A Beginner’s Guide to The Sound (1979-1988)

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Adrian Borland on vocals and the guitar. Graham Bailey on the bass. Mike Dudley on the drums. Bi Marshall and then Colvin ‘Max’ Mayers on the keyboards. Together they were The Sound.

Criminal. What happened (or didn’t happen) to this band is criminal. In an alternate universe, The Sound made it big, their music a virtual set of standards for the rock and pop world. Yet they never made it big. What was it? Was it that in lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Adrian Borland they just didn’t have enough of an obviously photogenic frontman? On the records themselves, Borland commands the scene effortlessly, but if we compare other lead singers of the time, maybe he just wasn’t as brash or beautiful or outspoken, loud, quote-worthy, whatever. The band arguably did themselves no favours with that dull, prosaic name of theirs. Maybe they just lacked that killer single. Maybe it was because they didn’t commit to music videos. Maybe they were just one epic gloom and beauty band too many in an era crammed with them. The Sound were one of many overt post-Joy Division bands, but even though both lead singers took their own lives, and even though there are many a Sound song that is wracked with despair, the majority of the band’s output burns with life, energy and passion.

This is not going to be a diatribe against other contemporary bands that hit the big time and left The Sound behind. The two most obvious contemporaries were U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen. U2 have always been one of the easiest bands to knock – their immense popularity, the Marmite presence of Bono, the statements, the bluster, the lack of subtlety. The Bunnymen were a classic example of a band that had the magic and lost it, but the brilliance of their first four albums can never be denied. Essentially, there’s enough room in my world for all three bands, but The Sound have that extra-special something that exists because of their obscurity. They’re a special band to me because not many people have heard them, and it’s like they’re still my little secret. When I say not many people have heard of them, I mean the general public and yes, people I personally know. In this day and age, when even the most esoteric and obscure bands can be name-checked and referenced, The Sound barely gets any kind of retrospective these days. The only example is an article in Uncut, the same article that got me interested in the band. After a great (if incomplete) reissue program by the Renascent label over a decade ago, their albums soon became out of print again, with only the odd live album or US-reissue here and there to keep their legacy fresh. This month however sees the release of a box set from Edsel that contains their first three albums as well as a load of extra stuff like BBC sessions, B-sides, live tracks and studio outtakes. For me, this is pleasure overload. But for those who know nothing about the band, here’s my little retrospective covering their mighty run of studio albums. Not covered here are the band’s earlier incarnation as punk band The Outsiders, live albums and any post-Sound solo albums.

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So, 1980’s Jeopardy (following an at-the-time unreleased album called Propaganda) is the debut, and what a debut. This is one of my all-time favourite first albums and it remains one of THE most vital post-punk LPs ever; it cost only £800 to record (!), and its energy, imagination and dramatic tension throughout can barely be contained. Even in Simon Reynolds’ superlative study of the post-punk era that is Rip it Up and Start Again, The Sound are mentioned in passing just the once, and it’s only in reference to the wave of groups who emerged from the breakthrough success of Joy Division. They deserve more than that. This is the kind of album where the words `dramatic’, `blistering’ and `heroic’ were made for; Borland’s strident vocals are thrilling and stirring, whilst the band play for all its worth over eleven songs of simmering, edgy and occasionally explosive rock. The opening song is an astonishing blend of quiet/loud, which jolts itself from a suspenseful, almost Neu!-like rhythm (with spooky keyboards layered on top) verse with the immortal “I…. (I!!!!!!!!!!) can’t escape myself!” which is one of rock’s most heart-stopping moments, no lie! “Heartland” doesn’t let up on the excitement for a second (“you gotta believe”, indeed!), “Missiles” is wracked with tense drama and “Night Versus Day” is eerie, beguiling and strange all the way. These songs are Jeopardy’s most spectacular highlights, but the truth is that everything here is great, be it the yearning “Hour of Need”, the surprising and effective use of brass in the cracking chorus of “Words Fail Me”, the slinky beats of the title track, the straight-up, energetic charge of “Heyday” and “Resistance”, the brooding “Desire” or the panoramic drama of “Unwritten Law”….it’s all fuelled to the nines with magnificent guitars, thrilling rhythms and atmospheric embellishments that make it one hell of an astounding, formidable debut. Critics went ballistic for it, and it pointed the way towards The Sound making it huge; they’d up the ante even more so for their even better second album.

