Better Late Than Never
If the bit of paper in my LP sleeve is to be believed, I first heard The Sound when I went to see Eyeless In Gaza - who were supporting them, along with Everest The Hard Way - play at the University of London. 1979 or 1980 I guess [the A4 concert flyer simply says Friday Oct 30th], although there's always the possibility I just picked up the leaflet somewhere and put in my copy of Jeopardy, as I am prone to do [or was when music came in sleeves big enough to use as files for reviews, articles and flyers - one of the reasons I dislike CDs], or that I went to see them having already purchased an album.
Anyway, I can't remember the gig at all, nor can I remember what made me buy a copy of The Sound's first album, especially as Jeopardy comes in what I regard as one of the worst LP sleeves ever: a grim black and white cropped photo enlargement with some collaged dotscreen strips stuck on the front, and a photo of atom bomb testing on the back. Inside, along with the obligatory shadowy band photo, the words WE WILL WAIT FOR THE NIGHT WE WILL WAIT are written along the bottom of the inner sleeve. Every grim cliché an indie rock band could want is here - what a way to start your assault on the pop marketplace!
But, hey, the music is good, especially now on CD. Doomy bass, splintered guitar, busy drums, and some keyboards, behind the star of the mix, Adrian Borland's gloriously serious vocals. Not a million miles away from Echo and the Bunnymen, Comsat Angels and other bands of the time, but with a heart-on-sleeve approach that oozed commitment, seriousness and concern. The only other band as interesting as this were The Passage [who desperately need reissuing!], and they clearly came out of synth pop, whereas The Sound are definitely a guitar band.
In his review of From the Lion's Mouth, their beautifully packaged second album [a golden-toned painting of Daniel in the lions' den across a gatefold sleeve with the lyrics inside], Andy Gill suggested The Sound had a 'minimal, sketch-style approach to music-making', describing them as 'a strong rhythm section overlaid with oblique guitar and keyboard parts'. I'd like to disagree. I think the band made quite a full sound, with the keyboard parts often filling in whole areas I'd quite like to have had left blank. What sounds like a string synthesizer [I'm no keyboard expert] often swathes whole songs in unwanted lushness. But he's right about the guitar, although you might just consider it busy and fragmented, despite the fact that there's plenty of riffing going on in places.
The songs themselves are certainly oblique, with lyrics that hint at grand themes of love, desire and loss, yet can't ever really be pinned down. 'There's a gaping hole in the way we are / with nothing to fill it up anymore / ... we're living like skeletons' declaim the band. Elsewhere there are cheerful ditties about the 'New Dark Age', 'Possession', and 'Sense of Purpose'; only in a few places is there optimism or a positive outcome: 'Winning's refrain of 'but now I've started winning' is rather tempered by earlier advice to the listener: 'what holds your hope together / make sure it's strong enough'. This is a haunted, heartfelt album, sung from what sounds like a private hell, but of course good songs create strong moods, and I wouldn't dream of making it all autobiographical. But it's very convincing, wonderfully miserable music.
All Fall Down is, for me, the low point of the band's recorded output; I got rid of my LP copy a long time ago, soon after buying it. It doesn't sound any better on the CD reissue, and the liner notes here tell of unwanted corporate pressure and commercial expectations that go some way to explaining why it sounds as dull and confused as it does. The cover photo of reflections in smashed glass still looks dreadful too.
Heads and Hearts is now coupled on CD reissue with the mini-album Shock of Daylight - which is slightly plodding and nervous to these ears [and the only time I've ever thought about 'Joy Division' in relation to The Sound], but Heads and Hearts is glorious, a big-sounding swirl of love songs [in the broadest sense - we're not speaking cheerful here!] given a welcome musical helping hand by Ian Nelson [bother of Be Bop Deluxe Bill] on saxophone. The opening track 'Whirlpool' is already cruising along at high altitude when the song starts. The vocals punch in, the drums kick, the saxophone blurts and we're off on a rollercoaster ride of feeling, only occasionally pausing for fragile songs like 'Love is Not a Ghost', which moves from 'Night is falling and I'm falling too' to appropriating 'Molly Malone' for the closing moments... Later on the album, Borland sings of 'the world as it is, sliding in and out of focus', even optimistically concluding that 'The world as we'd have it is the world as it will be', but even this is tinged with melancholia. It should have been huge, but instead seemed to signal the end of the band's studio recording career.
But not, fortunately, for the band or their fans. In The Hothouse is an amazing live recording from The Marquee in August 1985. 15 stonking tracks [now with a couple of bonus 'bootleg' live recordings from the year before] show how versatile, intense and committed this band were. How does a quartet make such complex and layered music onstage? Layered rhythms, effects and counter-melodies from the keyboards, guitar solos and duets, fine vocals... Knockout!
And that was that - until now. Not only have Renascent have added bonus tracks to most of these re-releases [only From the Lion's Mouth stands alone], they've also digitally remixed and issued Propaganda, a never-before-released album from before Jeopardy. Honesty compels me to say it's really of interest only in the context of where the music got to later... In the main it's pop-punk: new wave songs taken at slightly breakneck speed, sometimes straying into rockabilly-meets-Ramones territory! Three of the songs later turned up in different versions on Jeopardy, many of the lyrical themes and concerns would be revisited in less adolescent form throughout The Sound's history. There's no denying, of course, the passion and commitment already showing in these early songs, but I can't honestly encourage you to rush out and buy it.
But you certainly should immediately rush out and purchase Jeopardy, From the Lion's Mouth and Heads & Hearts! And probably the live album, too. The Sound are one of the treasures of the 80s - and now that the music of that 'lost decade' is finally being unearthed, we might see some serious critical reconsideration - better late then never - of what everyone missed first time round.
© Rupert Loydell 2002 2002
Jeopardy, From the Lion's Mouth, All Fall Down, Shock of Daylight/Heads and Hearts, In the Hothouse, and Propaganda are all reissued on CD by Renascent: www.renascent.co.uk