DIE UNBEKANNTEN were the cult post-punk band formed by Berlin-based Englanders Mark Reeder and Alistair Gray for the legendary ‘Konzert zur Einheit der Nation‘ held in the SO36 club in Kreuzberg on 17 June 1981.
This ‘Concert for the Unity of Germany‘ was recorded for prosperity as the live compilation ‘Licht und Schatten‘ on Wild Youth Records which featured ‘Radio War‘ as Reeder and Gray’s contribution under the moniker of THE UNKNOWN (hence the subsequent German name DIE UNBEKANNTEN)
DIE UNBEKANNTEN’s back catalogue is small with their self-titled and ‘Dangerous Moonlight‘ 12“ EPs released on Elisabeth Recker’s influential Monogam label. Reflecting the times and their surroundings, their music was gloomy and themed around war. One notable track ‘The Game‘, which included an introductory poem by Abu Hamil, offered commentary on how journalists lived off suffering refugees in war torn cities like Beirut or Gaza and the psychological effects it had on them.
Using Reeder’s extensive Eastern European dissident contacts including human rights activist and later President of the post-Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia Václav Havel, DIE UNBEKANNTEN also performed at secret illegal gigs inside the communist bloc. With the advent of programmable drum machines and affordable synths, electronic elements began to creep into DIE UNBEKANNTEN’s sound which became more programmed and dance friendly, so much so that a name change was decided on prior to a European tour opening for NEW ORDER; thus SHARK VEGAS was born.
With the release of an expanded edition of ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’, an album first issued in 2005 collecting both DIE UNBEKANNTEN EPs while also featuring demos, live tracks and specially restored versions created for the documentary film ‘B-Movie (Lust & Sound in West Berlin)‘, Mark Reeder chatted about die Berliner Elektronische und Club Szene and much more…
The name DIE UNBEKANNTEN came about by accident?
Yes, absolutely. When we played our first gig on 17 June 1981 in SO36, we had no intention of carrying the idea of performing any further than that one concert and therefore we had no band name. After seeing a one-off performance together with Monogam’s Elisabeth Recker and Kristoph Hahn (THE SWANS) as LE SANG FROID, I had been asked if I would also like to fill-in on the bill of an upcoming mini-festival, to commemorate the uprising in East-Berlin for the reunification of Germany, on the 17 June 1953. The poster already had a load of fictitious band names on it and being a bit tipsy, I committed myself.
Once home, I realised what I had done and called Al and asked him if he could sing. He came over to my place and I showed him how to play bass and we started to write some songs. After our performance, which we thought was a total shambles, Elisabeth came running up saying she loved it and wanted us to make a record for her label. Thomas Wydler also said he wanted to play drums with us. We were taken completely by surprise.
A favourable review of our concert in the local Zitty Magazine by Andre Schwerdt, praised “the two unknown Englishmen” for their avant-garde performance. In our little circle of friends, we were thereafter referred to amusingly as, DIE UNBEKANNTEN (“The Unknown”) and so I decided, THAT should be our band name.
How was it for you memories-wise to compile this expanded release?
Back in 2005, I was asked by Vinyl-on Demand if they could re-release a Limited-Edition vinyl album, featuring our two Monogam EPs. As bonus tracks, I gave them the Video version of ‘The Game’ and a live-to-mixing-desk recording of ‘Alone’ (which later became the blueprint for ‘Perfect Love’), from a gig that we had performed at in Belgium’s Salle Ex, together with MALARIA! I also gave VoD my original ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’ album cover design idea too, and they produced a lovely record, that sold out almost immediately.
Then in 2011, I started work on the soundtrack for the ‘B-Movie (Lust & Sound in West Berlin)’ documentary, together with my studio partner Micha Adam, and for that, I decided to restore and rework ‘Casualties’ and ‘Radio War’. Sadly, after a break-in of my old apartment in early 1990, all my master tapes and the two 16 tracks tapes were completely destroyed and so we basically only had the vinyl EPs to go on for the restoration.
I did however, find our backing cassette tape of Thomas Wydler’s drums, our drum machine and effects, that we had originally used for our first illegal and highly secret concert in Czechoslovakia, back in 1982, and that also helped a lot with the restoration. So, I had gone through the trauma of revisiting our music already for these projects.
I had originally planned this release on being part of a photo-book with CD special edition back in 2021, to commemorate our 40th anniversary, and so while compiling and writing ‘The Story of DIE UNBEKANNTEN’, I had already plenty of time to reflect and go through the music. Unfortunately, finding an affordable book printer and then the restrictions brought about by Covid took its toll, and the book part never happened. I did meanwhile, discover there were some live bootleg tapes knocking about, that I didn’t even know existed. After a recent trip to Japan and Detroit, I decided to revisit our restorations and release ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’ as a digital album instead.
JOY DIVISION and SECTION 25 appear to loom heavy over the sound of DIE UNBEKANNTEN?
It is probably more like a resemblance to most people. Musically, we are nowhere near. I think it has something more to do with the place, time, era and our musical restrictions, rather than actual inspiration. We certainly didn’t ever intend our music to sound anything like JOY DIVISION or SECTION 25. Although people back in the 80s also made these comparisons, I personally can’t hear any. I feel it was probably more about the fact that we were two Englishmen in Berlin and I was Factory Records German Representative.
How was your relationship with Monogam Records who originally released the self-titled debut EP and ‘Dangerous Moonlight’?
Wonderful; Elisabeth Recker, who started the Monogam Label was without doubt THE most important person of the Berlin avant-garde underground music scene back in the late 70s and early 80s, as she provided the platform for bands like MANIA D, P1/E and EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN to release their music upon.
She is definitely an unsung hero. Monogam was Berlin’s first indie label. We were and still are great friends. Elisabeth was adventurous and she loved the arty and experimental.
I think DIE UNBEKANNTEN EPs were the closest thing to a pop record that Monogam ever released.
The ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’ title song falls under the spell of ‘Other Voices’ by THE CURE and featured a prototype Roland TR606 Drumatix, how did you get hold of one of those?
We got the Roland 606 prototype from Adrian Wright of THE HUMAN LEAGUE. After their minor success with ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ and ‘Love Action’, he had been given this new Roland Drum Computer to test, but he didn’t have the time, and so he asked me if I could test it for him and just let him know how it was. I rushed home and immediately wrote a simple drum pattern and a rough bassline. Al came over and we wrote the song.
We booked two days in Harris Johns Musiclab Studio, and by the end of the session we had recorded and mixed ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’. Alistair finished off the lyrics while I recorded all the music. Danny Briottet from RENEGADE SOUNDWAVE was visiting me in Berlin, and he proposed he play the drum solo, but we had no drums. He found an old cooking pot in my flat and luckily a set of timbales, which were lying about the studio and thus performed the cooking-pot and timbales solo in the middle of the song. Consequently, our ‘Dangerous Moonlight’ EP, became the first record ever to feature a Roland 606.
Drum machine was a characteristic feature of DIE UNBEKANNTEN, how did you find them to use?
For our first gig in SO36, we had no drummer, Thomas Wydler would join us later for the recording of our first EP. We had no intention of doing anymore gigs to be honest, so we just used an MFB drum machine. It was very basic, with a handful of settings (Cha Cha, Disco, Rock, Tango, Bossa Nova).
It was very easy to use, but I still managed to fuck it up for our first gig, by choosing the wrong setting. In reality, all you needed to do was turn the dial to the required style and speed and it played a repetitive pattern. As we only had a few days to write a set, we had cleverly written all our songs on the Disco setting, but in a drunken-stupor-panic, I accidentally turned the selector to Bossa Nova, and we just had to go along with that.
