Abandoned Dancehall Dreams was finished in mid-April 2014.
My only previous solo album (2004’s My Hotel Year) was created as a means of tying together several incomplete (and very different) projects I had on the go at the time. A solo album in name only, it never wholly felt mine. By contrast, ADD started life as a focused collection of songs I’d written (or co-written) with a new no-man album in mind. For some reason, I’ve always felt more myself in a group context and more able to realise my ideas. As such, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (like Schoolyard Ghosts and Together We’re Stranger) always felt like a highly personal project, and although like most solo albums it required the involvement of many others, it also sat better with me as something released under my own name.
Although I have a strong affinity with intimate approaches to making music, ‘big and bold’ is as much a part of my taste and musical identity as ‘small and stark’. In terms of what I enjoy and what I aspire to create, the ‘grand statement’ is as personal to me and as great an interest as the stripped-down song. I like Apocalypse Now as much I do Kes, Pink Floyd as much as Pink Moon, The Wasteland as much as Not Waving But Drowning, and so on.
Once decided that Abandoned Dancehall Dreams wouldn’t be a no-man album, in the late summer of 2013, along with Stephen Bennett I set to work on completing around 14 songs I’d earmarked for the ADD project. As is always the case these days the completed Abandoned Dancehall Dreams drew on a variety of sources, from files sent out all over the world to bands assembled in studios (playing in real time) and home demos providing the skeletons for overdubs.
Most of the ADD songs were loosely conceptually linked around dance halls and the lives of people who’d visited them. Those that weren’t were retrofitted! Once seen as glamorous places (where people escaped to from the everyday, work, or even World wars), they were hugely popular between the 1920s and 1960s in most of the Western world. By the mid-1960s, changes in musical tastes and the expense involved in maintaining orchestras and big bands (or just live musicians in general!) saw the dawn of the more cost-effective and contemporary discotheques and nightclubs. Some of the grand dance hall buildings evolved with the times, while others fell into disrepair. Growing up in the 1970s / 1980s North West UK, I saw no shortage of abandoned dance hall buildings. What had once gone on inside the ornate structures always held a fascination for me, as did the thought that these dead spaces used to teem with life. The 1980s equivalent ‘The Fun Pub’ didn’t have quite the same allure and nor did the giant nightclubs that sprung up in that decade. To my teenage self, the romance and elegance of the dance halls and the idea of listening to the likes of a Benny Goodman-styled Big Band or a local Sinatra rip-off seemed more appealing than the four to the floor assault of a Stock Aitken And Waterman 12 inch single accompanied by a laser light show. The choice between a book at bedtime and my regional super club Mr Smith’s was always an easy one!
In December 2013, vocal sessions took place in Phil Manzanera’s fantastic Gallery Studios in London. Mainly used by Phil and acquaintances of Phil’s, such as (the late) Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt, the Gallery is a charmed place amidst the chaos of the big city. Scattered in corners of its rooms, or casually placed on boxes, are the likes of Phil’s famous Firebird guitar, Roxy Music‘s legendary VCS3 and an assortment of Dave Gilmour‘s guitars and effects units old and new. A musical geek’s paradise, clearly I’d come to the right place! For the first time since the early no-man albums, I spent days concentrating on vocal recordings alone, with no distractions (outside of the addictive appeal of the local Middle Eastern takeaways, anyway). The Gallery was a luxury in more ways than one and an important part of getting the album made in the way I wanted it to be.
In retrospect, one of the things that I found interesting about Abandoned Dancehall Dreams is that inadvertently (inevitably?) it reflected many of the musical phases/passions I’ve been through. Even though the music and the emotions on the album are very much rooted in the present, it was surprising to hear how much of my musical past – both in terms of my own ideas and influences on my ideas – found it’s way into the final release.
The get-out clause:
All that follows are personal views and not meant as either definitive comments on the music/lyrics or an accurate reflection on anybody else’s experience of making the album:
The Warm-Up Man Forever
The Warm-Up Man Forever started as a home demo I’d written in early 2008 for the then no-man album in progress, Schoolyard Ghosts. It was originally meant as a companion piece to Pigeon Drummer (which always struck me as out on its own on SG). My early demo was heavy on the sampled tribal drums, the choral M-Tron, the distorted bass and the echo piano. It was also a minute or so longer and more lyrically dense than any version that followed. WUM was a song that rediscovered aspects of the music that inspired me when I first started singing in bands. Without irony, it was a slice of 1982 with the benefit of two and a half decades of technology and life experience.
Some added Wilson gifted the song a powerful guitar riff and an incongruous electro-pop chorus. Neither of us felt it worked – either in itself or as part of the prospective album – so the track was abandoned.