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From the Lion’s Mouth could have, SHOULD have, been the one to make them as big as those other `big’ bands such as U2, Simple Minds or Echo and the Bunnymen….yet it just didn’t happen. Critics loved it. The public ignored it. Such a shame. With producer Hugh Jones (who also produced Bunnymen’s immortal second album Heaven up Here) breathing air and space into the band’s formerly intensely direct sound, this grand, powerful album managed to be epic without being bloated. The opening “Winning” swirls and slinks through dramatic keyboards and beautiful guitars over the kind of optimistic, determined lyrics (“I was gonna drown, but then I started swimming….I was going down, but then I start winning”) that sadly have a retrospective sting in the tail knowing what would come later. Still, the song is so stunning that you really believe in the simple directness of the lyrics and become swept up in Borland’s strength in the face of adversity, despite the reality of future events. “Sense of Purpose” is just too damn irresistible to accept as anything other than one of post-punk music’s most searing anthems, the incredible, white-hot “Contact the Fact” is almost as gripping as everything on Jeopardy put together (!), “Skeletons” will blow your mind from start to finish; honestly, it’s three minutes of pure adrenaline! “Judgement” is wracked with drama and beauty, and it’s as this stage that I can’t believe From the Lion’s Mouth can get any better…..to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t.

Nevertheless, the latter half of the album is still very, very special, be it the powerful, militaristic beats of “Fatal Flaw” (which builds up to a strong finale), the almost-as-good-as “Sense of Purpose” cracker that is “Possession”, the straight-up punk blast of “This Fire” the misty balladry of “Silent Air” or the rumbling, dramatic epic “New Dark Age”, all of which have their classic moments to boast. When this fantastic album failed to live up to commercial expectations, The Sound’s record label wanted the band to head even further into a mainstream direction. To say the band didn’t exactly comply with those wishes was an understatement, as their next album would prove…

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All Fall Down was the sound of The Sound seemingly not giving much of a damn about making a hit record; their previous LP did sound like a hit, yet sadly it wasn’t. The band’s record company, wanting the Sound to make another From the Lion’s Mouth (yet one that actually….you know, did well in the charts), were shocked by what they’d heard at the album preview; where were the tunes? The result was another commercially unsuccessful album, leading to the band being dropped by their label. So, is All Fall Down really as difficult as its minor reputation makes it out to be? Not really. It’s not as strident or vital as the first two albums, that much is true; this is dark, claustrophobic and murky stuff. It is often hypnotic and very powerful, especially on the first three songs, which go some way to explain why some fans rate this album as the band’s masterpiece. The opening title track is like a nursery rhyme turned inside out and twisted; the insistent, intense music is amazing, rising and rising, while Borland’s vocals are striking and more foreboding than he’d ever been before. This gives way to “Party of the Mind”, which sort of resembles a hit song, albeit one that sounds a little unhinged; it’s got a terrific guitar hook and a really wild, eerie and thrilling finale that, in its own way, is just as magnificent as anything on the first two albums. An out-and-out classic arrives in the form of the incredible “Monument”, which remains one of the band’s (or anyone’s, come to think of it) most affecting and beautiful ballads; gorgeous synthesisers, lovely guitars and an immortal chorus where the words “rise and rise….rise above” and the music reaches a superb, dramatic peak. This is definitely one of the top five Sound songs of all time and a thing of great beauty.

The excellent “In Suspense” has an off-kilter, edgy and distinctive rhythm, not to mention a cracking chorus, while “Where the Love Is” wraps up the first side with its powerful, quietly simmering and occasionally cathartic mood as well as its stellar guitar and piano hooks. Side two begins with “Song and Dance”, which opens up with some spooky synthesiser and piano interplay before exploding into an intense, tortured blast of guitar sound and eventually into a straight-up Sound rocker in the style of the first two albums. “Calling the New Tune”, with its great chorus, is one of the more radio-friendly songs here, though Borland’s weirdly treated vocals through the verses make it just as weird as everything else here. “Red Paint” has plenty of tension and energy to spare, the dark “Glass and Smoke” an extended, discordant and eerie epic, and “We Could Go Far” is a blindingly fine closer, understated in the way it exudes an unnerving yet strangely optimistic and romantic atmosphere; the guitars and the synthesisers here are so damn good in their own quiet, subtle way.

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After lurking in the dark, the band emerged into the sun for their next release, and it seems maddening that the Shock of Daylight EP didn’t produce anything successful. It’s easily their most commercial and accessible work, yet this more radio-friendly sound did not dilute the impact of the band’s power. In fact, and it sounds strange, it almost enhanced it! From the Lion’s Mouth gets the most praise, but Shock of Daylight is a personal favourite of mine. Six songs, all terrific, almost all potential individual singles, none making a mark on the public’s consciousness.