The MFB was an easy drum machine though, there was no programming involved. That came later when we had the 606, which you could programme to play fills and a series of patterns, but it was a total nightmare to programme. If you accidentally tapped in or missed something, you had to start all over again from scratch. Later, we had a Roland 808, then a 707 and a 727.
The “Country & Eastern” bootleg live version of ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’ is hilarious…
Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it. That country version of ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’ was performed just as a one-off surprise. We wanted to give our audience a laugh at the end of our gig. As SHARK VEGAS, we usually performed a Hi-NRG DEAD OR ALIVE-sque version of ‘I Was Made For Loving You’.
As DIE UNBEKANNTEN, we also always tried to leave the stage with the audience laughing. For example, the Salle Ex gig I remember we closed the show by performing the East German National Anthem on Kazoos, sadly the tape was stopped after three songs, so a recording of that performance doesn’t exist, as far as I know.
I thought of it as being a bit like The News, where you have serious reports, but close with a funny story about a puppy. Therefore, after our set of harrowing and miserable depridisco, we thought spirits should be lightened with something amusing. Al and I always thought the song itself sounded more like something you would hear in a Texan red-neck bar, and for that particular gig, we decided to perform it like that, with wrong notes and all. I had no idea that it had been recorded until someone gave me a cassette tape years later.
Photo by Marc Portier
‘Poseidon’ had lyrics in German?
It actually has bilingual lyrics. Half English-half German. We thought, as we have a German name, we might as well have at least one song in German. As it transpired, the song became a bit of both. It was quite fun rhyming English and German.
When did the electronic element start creeping in, like on ‘Perfect Love’?
It was actually always there. We had a Syndrum and a Transcendent 2000 which only made abstract noises. Like the sound of the sea on ‘Poseidon’ was made with the Transcendent. We just didn’t use it much as it didn’t make a smooth string sound.
What other synths were you using?
By the time we came to recording ‘Don’t Tell Me Stories’ and ‘Perfect Love’, we had the Transcendent 2000, a Korg MS20, and a Roland SH-9 and a Clap-Trap.
There’s a “dodgy demo” of ‘You Hurt Me’ included as a bonus, what was influencing you musically by this point?
Al and I were regulars at the Metropol disco every Friday and Saturday night. It was Europe’s biggest gay disco and it had an amazing soundsystem. We were listening to a lot of electronic disco music then and we wanted to be more Moroder than morose.
We were sharing a practice room with Dimitri Hegemann’s band LENNINGRAD SANDWICH at the time, and he had a Korg Poly Six which he didn’t use, so he let us use it. That synth could do everything we had ever dreamed of, and we wrote ‘You Hurt Me’ and all our other songs on that. This “dodgy demo” recording was made on my Sony TCS300 and was just our first test. It always was my preferred version, as it featured the synth and arpeggiator in a more prominent role. A few weeks before we went on European tour with NEW ORDER as SHARK VEGAS, we recorded a proper studio demo, which was eventually released on Factory Records as FAC111.
So how DIE UNBEKANNTEN finally morph into SHARK VEGAS?
I decided to change our band name just before going on a European tour with NEW ORDER in 1984, because I thought no-one would be able to say DIE UNBEKANNTEN. We already noticed that many English speakers would pronounce the “Die” part like “die” as in death, as oppose to “Dee”. So, I thought as we now had two new members joining us on this tour (Leo Walter and Helmut Wittler from SOIF DE LA VIE) we should also change our name and it would also give us the opportunity to present our new Hi-NRG disco style too.
Do you ever regret not getting ‘Love Habit’ and a full SHARK VEGAS album released back in the day or were you just too busy with other things by then?
We definitely had aspirations to make a SHARK VEGAS album and we even made some demos, but I was always unhappy with the way the SHARK VEGAS demos turned out, as I felt our sound had started to become too conventional. It was really a conflict of musical interests. Leo and I wanted to be clubbier, Al wanted to be more soulful, and Helmut wanted us to sound more like SPANDAU BALLET!
We tried a few things out, but to me, they always sounded like something was missing and that was the synth element. I wanted to feature more synths, sequencers and more arpeggiator. After we won the Berlin Senat’s Rock Competition, Helmut and Leo left SHARK VEGAS to concentrate on SOIF DE LA VIE, and Al and I with our winnings, we recorded ‘Love Habit’ and ‘Pretenders of Love’, but only ‘Pretenders’ got released on a Factory US compilation. We recorded a few more song ideas in our practice room for a potential album, but we didn’t have a label, nor the funds to properly record them, and by then Alistair had decided to leave Berlin.
How close was a SHARK VEGAS album to being completed, is there enough for a retrospective?
We had a few demos, but most of the recordings sound like the “dodgy demo” of ‘You Hurt Me’ rather than professional studio demo recordings. Of course, we have about six versions of ‘You Hurt Me’ and the original demo and studio recording of ‘Love Habit’, which was featured on the ‘B-Movie’ soundtrack, and also ‘Pretenders of Love’, which was released on the K7 Fac Dance (Factory) compilation and promoted last Christmas on Noel Gallagher’s Xmas playlist.
I also have a few cassettes of live recordings, mostly made during our tour with NEW ORDER. These all might be restorable for a retrospective at some stage in the future.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Mark Reeder
PORTRAY HEADS were from Matsuyama in Japan and their music is largely unknown, apart from in the collections of die-hard minimal synth enthusiasts.
The musical core of PORTRAY HEADS were Tohru Tomita and Mikiharu Doi who had solo bedroom project called ONANIE BAZOOKA, while the band began with Ayumi Tokunaga on lead vocals.
They only ever had two releases in their day, with the foundations of their myth and legend in underground electronic music built around a superb debut single ‘Elaborate Dummy’, issued rather obscurely on flexi-disc in 1985 by the now defunct Kageroh Records.
PORTRAY HEADS deserve their place in the synth pantheon for ‘Elaborate Dummy’ if nothing else, an exquisitely European sounding tune that was almost Gallic in tone with pulsating synths and electronic crashes, augmented by a spacey cacophony of bleeps and swirls.
However, after ‘Elaborate Dummy’ was unleashed in Japan, Ayumi Tokunaga left PORTRAY HEADS and Yumi Ochi was recruited. Her more contralto delivery suited the reconfigured combo’s darker direction which they were heading in after the comparatively synthpop approach of ‘Elaborate Dummy’. Three tracks were released as the self-released cassette ‘Oratorio’ in 1986.
PORTRAY HEADS were based in a conservative and isolated city on an island many miles from the bright lights of Tokyo, so opportunities to perform live were rare and eventually they disbanded, never to be heard of again until now.
Minimal Wave Records and Bitter Lake Recordings together have compiled the five previously released tracks by PORTRAY HEADS and thanks to the two labels tracing Tohru Tomita, have appended them with demos featuring both Ayumi Tokunaga and Yumi Ochi (including five previously unheard songs) for a double vinyl LP collection.
It all begins naturally with ‘Elaborate Dummy’ and this cult classic is worth the purchase price alone, sounding better than ever, now remastered for solid vinyl and digital. But another jewel is ‘Watch Your Scope!’ which was the B-side and a perfect partner with its glorious arpeggios and analogue keys coming together in the quirky vein of MATHEMATICS MODERNES or VIENNA.
Following the departure of Ayumi Tokunaga, material from ‘Oratorio’ like ‘夢を夢に’ was more austere, thanks to Tohru Tomita’s use of bass guitar and the deeper tones of Yumi Ochi who opted for her vocal expression to be in Japanese. The highlight though was ‘浮かぶ·迷う·漂’う’, a fabulous exercise in art industrial coming over like IPPU DO meeting SPK during their Sinan Leong fronted phase.