In the Summer of 2012 while preparing for a no-man tour, the live band thought that playing something new or unreleased could be fun. Dragging WUM out of hibernation, the subsequent band version was more concise, included a Pete Morgan inspired key change and in place of synth repeats, featured some echo-drenched guitars straight out of Manchester, 1985. I’d always imagined the piece to be an updated take on the early 1980s percussion-led music of the likes of Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson merged with the propulsive strings of the Michael Nyman Band, but the no-man interpretation shifted the song to a slightly later part of the decade, which (for me) evoked elements of The Icicle Works, The Chameleons and After The Stranger (the Manchester-based band Mike Bearpark and I played with in 1985).
Live, the piece went down well and despite its echoes of the past, it also felt like the start of something different for no-man.
In the Spring of 2013, we finally decided to record the song. Maybe we’d left it too long, but my feeling was that the resulting studio version lacked the fire of its live equivalent and that the key change seemed too obvious. I was wanting a co-ordinated deluge of strings and drums, but I was hearing the sound of a guitar band sweetly cruising in second gear (which was slightly ironic, as the previous occupants of the studio had been Motorhead!).
Abandoning attempt number three (available on the ADD bonus disc), I immediately set to work on restoring the song to its more percussive demo roots, while retaining the economy of the band version. Knowing he could give me the power I was looking for, I asked Pat Mastelotto to play on the song and commissioned Andrew Keeling to provide a Minimalist string arrangement that worked in sync with Pat’s drums. Pete Morgan replaced the sampled bass with Post-Punk abandon, and Mike Bearpark added an astonishing guitar solo (acting on the suggestion, ‘Sound like a wild dog having a street fight with a conger eel.’).
Conger eel disposed of, attempt number four became the one I’d been after all along.
Though I was aware some people might read something (or everything!) into the title, the lyric wasn’t remotely autobiographical. In some ways, it was a more detailed look at some of the themes dealt with on no-man’s Wild Opera. It had elements of people I’ve come across on the fringes of the music, literary and art worlds over the last few decades and was an attempt to understand certain ways of thinking that are more than a little alien to me.
Smiler At 50
I started this in my 49th year and was still finishing the lyrics well into my 50th. As Kilgore Trout would say (in the voice of Kurt Vonnegut’s father), “Make me young, make me young, make me young!”
Along with its companion piece Smiler At 52, the lyric had been percolating for a long time and by mid 2013 was taking up pages of Pages.
As with Dancing For You, the sweet chords for this came from Stephen Bennett. Both songs were composed a few months after the no-man Autumn 2012 tour and both were Stephen’s idea of what no-man music sounded like*. Regardless of whether I agreed or not, I loved what he’d done and wrote lyrics and melodies for both, while between us we shaped the two songs into something grander.
The wonderful mid-song orchestration on Smiler At 50 was a Bennett special and the prolonged ‘noise’ coda was something I could hear in my head from the first time I heard the demo. Featuring ‘Hurricane’ Mastelotto, Colin Edwin (on fluid fretless) and Anna Phoebe‘s violin, the final (brutal) touch came from Master Bearpark. This time, I asked for ‘dirt’ and a lot of it. Neil Young‘s Arc-Weld came up in conversation, as did memories of experiencing Diamond Head‘s Am I Evil? in the flesh. The revenge of the power chord amidst the gentle stroking of strings, Bearsy became the ‘foot on monitor’ NWOBHM axe-God we’d always suspected lurked beneath his refined exterior. Steven Wilson‘s typically excellent mix powerfully highlighted the dynamic contrasts between the sections and Anna Phoebe’s stirring contributions were sometimes scarily (coincidentally) reminiscent of Ben Coleman.
A reflective ballad with a bitter aftertaste, as with several of the songs on Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, the lyric was written about someone who had once had ambitions and for whom the dance hall would have suggested a time of romance and possibility. Parts of the lyric are autobiographical in that they evoke the lives of people I’d known and parts were an imaginary ‘where are they now?’ scenario.
If 28 Years Later ever gets made, I’d like to think the coda is in with a shout of getting used as its main soundtrack!
* As Steven had said, ‘Potentially classic no-man ballad,’ when I first played Smiler At 50 to him and his manager Andy Leff told me he thought it was, ‘More no-man than no-man,’ maybe Stephen’s idea of how the band sounded wasn’t too far off the reality after all.
Songs Of Distant Summers
Written with Stuart Laws, SODS (lovely acronym!) was an attempt to capture the sometimes overwhelming feeling of communal music making; the reason why many musicians do what they do; the awed wonder that can sometimes get overtaken by experience, success, failure, age or things just getting in the way.
A song from the dance hall band leader’s imagination, perhaps?