It kicks off with one hell of an opening blast in the form of “Golden Soldiers”, which might startle fans of early Sound with its shrill, wired opening piano attack, not to mention the most deliriously single-friendly chorus the band ever gave us, and what a thriller it is too! “I could be so golden…” sings Borland as the band give it everything and come up with a total pop classic that flies through its three minutes in a flash. The second side of this EP offers an equivalent, arguably even better pop classic with “A New Way of Life”, which is so passionate, so exciting, so driving and thrilling, with magnificent guitars and another wonderful chorus. However, the EP’s best guitar charge comes with the closing “Dreams Then Plans”, which simmers with urgent optimism and shimmering, shivering passion, occasionally breaking out into such exciting euphoria that it beggars belief that this band didn’t make it, on the evidence of this EP in particular. The guitar charge in question comes in around 2:11, where everything comes together and the heavens part and there’s no doubt that The Sound are The Great Ones. “Dreams Then Plans” is my favourite song on this EP, though second song “Longest Days”, with its thick bass intro and searing guitar, is another major, major highlight, as is the slow-burning, chilling “Winter” and the lovely “Counting the Days”.

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Heads and Hearts is often very good, even if it’s their least consistent effort. However, any album with “Total Recall”, “Restless Time” and “Temperature Drop” (three of their best) is well worth your time. The opening “Whirlpool” is pretty dark considering it follows the mighty euphoric rush of Shock of Daylight, and has power and drama in abundance. This is taken to a higher level with `Total Recall’, which has as much urgency but with a break in the clouds too, especially in its stirring chorus. The pulsing `Under You’ (with its’ we wake up and go to sleep’ lyric that recalls “Heroes”-era Bowie) would be a gem if it wasn’t for those bits of saxophone which lurk in the corners and threaten to spoil everything. They certain don’t do `Love is Not a Ghost’ any favours, wrecking a perfectly exciting song halfway through with a rotten little solo. In-between these two songs is the simmering `Burning Part of Me’, which is pretty good, but we need another out and out gem to pick things up, and `Wildest Dreams’ comes close, a subtle slow-burner that really grows on you. Oddly enough, despite the clutch of great songs to boast on Heads and Hearts, it was `One Thousand Reasons’ which was chosen as one of  the singles. It’s fun, and the verses have a quivering, exciting understatement to them, but I find the song as a whole pretty, I don’t know…average? It’s okay, it’ll do. Not bad! But not great. Lacks the magic of the best Sound songs. Better, much, much better is `Restless Time’ which mixes a pretty bleak, desperate lyric with an absolute stormer of a tune that’s just breathtaking. Awesome chorus, awesome singing, thrilling playing, just an absolute classic! `Mining for Heart’ has a droning, eerie sway to it, and `World As It Is’ is a brief but occasionally soaring little gem. The best is saved for last though. Oh god, the autumnal “Temperature Drop” is so beautiful, so very, very beautiful. One of my favourite songs. The chilling breeze of the verses give way to an astonishingly powerful chorus where the guitars conjure lovely, bittersweet melodies. The best closer to any Sound album (Shock of Daylight doesn’t count, it’s an EP!), even more so than the terrific “We Could Go So Far”, `You’ve Got a Way’ or `New Dark Age’. That’s saying something.

File:Thunder Up cover.jpgAgain though, no sales. The Sound’s final album (bizarrely omitted from Renascent’s reissue program) was the mighty Thunder Up, which sounds as triumphant an album as is possible for an a band that would have little to no impact on the mainstream music scene at the time. Despite the darkness of the last half, it sounds valedictory, as conclusive a final chapter as something like Abbey Road. ‘Kinetic’ is absolutely phenomenal – one of the most exciting songs ever, living up to the promise of its name and then some. Without ever lapsing into bombast, it revs itself up to thrilling peaks and dizzying ascents. When I made myself a 2-CD Sound compilation years back, I ended the whole thing on ‘Kinetic’, because after that where the hell can you go? ‘Barria Alta’ and ‘Hand of Love’ sounds like Christmas. They sound like a hug of warmth in the cold night. And because they’re not about Christmas, you can listen to them all year long. ‘Iron Years’ has such a silly synth-hook that might prove distracting at first, but the song’s greatness shines through and through. ‘Prove Me Wrong’ is brief but brilliant, a real ray of sunshine. ‘Acceleration Group’ a guaranteed crowd-pleaser – oh, if only they had the crowds at the time. Saying that, The Sound were huge in The Netherlands – at least they had the sense to recognise greatness. The final half of the album is a bit of a comedown – the atmospherics a lost town that’s been ‘shot up and  shut down’ – brutally effective and magnificent but chilling nonetheless. The beautiful piano introduction of ‘You’ve Got a Way’ gives way to a deeply dramatic, coursing epic that tears through the darkness.

They split up in 1988. The Sound’s recorded legacy is one of the finest in all of rock and pop. Don’t leave them behind.

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