is difficult to go through any of Isn’t Anything’s thirteen songs (both albums have an identical number of tracks) without being aware of their “classic” precedents. Or perhaps it’s simply the case that each record is performed at a similarly high level of emotional intensity from two highly divergent angles. Romas Foord’s cover art for Flying Colours suggests somebody taking off from the planet altogether, at a distance, while Joe Dilworth’s treated photos for Isn’t Anything has the group painfully close up, yet smudged and blurred, as if you might only be imagining that you’re looking at it, at them.

Flying Colours strikes me as the work of a deeply worried man.  It is true that at the time de Burgh was only just turning forty (as opposed to Shields’ twenty-five). By now he was the father of two children, his daughter Rosanna and his first son Hubie, as is made evident by the lullaby “Just A Word Away.” So it was probably natural for him to be worried; in addition, given his Irishness, it is important to remember that in 1988 the Troubles were never far away (in the song “A Simple Truth” he sings about “a country torn from the south to the north”), and the spectres of soldiers and war are summoned here twice – and, by implication, also in the quietly defiant song “I’m Not Scared Anymore,” where he is lying in bed with his wife, thinking of their children, and for one rare moment his voice rears up into a roar: “Well I know I’ll protect them with the power of my love/TO THE VERY LAST DROP OF MY BLOOD!”

So much of Flying Colours concerns itself with protecting himself, and his family, from the world of shadows and night. On his own he is not to be trusted; wandering some foreign city in “Sailing Away” he struggles against temptation (“Underneath the red lights, I am watching where the shadows fall”) and only overcomes it with some difficulty (whereas “Don’t Look Back,” the nearest this record gets to uptempo, is a warning against those lights and “red and black” which the narrator, it is implied, fails to resist, with the song’s dying refrain of “I should have known better”). In the record’s most comical moment, “A Night On The River,” he has an argument while nightswimming with his lover, who promptly takes off with both the car and his clothes.

But the record cuts deeper than that. “Tender Hands,” “Suddenly Love” and “Missing You” are love songs from different but parallel angles – the first describes his pained loneliness, the third sees the narrator and his lover reuniting after a long time apart but its music-and-wine scenario is darkened by hints of paranoia (“You see, if I think you are beautiful/Someone else is going to feel it too”). The second, meanwhile, sees him surrendering to a sensual bliss as complete and enveloping as that described in “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)” with a sustained synthesiser dying of the light at the end which put me in mind of American Music Club’s “Last Harbor.”

Elsewhere, “Carry Me” is a moving and obviously heartfelt song about bereavement (“for Mark and Lynda, with love” reads the dedication). The narrator of “Leather On My Shoes” leaves his home, which has nothing concrete to offer him, to travel down an unspecified “freedom road,” possibly the same road the battered, exhausted, hallucinating protagonist of “The Risen Lord” is wandering however many decades later. “The Simple Truth” is the record’s centrepiece, a protest against the Troubles and the wider world running itself down to ruin (“The life of a child is more than a border/The life of a child is more than religion”) and all other twelve songs lead towards or away from it. The closing “The Last Time I Cried” returns to the soldiers/war scenario, and possibly more than that – what the first two verses are implying is pretty frightening – and seeing both the faces of his child and himself in the picture of a soldier, he breaks down: “Eli Eli Lama, Oh Lord, you have forsaken me” – the same words in Hebrew and English. This is not reassuring music.

Certainly, I’m bound to say, it does not reassure me. There is little doubt, listening to the record, that Chris de Burgh is essentially a decent and honourable man, if sometimes a rather silly one. Like Jon Bon Jovi, he knows precisely what his demographic is and how to package his music to reach them – and that’s a rare thing to find in a musician. I would say babyboomers approaching middle age, conservative with a small “c,” perhaps slightly disappointed by both the world and the paths they have elected to take through it, with dimming memories of how things used to be; such people in the eighties would have understood Flying Colours instantly, and these are the people whom de Burgh is trying, with great skill and artfulness – the album sounds spotless and precise, recorded as it was in Zurich with co-producer Paul Hardiman, who once produced Lloyd Cole and The The - to touch and perhaps move.

But I’m just not moved by it. I was certainly never a target listener, and so while I can appreciate what de Burgh is doing, I have to admit that it does not touch me or change the way I walk through the world. Naturally that is down to me and the way I am, rather than any failings on de Burgh’s part, and I hope that this tentative appraisal is of more use than the “oh, Chris de Burgh, hyuk hyuk what a lot of crap” crap that emanates from some unintentionally hilarious commentators; it has always been the purpose of this tale, not to sneer at records, but to find out why they were so popular and what they had to say to evidently so many people.

As I say, however, there is this other Irish record from the autumn of 1988 to consider.