Despite the title, ‘Industrial Eye’ was less so in approach, but still took on a doomy demeanour with an unsettlement that was undeniably less immediate than the Ayumi Tokunaga voiced period. Although eventually pressed on 7” vinyl, ‘Oratorio’ was more lo-fi, sounding like it was struggling to jump off its source tape and for many, this will be the appeal and charm listening in 2020, although others may find this aspect more challenging .
Appended with unreleased material featuring both vocalists, from the Ayumi Tokunaga period, the percolating ‘舞い上がれ’ still sounds French despite being in Japanese and although the electronic backdrop is appealing and exhibits potential, the live percussive clatter from fourth member Tatsuyuki Okiura proves to be a distraction. There’s also an Ayumi Tokunaga fronted demo of ‘Industrial Eye’ which adopts a higher pitched vocal range.
Meanwhile, ‘操り人形’ features a gloriously out-of-tune synth solo and the Middle Eastern flavoured ‘Generation Stor’ captures an interesting use of drum machine distortion on the kick to form a mutant bassline.
Although there are the typical octave shift driven dark disco experiments of the era, there were already indications of a move into the more leftfield territory of the Yumi Ochi phase, which is represented by three alternate versions of other tracks already on the compendium, all of which display the heavy melancholic resonances captured on ‘Oratorio’.
One noticeable observation is PORTRAY HEADS had much in common with the independent European electronic music from the Cold War era. After all, Japan had China, North Korea and the Soviet Union all within close proximity and those tensions were more than reflected.
35 years on, PORTRAY HEADS deserve recognition for their creative efforts alongside the big city projects like YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA and their Alfa Records cohorts in the development of Japanese electronic pop. For their opening salvo of ‘Elaborate Dummy’ and ‘Watch Your Scope!’, PORTRAY HEADS are up there with the best of post-punk synth.
This release by Minimal Wave and Bitter Lake Recordings goes some way in providing another part of the jigsaw. While the sound quality is variable and actually got worse as the band moved into a form of proto-darkwave, what was not in doubt is their electronic punk spirit, even though it was short-lived.
Behind the persona of BELOUIS SOME was Londoner Neville Keighley who released his debut album ‘Some People’ in 1985.
Best known for the classic single ‘Imagination’, the accompanying boundary breaking (for the time) promotional video included full frontal nudity.
Over his three albums, Keighley worked with a stellar roll call of musicians including Bowie guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, Guy Fletcher of DIRE STRAITS and CHIC’s Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson.
After a break of 25 years, BELOUIS SOME has recently returned to the live arena and Neville Keighley kindly spoke about his career, the challenges of getting signed, working with the late iconic PINK FLOYD artist Storm Thorgerson, plus his early links with DURAN DURAN and a fledgling TEARS FOR FEARS.
Who were your initial musical influences?
In the 70s, like everyone I guess, I was obsessed by music, the stuff older kids were listening to like JETHRO TULL, early GENESIS, LED ZEPPELIN etc. But then at age of 12-13, it was ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and I was off!
What was the early link between you and TEARS FOR FEARS?
My friend had an uncle who signed them to a publishing deal as the band GRADUATE, so I knew them and when I did some demos at a studio in Bath with Manny Elias on drums, they joined in with backing vocals.
What made you choose an alter-ego rather than releasing songs under your real name?
I was a solo artist and it was impossible to get a record deal as one; also no-one took new solo artists seriously… eg singer / songwriter stuff. Also I was always playing live so wanted a name that was ambiguous, plus my real name is a real mouthful. I had very few knock backs after I changed my name, put a band together and started playing live, but that was 5 years in!
What was the pathway that eventually got you signed to a major label and how were DURAN DURAN involved?
DURAN DURAN’s managers, the Berrow brothers, signed me to their publishing label and although I signed to EMI via Parlophone, they weren’t the only label involved by that stage. They were a great label to be with.
How did you manage to hook up in the States with guys of the calibre of Carlos Alomar, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson?
I had been recording my first album in London for a while and I wasn’t happy with it, it sounded too ordinary!
Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero had just remixed TALK TALK’s ‘It’s My Life’ and the record company suggested they remix one of my tracks.
I went to New York, it was obvious I wasn’t happy with my album so we agreed that if they could put together an amazing band, I could persuade Parlophone to let me re-record a track with them producing. Eventually we did 6 or 7 songs…
Was it nerve-wracking being in a studio environment with musicians that had played with Bowie and CHIC?
No, I was so relieved and grateful to be re-recording the songs, I didn’t have time to be nervous. Parlophone weren’t going to let me carry on forever. By this time, I knew what I wanted and the musicians were amazing people as well as players. I still remember the look on the record company’s face when I walked in and played ‘Imagination’!
This was a time when some bands went fully electronic, what made you stick primarily with more of a band aesthetic?
I’m still called ‘electro pop’ etc and never understood why, because I’ve always been band focused…
You are best known for the song ‘Imagination’, do you think the extended 7 minute “saucy” promo helped or hindered the success of it?
I didn’t care. I knew EMI would go berserk and they did when they saw it! Luckily as soon as they sent it out to the clubs, the reaction was amazing. British TV didn’t like it, but European TV did!
The director Storm Thorgerson was best known for his legendary album cover designs for artists such PINK FLOYD, but also worked on several promos for artists such as Nik Kershaw and Paul Young. How was the experience of working with him?
I wanted to do something special and Storm Thorgerson was an amazing man, he’d just started making videos. He was very creative and a bit difficult, but I loved working with him. We had to keep it all secret because of the storyline.
The video for ‘Some People’ that was shot in Clacton and Alburgh is more obviously ‘Thorgerson’ than ‘Imagination’ with that PINK FLOYD-ish surrealist edge to it. Do you have any specific memories of making it?
We took over the whole place over for a few days, the video was a Swatch Watch TV commercial for the USA as well. The ‘Some People’ video confused a lot of people! Not what they were expecting and it did much better in the USA than ‘Imagination’.
Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson from THROBBING GRISTLE shot the video, were you aware of his alter-ego at the time?
No, but he was a very charming man.
How was the experience of supporting Nik Kershaw?
This was my first time out in theatres in 1984, it was a great experience!
You toured the US in 1985 supporting FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, one can only imagine it wasn’t a sedate affair? What are your memories of those dates?
My band held their own!
In 1986, you played in front of your biggest crowd yet at Knebworth opening for QUEEN, a trouser soiling prospect if ever there was one? But the crowd were quite hostile to you weren’t they?
It’s funny how people ask this, I’d played constantly for 3-4 years and in some really grisly venues, the 120,000 Knebworth audience were great.
There were some people in the audience who caused a bit of trouble but they can’t have been QUEEN fans. I had a great time.
You gamely performed ‘Target Practice’ as the missiles were flying, was it as dangerous as it appeared on the big screens at Knebworth?
The first time I sang ‘Target Practice’ was at Glasgow Apollo on a Saturday night, I realised then what was going to happen… audience participation!
Having read some of your earlier interviews at the time of ‘Imagination’, you come across as pretty ‘rock n roll’! What are your opinions of today’s music artists and the way they portray themselves in the media?
I think social media means everyone has to be a bit careful and behave themselves.
We didn’t have this problem in the 80s!
Looking back, what is the standout experience of your music career?
Meeting and working with so many great people, also performing your own songs to any audience is such a privilege.
You disappeared off of the musical radar for a while, what were you doing at the time?
It was pretty obvious in the 90s that what I did wasn’t getting a fair chance so I buggered off.
You returned to paying live recently, how does the experience of this differ with your earlier live experiences?
I went on stage this summer with the ‘Let’s Rock 80s’ summer festivals, my first time in over 25 years.
Is there any chance of any new BELOUIS SOME material on the horizon?