At one point a fourteen minute piece with an extended coda and a great deal of improvisation (mainly courtesy of Steve Bingham), the finished version just comprised Steven Wilson’s mix of the song section, which had stripped everything down to its essential elements (including a lovely multiple ‘space bass’ performance from Pete Morgan). The mix seemed perfect in itself and the long coda seemed superfluous as a result, so I dropped it. Both in execution and final editing decisions, SODS was somewhat reminiscent of the title track from Together We’re Stranger.
When I first heard it in 1981, Richard Barbieri‘s work on Japan’s Tin Drum was a revelation to me (and many others). Along with the likes of Eno, Hassell, Cluster, Edgar Froese and Paul Schutze, I’d consider him to be a truly original voice in the crowded field of Ambient/Electronic music. It was a delight to work with him in no-man and on our collaboration album Flame (though to this day I feel I let us both down with my contributions to it). His sweetly atmospheric bonus disc version of Songs Of Distant Summers marked our first major collaboration in years and it was an appropriately graceful and gracefully appropriate one, I think.
By ‘eck Percival, it’s a Catherine Cookson-flavoured historical drama!
Evolving out of a collaboration with Andrew Keeling called Twenty Turbines, Waterfoot is one of the only ‘period’ lyrics I’ve written. I looked over turn of the century maps of the Lancastrian mill town of the title, noted locations and landmarks, then imagined the life of someone leaving the repetition of factory work for the dreams of city lights and liberation. Billy Liar with lace and soot!
Andrew Keeling’s string arrangment was suitably lush (and suggestive of Robert Kirby‘s great work for Nick Drake) and Stephen Bennett’s synth and Mellotron parts added to the song’s sense of building momentum (expressing the character’s search for personal progress?). Andrew also added the excellent acoustic guitar and bass parts, while I played the all-seeing ‘man with the Mallen streak’.
Dancing For You
In some ways, the saddest song on the album and the polar opposite of Songs Of Distant Summers.
At its core, Dancing For You is about those moments when all forms of comfort seem meaningless. If SODS is the band leader’s tear-stained reminiscence of good times gone by, this is his full-blown lament!
DFY came together surprisingly quickly in Stephen Bennett’s attic studio. For some reason, we felt we’d created an unlikely hybrid of early 1980s John Martyn, The Blue Nile, Terje Rypdal and Burt Bacharach (all going ‘mumblecore’!). Mike Bearpark’s soaring solos wonderfully mapped the song’s emotional arcs and The Spontaneous UEA Vocal Ensemble (a choir of two assembled by Stephen and made even more sublime in the bonus disc UXB mix) did a fine job of showering the song with faintly otherworldly Swingle Singers / Manhattan Transfer strangeness. Nestled amongst the despair, Mr Bennett sneakily took his golden cape out of mothballs and provided another tasty old-school synth solo, while Colin offered some very fine Giblin-esque touches throughout.
Smiler At 52
The last piece to be completed for the album, the finished version is pretty much an upgraded take on my original demo (with Andrew Keeling’s sympathetic real strings replacing my string pads etc).
An extension of the Smiler story, this emerged very quickly one quiet afternoon and seemed right almost immediately. This is the only track on the album where the vocal remained as it was on the first take demo version. Everything afterwards seemed to strain for the conversational intimacy the demo possessed and failed to achieve it. The quality could be easily improved upon, but the emotional intention always seemed missing.
The Grasscut remix adds another dimension to the song, I think. Having produced two of my favourite releases of the last decade, it was a delight to have Andrew’s perspective on the piece.
For those who don’t know, Lymm is a village in South Warrington near to where I grew up. Many Sundays during my youth were spent walking there along the Bridgewater Canal with friends (having the sort of ‘serious’ conversations beloved of troubled teenagers!). Smiler would have been one of the girls bringing our chatter to a temporary halt.
I Fought Against The South
Those tense ‘should I stay or should I go’ moments in relationships have littered quite a few of my songs. IFATS is an angry companion to Photographs In Black And White, with the two characters at odds in every way, beyond an enduring affection for a shared past. Grace tested in the city, change fought for and against, in this case I took ‘the South’ as being representative of an escape to something better.
The music was something I’d written solely on guitar. The sweetness of the string opening and the sourness of the dissonant coda were all in my head, so it was wonderful to hear Andrew Keeling, Anna Phoebe and the no-man live band so fully realise the sound I wanted based on guitar sketches alone. Steven’s mixing and subtle effects additions brought out the individual sections superbly.
Alternating between Classical Minimalist elements and slower than slow Art Rock, this felt like a natural progression from what the no-man live band hinted at on the 2012 tour. This potential new musical beginning (about an ending) was also mostly recorded live in the studio that had been recently vacated by Lemmy and the boys.
Andrew Keeling’s fluttering flute finale put a positive spin on the coda, perhaps suggesting that in almost every ending there’s a new beginning to be found.