“I'm telling you you're a sick mind
You come back so fine, so fine”
(“(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream”)

There are other ways of going down the railroad tracks and never coming back.  More bad prose has been written about My Bloody Valentine than any other musical artist and I do not propose to add to that pile (indeed, in respect of the interviews which I sourced for this piece, I do not intend to name or shame the journalists who wrote such poor copy – always you have to refer to what MBV themselves say to get to the heart of things). Conversely, no major musical artist is more talked about and less heard than My Bloody Valentine. You will scan the digital likes of 6Music and xfm largely in vain for their music. It does seem that radio, much like the public, has great difficulty acclimatising itself to MBV’s work; there is the residual feeling that even now, more than a quarter of a century on from when this music was conceived and recorded, MBV is a little too disturbing for placid middle-aged radio listeners, represent a bridge that no demographic dares cross. Yes, I got MBV when they happened, and so did all the people I cared and care about...but most, if not actively running away from their music, are passively unaware of it.

How Isn’t Anything works is really very simple.  If its music represents rock stripped of most things that make it “rock” – except, crucially, for the sex – then the record recollects memories of rock as being the only way to push rock forward. This Kevin Shields did by essentially removing all “guitar” from the mix; what you hear is the “reverse reverb” effects unit (the Alesis MIDIverb 1, to be specific, which was bought for the band in error; the unit had no “reverse reverb” facility as such, but Shields was so impressed by the sounds he got out of it that he kept it). In other words you are listening to the “ghost” of a guitar throughout.

Always while listening to Isn’t Anything – largely because of Colm Ó Cíosóig’s aggressive, rhetorical  (“Nothing Much To Lose”) and exceptionally physical drumming – the listener is aware of illustrious sixties (and contemporaneous eighties) influences. But the music of MBV was really unprecedented in rock; the Creation had never done anything like this, and neither had even Sonic Youth. So the songs here are attack without any attacking  - “Several Girls Galore” and “Cupid Come” frankly leave the Mary Chain standing (or sidewalking, albeit entertainingly) – or embrace the listener with a fetid but oddly pellucid closeness that resembles an indistinct but quietly determined whisper in one’s ear.

At its best, as in the single “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, voices and instruments lunge towards the listener from entirely unexpected perspectives, like Sonny and Cher being Doppler tested. The group seem intent on pummelling this desire into the ground – how many beats or breaks does the song need? Not even Hüsker Dü had gone that far. It is as if the kiss is so powerful it will violently dismantle the DNA of the love song for good.

I think the essential difference between this record and Flying Colours is that they stand on opposite sides of the same line in the sand. Flying Colours will never cross that threshold because it sees no need to do so; everything the artist wants to express is expressed plainly and without ceremony. But Isn’t Anything sounds as though it has made the quantum leap to the other side; looking desire and dirt directly in their faces and learning to live with them, allowing their implications to alter the molecular structure of what this music represents. Isn’t Anything comes down on the side of adventure, of risk, facing down the fear of failure.

Those who know and love the record will have their own memories of the time it appeared and how they reacted to it, and – for now – I’m going to keep mine to myself. I will say, however, that my favourite moments of Isn’t Anything are the slower ones; the closing “I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It),” which is almost a flag-waving finale and the closest the record comes to a conventional rock song; the wondrous “All I Need,” powered only by a slightly irregular heartbeat - as atrial fibrillation finally takes hold, the song rapidly fades amidst a sheen of Fairlight, giving us a frustrating glimpse of a future that lies beyond that which this record implies; the staggering “No More Sorry,” its freeform drone fanfares surely inspired by the closing section of Keith Tippett’s Frames and hiding one of the most frightening of all female vocal performances, by Bilinda Butcher (“Filthy Daddy”); and above all the dazed “Lose My Breath” which Butcher sleepily sings as though “rock” is slipping away from her grasp – above all because it is a song about her infant son, Toby, and his asthma. Recorded largely in Wales, as well as a couple of studios in London, over a two-week period on an average of two hours’ sleep per night or early morning, Isn’t Anything is a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of rock of which only the most superficial elements have since been picked up (one Mancunian, twenty-one years old in 1988 and transfixed by this record, springs to mind). I suspect that a surviving forty-year-old Nick Drake would have wasted no time addressing it.

(Envoi: perhaps the deciding factor is the seven-inch instrumental single which came with initial copies of the album. "Instrumental No 1" is a standard MBV "rock" backing track which evidently never received a lyric or any vocals. But "Instrumental No 2" plays like the ghost of rock retreating from the world altogether; wordless choruses - are they voices or effects boxes or both? - intonating a lament over a suspiciously familiar rhythm track. Why, it's "Security Of The First World" by Public Enemy, and it's a small world, after all.)