I hope so!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to BELOUIS SOME
From Livingston in West Lothian to the concert arenas of the world, the rise of David John Cicero into the pop charts was swift.
A fan of synthpop and dance music, Cicero began writing songs and making music in his bedroom, aided by advancements in technology such as affordable samplers and sequencing software. Following a PET SHOP BOYS concert in 1989, he managed to get a demo tape to the duo.
Before two could be divided by zero, Cicero was offered a record deal with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s new record label Spaghetti Records imprint which was being set up via Polydor Records.
Although the excellent debut single for both Cicero and Spaghetti Records ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You Back To Me’ failed to chart, it brought the young photogenic Scot to the attention of radio programmers and press. So when his PET SHOP BOYS produced second single ‘Love Is Everywhere’ was released in late 1991, it eventually reached No19 in the UK charts.
The album ‘Future Boy’ and ‘Live For Today’, a wonderfully cinematic contribution to the Oscar nominated film ‘The Crying Game’ followed, but then record company politics intervened and contributed to a stall in momentum.
Although later, there was a UK tour supporting TAKE THAT plus the independently issued singles ‘Summertime’ and a cover of SOFT CELL’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, as the new millennium loomed, Cicero opted to disappear from public view.
But now in 2019, as his former mentor Neil Tennant used to say when he was Assistant Editor of Smash Hits, Cicero is “Back-back-BACK!”.
With the release of his appropriately titled new single ‘Turned Around’, Cicero kindly spoke about his album ‘Future Boy’, working with PET SHOP BOYS, briefly being a pop pin-up and his return to music…
At a time when affordable electronic music technology was making acid house and techno a cultural reality, you opted to do pop songs, so who were your main influences in that respect?
I was going to clubs in my late teens and listening to house music like ‘Jack Your Body’ and ‘House Nation’ the early stuff and thinking “wow I want to do that”. When moving to Livingston when I was 17, the Scottish radio was full of RUNRIG, HIPSWAY, DEACON BLUE etc, mostly rock pop stuff. Nobody really from Scotland at that time was playing electronic music, in the mainstream anyway.
The club I went to called ‘Melvilles’ at the time (now a church lol) was playing all types of music including HI-NRG like “I was a male stripper in a go go bar” (not me, that was the name of the song ?) and tracks like “Boom Boom, let’s go back to my room” and I loved them. It was the energy they gave off on the dancefloor, just like house music which was uplifting, almost trance like. They also played a lot of electronic bands like OMD, PSB and VISAGE.
Can you remember your first synth or keyboard? What was it like to use?
The first keyboard was a small Casio which had built-in speakers and drums etc, not that great at sounds but you could play about with them to make better ones. It did not have any phono outputs, so I had to tape a microphone to its speaker when doing my early gigs.
What was your set-up when you were producing the demos that would eventually become ‘Future Boy’?
By the time I was working on ‘Future Boy’, I had my Korg T3 and an Akai sequencer, an Akai sampler and a rack mount synth which was by Roland.
It was a long process when writing tunes as you could not copy and paste stuff, it was all step-sequenced so you had to build the tracks part by part which was pain staking at the time.
I also had an old Atari monitor when moving on to Cubase later which was so much better.
How did you come to the attention of PET SHOP BOYS?
They were playing at the SECC in Glasgow, I remember playing ‘Please’ constantly and loved every song. I carried my demo tape with me everywhere I went. We were listening in the car going to the gig and whilst waiting in the venue, my friend Ali bumped into Pete who was their PA at the time (later to be my manager) and said “you’ve got to listen to this, it’s similar to the PET SHOP BOYS!”.
At the time, I had only written ‘Love Is Everywhere’, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Cloud 9’. We were invited to meet them after the show and it was awesome. A month later Pete called me and said “you better start working on an album, the boys want you down in London”, the rest is history.
‘Heaven Must Have Sent You Back To Me’ was a fine debut single in anyone’s books, exactly what one would imagine Spaghetti Records to be about?
Yes Neil and Chris loved ‘Heaven’ and wanted it out first. Spaghetti Records was something they both created at the time to go with the Italian connection surname that I had. They later added more artists to the label.
You’re best known for your hit ‘Love Is Everywhere’ which looking back now, is quite a bizarre song sounding like THE PROCLAIMERS meeting PET SHOP BOYS and OMD with bagpipes and The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo thrown in for good measure… how did this come together in your head and then in the studio?
Haha, yes there is quite a mixture of styles in that tune. I always wanted it to be a Scottish anthem sounding tune and had a crap bagpipe sample playing the main part, but it all just worked. When doing my early gigs, it was the song that got everyone pumped and went down rather well.
When in the studio with the boys, they wanted real bagpipes so we got some guys in to play it, but the bagpipes needed tuning to the correct key to fit the track. Neil also decided to add his backing vocals to it which lifted the chorus to another level. Thinking back, it was all experiments which the boys had fun being involved in.
Had it been the intention for PET SHOP BOYS to be involved in the production of ‘Love Is Everywhere’?
Yes from the get go, it was probably one of the first we started working on in the studio when putting together ‘Future Boy’.
With it, you became a pop pin-up with a ‘Smash Hits’ front cover, how did you find the adulation and also being on TV?
I loved every minute of it; I remember rushing to the newsagents to buy a copy when I was told I was in a magazine.
You have to love it, it’s all about you and if you don’t like it, why are you doing it? Being on TV was amazing too and at the time I always wanted to be on ‘Top Of The Pops’, I was on it but only a few seconds of the video to ‘Love is Everywhere’ as it was the highest climber that week. I was told I was going on the show the following week, but later that week we were told that Michael Jackson was releasing a bloody 10 minute video which they decided to premiere on the show instead!
‘That Loving Feeling’ was also produced by PET SHOP BOYS, what was it like working with them? Are there any funny stories you can recall?
Yes let me get it straight, these boys are so talented, the ideas at the time were flowing and me, being young and naïve, did not respect that as much as I do now. They were the biggest names in the pop industry and they were producing some of my songs! Don’t get me wrong, I was loving every moment of it and thought it was amazing and looking back now it all seems like a dream.
Chris was the joker, he would just come out with some random stuff which would get us all laughing; Neil too, I loved it when he would go off on one about some of the artists at the time in the charts who he thought were not deserving (I will not mention any names).
It was a shame ‘That Loving Feeling’ didn’t hit the same heights as ‘Love Is Everywhere’, why do you think that might have been?
It was all down to distribution at the time, you’ve got to remember we did not have social media to help push sales. Even though Spaghetti was my label, Polydor were the main backing / distributors and were not getting the records out to all the shops in time. This was really out of Chris and Neil’s control and should have been handled better by Polydor.
My bother and others that were contacting me were saying the stores were not stocking it or were waiting on stock coming in. At the time, you needed to sell a lot of records to even get into the Top 100 and I just missed the Top 40 which was a bummer but it never stopped me carrying on.
‘My Middle Class Life’ had an air of VISAGE about it?
Did it? *laughs*
I do like VISAGE. That was written when I was a waiter back in the days of getting sh*t from customers. I would go into my staff room and write it out on a napkin. A few songs were written there.
There is some great brassy freeform synth playing on the rugged album closer ‘Future Generations’, an art which had sort of disappeared during those dance years?
That was a track written when I was coming down to London and seeing all the homeless / red light areas which I never experienced back home. We wanted the album to have an emotional ending to it, inspired by ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ by PINK FLOYD, the female vocals are stunning… I wanted that similar vocal effect at the end of my tune.
The excellent electro instrumental ‘Sonic Malfunction’ was a last minute addition to ‘Future Boy’, why had it felt necessary to add further tracks?