Beaten By Love
Are we there yet? After 27 years travelling, I hope so!
The backing track for the ADD version came from a wonderfully strange one-off session at a vicarage in Cambridgeshire just after the no-man 2012 tour. The recording was so fraught with technical problems that by the time we were able to record some music, nobody seemed up for it. Relistening to the forgotten recordings over a year later, Stephen Bennett and I felt we’d been wrong to dismiss them. The original Booker/Morgan rhythm section performance was strong and Doctor Bearpark’s atmospherics sounded suitably haunted.
With extra keyboard parts and some additional Steven Wilson guitar playing, the piece finally came together in late 2013. Changing the lyrics (slightly) for the hundredth time and adding a backing vocal part at the last minute, it was astonishing to me that a simple piece that began life in 1987 still had something different to say in 2014. Its chequered history had included two abandoned no-man versions, a mid 1990s trip-hopped Faultline rendition and some demented live Samuel Smiles performances. The live Love And Endings take seemed pretty good to me, but I also wanted a definitive studio equivalent. After all these years, this may be it!
As with The Warm-Up Man Forever, the tribal drum approach recalled elements of early 1980s music I’d grown up with (this time the brooding proto-Goth of The Creatures or the early Cure). Ending a new album with by far the oldest song on it seemed strangely appropriate.
Abandoned Dancehall Dream
The track that started the project off felt completely wrong by the time it came to assembling the final track listing.
The bonus disc version is my original demo plus a Gallery re-recorded lead vocal and the benefit of a Steven Wilson mix.
Lyrically and musically, I still liked it, but it seemed out of step and (befitting its origins) too demo-like to fit in with the larger productions of the likes of Smiler At 50 and Dancing For You.
In this song, a once glamorous dancehall has become a seedy nightclub hosting themed ‘decade nights’. The ever-youthful sounds of pop music’s past reverberate in a less than vibrant present as romantic idealism soundtracks the promise of cheap middle-aged sex.
The Sweetest Bitter Pill
As with Abandoned Dancehall Dream, I couldn’t find a place for this to sit on the album. The sound was right, Andrew Keeling’s string arrangement was everything I wanted it to be, and the band played the piece really well.
Without sounding particularly close to them, it had elements of Joni Mitchell‘s slinky Hissing Of Summer Lawns groove and aspects of early King Crimson harmony that I liked a lot, and yet….
From a compositional point of view, I was really pleased with the song. Featuring 10 chords (count ’em!) and a key change, it was written as a way to amuse my son Sam, who as a toddler would dance to anything I’d play on the guitar for him. To amuse myself amusing him, I played more with chords (and with more chords) than I’d naturally do. This was one of several singer-songwriter styled pieces I came up with during that time.
The lyric tied in with The Warm-Up Man Forever and Wild Opera. In this case, the song was about someone who’d had a degree of recognition, but due to misunderstandings and self-delusion didn’t know the right time to quit. Hopefully not an accidental autobiography!
After working with Jarrod on Henry Fool’s Men Singing, Abandoned Dancehall Dreams provided a perfect opportunity for us to extend our relationship.
Beyond being effortlessly creative, Jarrod is incredibly easy going and, Goddammit, nice (a very good thing, by the way).
Our shared musical interests and intersecting musical history are one point of connection, but Jarrod’s distinctively surreal artwork (part Gilliam, part Yellow Submarine, part Magritte, part Sheffield city limits) is undoubtedly another aspect.
Jarrod listened to my suggestions and set about realising them in his very particular way. His Abandoned Dancehall Dreams visual universe is now as much a part of the ADD album experience for me as the music and lyrics. As one brought up in the era of tactile vinyl gatefold sleeves, and teenagers poring over lyrics and small print, that’s also a very good thing.
The album credits thank all the right people, but to expand on a few of them a little further:
Stephen Bennett was a continuous presence throughout recording the album and an essential creative sounding board for me. His hard drives and filing systems were also a pretty vital part of the process!
Phil Manzanera stepped in at a crucial point (when a pre-arranged studio booking was cancelled at the last minute). Despite his success and talent, Phil manages to be a rare combination of the genuine and the truly generous.
Anna Phoebe had a child as she was about to record her violin parts for the album. Ever the professional, within the week of the birth, she started work on the songs with a tiny baby on her lap and another young child at her feet taking in the delights of the Octonauts. She gave performances beyond the call of duty and ones that I hope haven’t psychologically damaged her children!
Steven Wilson not only provided me with the benefit of his mixing skills, but also offered excellent advice and suggestions. As always, he worked very quickly very brilliantly. Beyond that, he remained patient and decent in response to my multiple requests for mix variants.
Tim Bowness, May 2014