I did a lot of instrumental tracks too back in the day, it was one of those songs that Neil and Chris liked and wanted to add it to the album. (Check out my YouTube page for the new mix I did). They wanted to also show I suppose, the other side of Cicero which is not always pop. We did not want to overdo the album with instrumentals… we were keeping them for the B sides ?
On B-sides like ‘Mind The Gap’, ‘Splatt’ and ‘Jungilism’, you were able to let your more clubby instincts run wild?
Yep, again it was all about showing another part of Cicero and it was great having full control to experiment with songs like that.
We had a great laugh making them and loved playing with new technology in the studio.
How do you look back on the ‘Future Boy’ album? Which were your own favourite tracks?
I still think its timeless, I think it’s one of those albums that still sounds like some of the songs that are out there today, hell I may have even influenced them in some way ?
I don’t have any faves, I like them all but ‘Then’ was the one that I loved to listen to on repeat. Yes I sometimes still listen to it for inspiration. Is it bad to be a fan of your own music? If you’re not a fan of your own music why the hell are you doing it then!
‘Live For Today’, your contribution to the PET SHOP BOYS produced soundtrack to ‘The Crying Game’ is considered to be your best song; with that soulful counterpoint from Sylvia Mason-James, was this indicative of the direction you would have gone in for the second album?
Yes probably, we were going in a more orchestrated feel at the time but I was under no impression to change my music drastically compared to ‘Future Boy’
Some perceived you as a PET SHOP BOYS side-project… in hindsight, do you think the association helped or hindered you? Is there anything you’d have done differently?
Hey, I was their prodigy, they found me and I found them, it’s all about fate. I may have made it without the lads, but having them help me and to be part of it was something I would never change.
You also supported TAKE THAT on tour. Looking back, was it the right fit as it didn’t appear to revive your fortunes? How did you find the experience overall for you?
I loved being on tour with the boys, we were good friends and thought it would be a good surprise having me part of the show, we talked about it way back before they became famous. It was never a plan to revive my career but the response I got was overwhelming from the fans.
In 1996 you released a cover of SOFT CELL’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’? What is it about that song for you personally which you loved?
It was one of those songs when I first listened to it that made me relate to it a bit, but I always thought it would be a good dance tune.
Publically, it looked like you’d gone under the radar after that, what happened then?
I was and still am making music, I just wanted a break from it all. I went through quite a low time which I will not get into after my pop career. Later my lovely daughter was born who was 11 weeks premature. This was worrying times as she was in the hospital for a long time when she was first born so I stopped doing music until she was older.
I started doing music with a DJ friend of mine Paul Mendez, writing trance tunes under the name JACOB & MENDEZ. I also have a few albums out under the name THE EVENT which tracks have appeared on some independent films. I was always writing, always going on and never giving up.
You’re now back with a new single ‘Turned Around’ and it’s like you’ve never been away. What made you feel this was the right time to make a return to music?
I had released a couple of songs prior to this called ‘Face This World Alone’ and ‘Wish’, but was getting a lot of people asking when I was going to sing again. I wanted to put a song together that meant something to me and what a lot of others could relate to. I just wanted everyone to know I was back, but not really been away.
Is the current environment where an artist has more control over their music with regards self-releasing more suited to your ethos?
It’s a great time for independent artist who can now more easily set up their own label. I love having full control now, most artists if you ask them would love that, you can express your true music that way, it’s not controlled and it’s not all about making money like most big named record companies are only after these days. Just listen to the amount of sh*t that is out there.
How do you feel about the music industry today compared with back then?
Don’t get me started, it sucks, we are controlled into having to listen to what they decide is good. Everyone is expected to follow like sheep and listen to the same type of music as everyone else. Back in the 90s, music was so uplifting, nowadays it’s all so depressing. It’s like they want us all to be depressed. They control the big radio stations now and any small independent band does not have a chance… unless you get signed to them.
Photo by Neil McDade
You recently gave your first live performance for many years in aid of MacMillan. How does it feel to be playing live again?
It was one of the best nights of my life. It was something I planned a few years ago after doing a remake of ‘Cloud 9’. All of my original material was done on floppy drives, so I had to reprogramme everything from scratch for the live show.
The response and feedback has been amazing. It’s given me the buzz again and you never know, I may just have to do another.
So what’s next for you then, your hopes or fears?
I may do some more live gigs. I am now working on an album, it’s not ‘Future Boy 2’ but it’s still going to have that Cicero feel to it with a more up to date cutting edge sound. Back in the 90s, we were limited to technology but we made it sound the best we could back then. The new album may not be out until later next year ‘cause I want to take my time to make sure I am happy with it first and hopefully you are too.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to David Cicero
ROB DEAN is best known as a member of the classic quintet line-up of JAPAN with David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri which acted as the blueprint for DURAN DURAN.
Hackney-born Dean had been recruited by the four Catford boys via an advert in Melody Maker. Although he had already left the band by the time of their wider breakthrough in Autumn 1981, his six-string made a prominent contribution to some of the band’s best known singles like ‘Life In Tokyo’, ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘I Second That Emotion’. Dean was one of the first exponents of the EBow, a battery-powered hand-held monophonic electronic device which produced a powerful infinite sustain that was rich in harmonics.
It therefore allowed for a variety of sounds on a guitar not playable using traditional strumming or picking techniques; other users of the EBow included Bill Nelson, The Edge, Stuart Adamson, Paul Reynolds and Wayne Hussey.
Featuring on four of JAPAN’s five studio albums, Dean had found himself marginalised by David Sylvian’s artistic pursuit of a more minimalist keyboard based sound during the recording sessions for his final record with them, ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, resulting in him appearing on just four tracks.
After JAPAN, Dean worked with GARY NUMAN, SINÉAD O’CONNOR and ABC while he was also formed the Australian connected bands ILLUSTRATED MAN and THE SLOW CLUB.
Now resident in Costa Rica, the guitarist kindly chatted at length about his time in JAPAN and his return to music with a brand new project LIGHT OF DAY…
Much had been made of your resemblance to Sylvain Sylvain, had you actually been a NEW YORK DOLLS fan?
The simple answer is no. I remember seeing them on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and thinking how they were fun to watch and decidedly trashy, but it didn’t make me want to rush out and buy their album or go and see them live. The truth is my hair (in those days at least!) was naturally very curly and so when I grew it long, which was ultimately a pre-requisite for being part of JAPAN really, obviously it had a Bolan / Sylvain look. The make-up obviously helped promote this further.
As time went on, I appreciated them a bit more. I remember I was once at Max’s Kansas City in NYC chatting with the club’s co-owner and the subject of Sylvain came up. She said he was usually around somewhere.
I thought no more about it and as I was outside the club about to leave, she emerged dragging a very drunk individual by his jacket sleeve. It was Sylvain Sylvain – she wanted so desperately for him to meet me. I’m guessing he didn’t remember our encounter!
How comfortable were you with the early look of JAPAN and being in the public eye with it?
I was fine with it. JAPAN were my first band really and therefore it was easy to get caught up in the whole image thing (we had a record deal! we played gigs!). Where I was least happy was traveling on a bus or the tube to a rehearsal or business meeting where I became (understandably) self-conscious about it. It was ok for the others, they all lived close to each other and travelled together all the time, usually in Rich’s small car, but I lived on the other side of London and so it was a bit more awkward.
When JAPAN scored their initial success in Japan with the ‘Adolescent Sex’ album and went from playing pubs in Britain to the Budokan in Tokyo, how did you find having to deal with screaming girls at your shows?
You can’t really explain the buzz of that initial reception getting off that plane in Tokyo for the first time and being greeted by a mob of screaming fans. Leaving the hotel discreetly by back exits, bodyguards accompanying you everywhere on shopping excursions…
It was nuts really, decidedly unreal. The first night we were invited by our promoter Mr Udo to see Linda Ronstadt at the Budokan. No sooner had we entered the vast auditorium, Ms Ronstadt and band already in full swing, than by our presence alone we unwittingly had caused a mini-riot and were forced to leave in order for the concert to continue.
As far as our own shows went, although somewhat otherworldly to be exchanging a couple of hundred people at the Marquee club for two 10,000 seat sold out shows at the Budokan, it never really felt that it was anything but deserved. By the end of the first tour we had become quite blasé about the whole experience. It was a huge confidence builder though.
Is it true that wrestler Kendo Nagasaki was involved in some rather bizarre UK promotion of that album?
Yes, he was hired to promote the first album, delivering it by hand to all the disc jockeys and record promoters in his full wrestler’s regalia. All that sort of guff was entirely out of our hands as was the poster campaign and the promotional phallic cardboard sword with a huge erect penis on the reverse!
What were the pros and cons of having someone like Simon Napier-Bell as a manager?
The pros? I’m not sure in hindsight. He was clearly an old school manager with all the baggage that that comes with. Initially I think we felt that having a manager with such a reputation could only be a good thing and we were so green then that we just rode along with it all and trusted that he had our own interests at heart.
The blatant Far Eastern connotations, all of that was out of our control really. We trusted that it was what needed to be done to get us noticed and recognised. Which we certainly were but perhaps initially not in the way we had hoped.
All of the press hated any act being thrust down their throats and so having our painted faces and lewd posters plastered all over London unquestionably did more harm than good, particularly in the punk era!
I don’t think for one moment we were embarrassed by it however, not then anyway. The T-shirts with the band name spelled out with people and animals f***ing did take it a bit too far though…
The other thing that has lingered with me and possibly now I feel more regrettable than the rest was the blatant lies, the fabrications about the band that placed us in a position that was virtually impossible to get out of.
The ‘Most Beautiful Man in the World’ tag on David Sylvian which had no founding in reality and was created purely to put us on the pages of The Sun newspaper for example; something to be proud of? No, I don’t think so. For a few years that promotion machine was in fabrication overdrive and ultimately it comes down to one person, Simon Napier-Bell…
Photo by Watal Asanuma
JAPAN’s first major tour was opening for BLUE OYSTER CULT in 1978, do you have any amusing memories of it, as the audiences were said to be quite hostile?
We had supported on a smaller yet no less incongruous Uni tour before that with Jim Capaldi’s band which included Alan Spenner and Neil Hubbard whose work as sidemen we would come to admire later on, not to mention the Kokomo singers, who appear on the recorded version of ‘European Son’.
As to BOC, it was our first time playing on the larger theatrical stages and our largest audiences so far, so we certainly looked forward to that. Although we weren’t playing to anything close to our own audiences, the only time they got really hostile and vocal was when we played the song ‘Suburban Berlin’.
As the tour continued, David encouraged us to lengthen the instrumental section and bring it down almost to a whisper, (which was the crowd’s opportunity to loudly voice their displeasure with us, the longer the better, which they indeed did do), before the song exploded into a huge round of final refrains.
On the last night of the tour, the road crew used that hushed silence and the explosive end to unleash all of the pyrotechnics and fireworks that they had remaining from the tour. All at once! Consequently we were all completely covered in ash, not to mention virtually deaf from the explosives. The other thing I remember was getting in the hotel lift with Buck Dharma for the first time and realizing that the lead guitarist of BOC was essentially a midget. Fond memories…
‘The Tenant’ instrumental that closed the ‘Obscure Alternatives’ album was a pivotal point in JAPAN changing their sound and saw you using an EBow for possibly the first time?
No it wasn’t an EBow; I don’t think they were actually available or that I was even aware of their existence at that point. But I did want a very Fripp-like thick sustained sound. We had been listening particularly to the ‘Heroes’ album then and so he was a strong and obvious influence on my playing moving forward.
What was it like to record ‘Life In Tokyo’ with Giorgio Moroder in Los Angeles as it was a radical new direction for JAPAN at the time?
We were all fans of the ‘Midnight Express’ film and soundtrack, which had just won Giorgio Moroder an Oscar, so the notion of flying to LA to record with him was an exciting one. I personally also really liked the work he had been doing with Donna Summer too. Combined with the heavy presence of KRAFTWERK and YMO in our album collections, it felt like the next logical step and we were banking on it causing us to break through in the pop market, which if we were to stay with our current record company, Hansa we would need to do.
So we flew over for about 5 days staying at the Beverly Hilton, no less. The song started life as an idea on a cassette that Giorgio had thought of using for the Jodie Foster movie ‘Foxes’, which David had fashioned quickly into a song.
In the studio, Giorgio had a drumkit set-up with ‘his’ sound and in fact it was a very controlled recording environment, leaving little to error.
For his trademark sequencer sound, he brought in Harold Faltermeyer who at the time was his keyboard programmer. Harold laid down the part by playing it manually with a slap delay of equal volume which I think surprised us all, as we presumed it would be an actual sequencer but that human element was actually at the core of Giorgio’s sound. He also had his trio of backing singers who had appeared on all the Donna Summer hits, amongst others.
The sessions went so quickly that all, or at least most of the instrumental parts were finished in a single day. The next day was left for final vocal and mixing. It was enjoyable, but there was no mistaking who was in control and the efficiency on display made it feel more like a demo session really.
Had the single been a hit, then I suppose it could have been possible that Giorgio would have been asked to produce the album. Had that been the case, ‘Quiet Life’ would have been a very different beast.
‘Quiet Life’ saw you moving from a recognisable and traditional lead style into something more textural, had there been any particular guitarists who influenced you?
Although there had been plenty of solos in my work in the past, I always felt that my playing was at its best when it was servicing the song rather than sticking out, in a similar way to that of most of George Harrison’s work in THE BEATLES.
At that time due to his remarkably distinctive work with DAVID BOWIE, PETER GABRIEL, DARYL HALL and BLONDIE amongst others, Fripp was my biggest influence and possibly remains so even now. I was also influenced by Phil Manzanera, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Ricky Gardiner and John McGeoch during that album.
Despite the fraught tensions during the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ album sessions, ‘Swing’ and ‘Methods Of Dance’ were exemplary examples of JAPAN firing on all cylinders, can you remember much about recording those two tracks?
Both of those tracks were pretty much finalised in rehearsals leading up to the album sessions at The Townhouse and AIR. So my contributions to both tracks in the studio were executed quite swiftly and efficiently with little fuss or struggle. The most effective songs in JAPAN’s repertoire were generally executed this way. There was one song, ’Angel In Furs’ which we had rehearsed to a similarly honed degree but which when we entered the studio suddenly seemed too obvious and simplistic when compared to the rest, and so it fell by the wayside very early on.
‘Some Kind Of Fool’ is the great lost JAPAN track and was replaced on the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ album with ‘Burning Bridges’. What were your memories about the song and its non-appearance on the album?
Unquestionably, it is a beautiful song. I struggled to find parts for it that didn’t intrude on its simple flow but eventually found parts that I was happy with.
After that, Ann O’Dell’s strings were added and it was at that point that David decided not to pursue recording it further, the main reason being I believe, that with the strings, it began to resemble ‘The Other Side Of Life’ too closely arrangement-wise which actually I can see was a very valid point.
I think in David’s head he was very conscious of the possibility of ‘Polaroids’ becoming ‘Quiet Life Part II’ which none of us wanted, although recording the majority of it at AIR and having the familiar figure of John Punter in the producer’s chair didn’t help.
In some ways, we wanted that easy relaxed camaraderie but that time had passed. Ironically the JAPAN version with a couple of embellishments and a re-recorded vocal eventually found its way onto the Sylvian compilation ‘Everything & Nothing’ but under his name alone, rather unfairly. Surprisingly, the guitar parts which I struggled over remain intact too. Anyone listening to this is essentially listening to an updated version of the original JAPAN band version.
You wrote the JAPAN B-side ‘The Width Of A Room’ but perhaps surprisingly, it was recorded using keyboards rather than guitar, was this more filmic direction something you would have liked to take further had there been an opportunity?
I was always the film buff in the band. Days off would invariably find me in one art house cinema in London or another. On our first Japan trip myself and Pip, the lighting director sneaked off for a screening of ‘Raging Bull’ which was not due to be released in the UK for several months.
Photo by Nicola Tyson
During the recording of ‘Polaroids’, I would slip away for a couple of hours to catch a new film on many occasions. For the release of the two-pack single of ‘Polaroids’, it was suggested that we all come up with a suitable instrumental track as a B-side.
I wrote ‘The Width Of A Room’ on an acoustic guitar in an open tuning. When it came to the recorded version however, I was the one who was most adamant that it be exclusively a keyboard piece, even though I was encouraged to add some guitar.
I think I wanted it to fit in, rather than someone to say, “Oh that must be the guitarist’s track”. Later when I lived in LA, I did work on a film score with a friend. The movie was some dreadful Charlie Sheen B-movie whose name I have conveniently forgotten and I learned quite quickly that writing music to express emotions that I wasn’t feeling was not something I could really enjoy doing.
It’s pretty well documented that you left JAPAN due to the feeling that your guitar work was being sidelined, do you feel some kind of kinship with Andy Taylor from DURAN DURAN in this respect in terms of a band evolving and not quite fitting in?
As time went on, I was finding it harder and harder to come up with guitar parts that I could be satisfied with on the new material. The track ‘European Son’ for instance, never featured a guitar part because I was never satisfied with anything I tried, although ironically just before my tenure with the band expired, I found a live option I was content with!
But it wasn’t only my own dissatisfaction. By the time of ‘Polaroids’, I felt that myself and David just weren’t on the same wavelength. Not sure we ever were to be honest, but it was more exposed by then.
Then there was talk of the band moving to Japan to live for a spell which I was not excited about. The rest of them had each other and very few others could penetrate this circle.
I on the other hand had the group of friends who I grew up with and still enjoyed seeing when I could. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to live in such close proximity with these four other people at the exclusion of everyone else either. So the split was on the cards and inevitable.
Having left JAPAN in 1981 was it still difficult to still be playing on ‘The Art Of Parties’ Spring tour which saw the band make the breakthrough into theatres?
Not at all. I enjoyed playing the songs as much as I ever had, and my relationship with Mick, Rich and Steve was as good as ever, in fact in some ways it might have felt even more relaxed because there was less pressure on me. The only thing I wasn’t happy with was the way David suddenly treated me like a side man. But that was David for you, if you weren’t of any use to him any more then you basically didn’t exist. I don’t doubt there have been plenty with a similar experience over the years.
Around this period, you contributed EBowed guitar to the Numan track ‘Boys Like Me’ from ‘Dance’ which also featured Mick Karn, was that an improvised jam on your part?
Yes, I was invited to the studio on the same day Mick was laying down some bass parts. The track was pulled up, I plugged in and started playing around with an EBow part. Ready to do a proper pass, I found out that Gary was happy with what I had already done! For my own satisfaction I would have preferred recording a couple more takes that Gary could choose from but he felt it wasn’t necessary. We hung around the studio for the rest of the day and I also contributed whoops and hand claps on a B-side which was basically a fretless bass improvisation.
The song ‘Quiet Life’ is probably the best known JAPAN track you played on, so what did you think when it became a Top 20 hit in September 1981 belatedly some 18 months after it first featured on the parent album?
I was living in LA at that time and was barely aware of what was being released posthumously from the Hansa catalogue. I wasn’t really conscious of the re-release or success of any of those tracks. I remember a friend of mine from Epic Records handing me the disc ‘Japan’ which was an amalgam of tracks from ‘Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ with the most god awful photo of David looking like a secretary or something on the cover. It not surprisingly failed to set the US charts alight. I was busy concentrating on attempting to create a new life for myself on a different continent. Later Mick came out for a holiday. It was nice to hang out and lark about away from the rigidness of the band. We had a blast.
You were part of Numan’s live band during his 1982 comeback tour of clubs in America, reports indicate it wasn’t a happy one, what was your take on it?
It had its ups and downs, certainly. Generally as a band we enjoyed ourselves. Playing with the likes of Pino Palladino and Roger Mason was a great experience and I think we rehearsed solidly for six weeks before the first gig at Perkin’s Palace, a theatre known for rock shows in Pasadena. ‘The Tube’ were in evidence to record Gary’s ‘comeback’ for posterity and in doing so, their crew really messed up the power in the hall and the show was a disaster, despite our last rehearsals being in that very venue! We then had a tour bus setting on fire shortly after and had to wait it out while another was delivered.
Any funny stories you can tell?
I remember playing Boston where we played a large club with a low stage. From the floor there were so many hung lights on the stage that they obscured Pino’s head completely – we had a headless bass player!
In New Orleans, we played on a riverboat which went up and down the Mississippi while we played. Unfortunately Gary’s Mum who was the wardrobe mistress had left Gary’s trademark fedora in the hotel room which was of course then unreachable and so an announcement went out over the tannoy system to see if any of the audience had one Gary could use. When one failed to surface, he opted for the boat captain’s hat instead.
We were a tight, funky band and I would say that in general, we enjoyed each other’s company on the road a lot. WALL OF VOODOO, our support act on the tour were good friends of mine from LA and so a good time was had by all really. The negative aspects really stem from it not being a success financially, not from the players failing to get on or any inherent friction.
You continued working with Australian keyboardist Roger Mason from that Numan tour afterwards in ILLUSTRATED MAN?
Yes, we became firm friends on the tour, similar music tastes being the connection. After the Numan tour, Roger returned to the UK where he was living at the time and I followed soon after, the plan being to create our own music project.
We shared a flat in Ealing Common where we would stay up all night recording on a Fostex 4-track. In those days, we barely saw daylight. We were quite productive but ultimately nothing came of the tapes because we were sidetracked by another Aussie import, Philip Foxman who had recently secured a development deal with EMI.
Soon we became a band. I brought drummer Hugo Burnham into the fold, who I’d met in LA firstly when a band I worked with, VIVABEAT, supported THE GANG OF FOUR at the Palladium and later when he drummed for ABC on a promo US tour for ‘Beauty Stab’. We started demoing songs and got a deal with EMI / Parlophone.
We recorded an album with my good friend John Punter producing, but the project was doomed to failure as neither myself, Roger nor Hugo had much confidence in Philip as our frontman.
Nonetheless, we toured the UK as support to Nik Kershaw and with Cyndi Lauper and also did our own tour in the US, promoting a 12” EP of some of the album songs, but at the end of the tour Roger and I split and Hugo did the same soon after. The album as a result was never released.
What did you do after ILLUSTRATED MAN?
Later I would relocate to Australia and form my own band, THE SLOW CLUB. We signed to Virgin and released an album on which Roger’s keyboard expertise featured quite heavily and we had a minor hit over there. I still rate him as the best all-round keyboard player I have ever worked with and we are still good friends today.
You mention ABC, there is a deeper link with them isn’t there?
Yes, I first met those charming chaps in LA when they were touring ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, of which I was and still am a huge fan. I particularly hit it off with Martin, Mark and Stephen.
We met again when they were promoting ‘Beauty Stab’ in LA a year later. I even accompanied them on their taping for American Bandstand. Later when I moved back to the UK we often saw each other socially.
Martin and I went to PRINCE’s ‘Lovesexy’ tour at Wembley together and also Bowie’s ‘Glass Spider’ show amongst others.
So it was somewhat inevitable that I would end up on an ABC recording somewhere down the line! When that time came, I played on two songs which at that point were demos I believe. They were ‘The Night You Murdered Love’ and ‘Paper Thin’. Although I didn’t play on the album recording, my parts were still used on the ‘Alphabet City’ version of the former and sometime later ‘Paper Thin’ surfaced with all my contributions on the ‘Up’ album. Obviously I haven’t seen any of the ABC boys in many years, although in the mid-2000s Martin and his family visited me here at home for a few days which was lovely.
Can you talk about the Bamboo fanzine and how this helped facilitate SINÉAD O’CONNOR’s debut UK live performance?
The Bamboo fanzine, essentially created for JAPAN’s fanbase, was run by Debi Zornes and Howard Sawyer, both at the time staunch fans of the band. After I had left the band and returned to the UK, we became close and spent a fair bit of time in each other’s company.
When I began working with Sinéad, it seemed logical that I would suggest we play a few songs together at one of the annual fanzine get-togethers at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. Thankfully Sinéad was into the idea although I’m not sure her manager at the time, Fiachra Trench was quite as positive!
At that point she had not debuted in public at all, so for our relatively modest little gathering, it was actually quite a coup.
We played three songs with myself accompanying Sinéad on electric guitar – ‘Jackie’ (from the forthcoming debut album), ‘I Fall To Pieces’ (a Patsy Cline cover) and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND song and the only song with a strong link to JAPAN. Not surprisingly, she was well received.
Can you tell us about O’Connor’s debut album and the two different versions which were recorded?
I was working in the West Country with a band called CRAZY HOUSE who were signed to Chrysalis. For the most part, I was miserable living in Trowbridge (a dead end town if ever I saw one!) and I soon discovered that this particular band dynamic was very oppressive.
By chance I bumped into Tim Butler from THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS who invited me to his wedding nearby. There I was invited to tour with The Furs, which I declined as I still felt a commitment to CRAZY HOUSE.
Soon after however I heard a demo of Sinéad and expressed interest in working with her, although at that point she had a guitarist on board. Except I soon learned that he had been offered and had accepted the touring gig with The Furs that I had turned down, so the gig with Sinéad was mine and I hotfooted it out of Trowbridge – commitment be damned!
For the next year together with the rest of her band, we honed the material that would comprise her first album. We had a rehearsal space at Nomis studios booked solidly for months at a time.
When time came to record the album, Mick Glossop was chosen as producer. He had a strong connection to her record label, Ensign through his work with THE WATERBOYS and seemed like a logical choice.
So the sessions began in Townhouse studios. For the most part, Glossop had the entire band record live in the studio which was far from ideal, somewhat chaotic and in many ways counter-productive.
At that point the songs were quite electric / folk in feel. We finished the album, which Ensign then sent out to several producers to remix.
But due to the organic way it had been recorded and with the lack of any time codes or click tracks, it was unanimously deemed impossible to remix. So there needed to be a massive rethink. It was decided to re-record the tracks with Kevin Moloney producing in a much more pared down fashion.
The only part of the original sessions that survived were the orchestral tracks which were integral to the epic song ‘Troy’. The second incarnation was very different to the first, with Sinéad’s fiery vocals much more to the fore and a lot of the instrumental embellishments absent. There are certainly tracks from the original sessions that I wish could be heard and maybe one day they will. There’s a wonderfully unique take on THE DOORS song ‘The Crystal Ship’, for instance.
After the recording of the second album, Sinéad found herself pregnant and the album release was put back until she gave birth. In the meantime, I took a gig in Australia which led me on that different path, and so my time with her came to an end. Marco Pirroni added some guitar to two tracks closer to the release date and after I had left for Australia. Throughout it all, working closely with her during that time had been a joy. She was sweet, warm, considerate and a pleasure to be around not to mention an undeniable force of nature.
You reconnected with Jansen, Barbieri and Karn in 1993 on the ‘Beginning To Melt’ album on the ‘Ego Dance’ track, what are your recollections of this?
At the time, I had been living in a small cabin in the woods close to a beach in Costa Rica with an outside toilet and no electricity, surrounded by all manner of wildlife (yep, I loved every minute of it!).
So when I returned for a visit to the UK and was invited to record on a track with my ex-band mates, I was far from prepared.
I had barely touched an electric guitar in two years. I knew that I could do a lot better. So basically I did not feel comfortable even though I had the support of old friends and bandmates, whom it was hugely enjoyable hanging out with again after so long. The session was recorded at Steve’s flat at the time in Notting Hill. What I remember most was relaxing and laughing a lot. Steven Wilson and Theo Travis were there too, I think.
In 2016, you shared a really touching post about the late Mick Karn, what was it like with working and spending time with him in the band?
Mick was always from the day we met, a creative force. He was funny and very likeable. He was the personality in the band, the one that most people were drawn towards because he was the most approachable and I believe most enigmatic. Working with him was always inspiring as a musician and I feel grateful to have known him in that capacity. Like everyone, it wasn’t all highs – he had his down times too.
I think my favorite moments came after the band though, out of David’s controlling shadow, just hanging out as friends. I wish I had been around to spend time with him in the later years of his life, but I rarely ventured back to the UK or Europe. I often wonder if ‘missing’ someone is the appropriate term when you haven’t seen each other for decades, but I guess it’s just the reality that if you wanted to, he wouldn’t be there to hang out with anymore.
You dropped out of the industry to become a professional ornithologist and artist, but are now on the verge of releasing some new material, what made you want to get back into making more high profile music?
When I decided to move to Costa Rica, I had no plan and no idea what path I wished to take. I only knew that I needed a change.
It certainly wasn’t on the cards that I would become so enraptured with birds that I would become some sort of authority on them and subsequently illustrate field guides for a living. So music in the last almost 30 years had, by design taken a back seat and up until recently, I had absolutely no desire to rekindle the flame of musical creativity. I think it really boils down to meeting someone who was completely open to my ideas and realizing that recording new music could still be enjoyable, refreshing and inspiring after years and years of disconnect.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK have had a sneak preview of the new album and there is quite a diverse range of influences in it, both electronic and rock, what is the line-up and your role(s) within it?
Our project LIGHT OF DAY is essentially my collaborator Isaac Moraga and myself. We co-wrote, arranged and produced all of the material, bar one cover.
Isaac sings and plays guitars, I play guitars, EBow and loops as well as backing vocals. The rest are top rate Costa Rican musicians playing keyboards, bass, percussion and drums.
Certainly the influences are diverse and to a large extent, I would say the album ‘Dimensions’ is a result of all those years not being musically creative, as if after being bottled up inside, it all flooded out through the pieces that Isaac and I have created.
It’s quite a big sound which feels to me like a celebration – positive, propulsive, energetic and atmospheric. There are some epic soundscapes there with echoes of 80s style electronica, ambient, 70s prog rock and more contemporary elements too. At the moment we are fine tuning with a few remixes and Ed Buller is helping out in this department.
Generally I am very happy with this album. Someone said that they thought it was my best work and I think they might be right. In any case I really hope it finds an audience. The plan is to release it on CD, vinyl and digitally some time soon. If anyone is interested they can check out some previews on the LIGHT OF DAY Facebook page.
Recently I also released a digital EP with Martin Birke from GENRE PEAK of ambient-style pieces called ‘Triptych’, which we plan to release on CD with extra content at some point, and I hope to record an album of ambient soundscapes some time in the near future too.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to ROB DEAN