Adrian Borland

TrackAlbum    
Beneath The Big WheelAlexandria
Brittle HeavenBrittle Heaven
Re-United States Of LoveBeautiful Ammunition
Long Dark TrainCinematic
Baby Moon5:00 AM
Walking In The
Opposite Direction
The Last Days Of The Rain Machine
Inbetween DreamsThe Last Days Of The Rain Machine
Dead GuitarsThe Last Days Of The Rain Machine
Summer WheelsHarmony & Destruction
Sea Of NoiseThe Amsterdam Tapes

 

Adrian Borland photo

Adrian Borland

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

In a recent Toppermost, I looked at the musical career of The Sound, the group in which Adrian Borland was the frontman between 1979 and 1988. As I pointed out there, despite their consistent musical excellence, that band never achieved the kind of commercial success which they deserved. Indeed, they had never really gone beyond being a ‘cult’ group. The flip side of this status lay, however, in the fact that while their fan base was comparatively small, it remained an intensely dedicated one (especially in Holland, where the group had been remarkably popular). This meant that when he embarked on a solo career in 1988, Borland could count on the continued loyalty of many of these fans.

Nevertheless, the period leading up to the break-up of the band had undoubtedly been a traumatic one for him. It had also led to an enforced re-evaluation of his future musical direction. One of the consequences of this was that the first two solo albums he released were very clearly ‘transitional’ ones. Both saw him experiment with various musical approaches and many of the songs on the two albums had a much lighter and poppier feel than his previous work. As with his earlier work, however, Adrian’s strengths as a musical craftsman still shone through on both records. They also contained some of his finest bittersweet love songs and these included ones of the quality of Nowhere To Fall, Shadow Of Your Grace, Box Of Happy Memories, Rogue Beauty.

My first choice, Beneath The Big Wheel, comes from Borland’s excellent debut solo album, Alexandria, first released in 1989. It is a superb folk-influenced song (featuring the great Danny Thompson on bass) and demonstrates Adrian’s versatility and ability to quickly master a musical style very different to that in which he had previously worked. The song’s lyric is also one of his last to have a directly political feel. As his solo career progressed, his work was to become ever more introspective in its tone and increasingly centred on an exploration of his own personal concerns and difficulties.

My next selection, Brittle Heaven, from the 1992 album of the same name, is one of the most optimistic songs in all of his solo work. Nevertheless, the use of the word ‘Brittle’ in the title indicated his awareness that the contentment he felt at that time was both hard won and likely to be transient.

Despite the excellence of both albums, they had very little commercial success. Indeed, throughout his solo career, Borland was to change record labels regularly, usually working with relatively small ones with restricted resources and very limited distribution. This often meant that, even for his fans, his album releases often proved difficult to obtain. In consequence, a cycle developed in which relatively poor album sales meant that his opportunities to perform live were more and more restricted. In consequence, he ended up playing in smaller and smaller venues. Over time, this was to have a dispiriting effect on his own morale, although he retained the staunch support of a small group of dedicated admirers (including his parents, Bob and Win).

Although his first two solo albums had ostensibly been made with the band, The Citizens, essentially these were solo records in all but name. The Citizens had a shifting line-up and operated mainly as a backing band for Adrian’s live shows. Its members usually included a number of Dutch musicians such as Wouter Planteijdt on guitar and Thijs Vermeulen on bass. Both men also played on Adrian’s second solo release, Brittle Heaven. By the time of the release of his third solo album, Beautiful Ammunition, however, Adrian was ready to take sole credit for it himself. As a result, it is sometimes referred to as his first ‘official’ solo record. It is also a more low key album than his previous two had been and has a much more pared back sound.

There is also a more vulnerable ‘heart on the sleeve’ feel to the record as a whole. My selection from it, Re-United States Of Love, is one of his finest love songs. It also features one of his most beautiful melodies. Although the central metaphor on which the song’s lyric is based is occasionally a strained one, the beauty of its melody more than makes up for this.

The track also features a superb bass line played by Adrian himself. Among the other highlights on the album are the fine introspective ballads, Lonely Late Nighter and Forgiveness, the strongly autobiographical Stranger In My Soul and the defiantly and wittily optimistic Someone Will Love You Today.

Despite the sustained musical excellence of the album, however, its relatively muted character meant that it was always unlikely to make the commercial breakthrough which Adrian needed at that point in his career. Indeed, whereas The Sound had, at various points, threatened to break through into the commercial mainstream, it had, by now, become clear that Borland was unlikely ever to move beyond the status of being a ‘cult’ artist.

The next album, Cinematic, first released in 1995, was a more adventurous one and included a number of far more ‘rocky’ tracks than its predecessor. The best of these, in my opinion, are the blistering Spanish Hotel, which has a more Sound-like feel than does most of his solo work and the Velvet Underground influenced Bright White Light. There are also a number of synth-based songs on the album and these included both the excellent and upbeat Night Cascade and the darkly brilliant Long Dark Train, which I have included on this list. The latter song’s use of the metaphor of a locked train to describe the sufferings of those described by the great Australian writer, Patrick White, as the “burnt ones” is one of the most chilling and powerful in all of Borland’s work.

5:00 AM, was the last album to be released in his lifetime. It was also probably the best-produced, with Adrian’s friend, Tim Smith (of the Cardiacs), providing extremely valuable support both as a co-producer and as a musical collaborator. He also played keyboards, harmonium and drums and provided backing vocals on the record. In general, the album had a slicker and smoother sound than had Borland’s earlier records, but this was done in a way which complemented his songs rather than smoothing out their rougher edges. Among the many outstanding tracks on the record were the turbulent Between Buildings and the catchy Over The Under. However, the best of them all was the beautiful Baby Moon, which has to rank as one of the greatest achievements of Adrian’s solo career. It was one of those rare songs (Tupelo Honey is one of the few which can match it in that regard) where words and melody seem to fit together in a way which appears absolutely seamless and close to perfection. Here is the album version …

… while the almost equally fine early one on The Lovefield Demos – as they are known – is available here.

If 5:00 AM seemed to mark a high point in Adrian’s solo career, it was, ironically, not until after his death in April 1999 that some of the best work he had done in this second phase of his career saw release. A large part of the credit for the issuing of these posthumous albums belongs to Carlo van Putten of the Dutch band, The Convent. Carlo had previously collaborated with Adrian on their side project, the band White Rose Transmission, which had released two fine albums between 1995 and 1999. He had also recorded many demos with Adrian both for that group and for other solo projects which the latter had in mind. After Borland’s death, he came to believe that those recordings were of a sufficiently high quality to be released on their own merits. Their eventual appearance on the classic The Last Days Of The Rain Machine clearly displayed how justified that belief had been. What is most striking about the album is its consistency of mood, despite the fact that the demos on it had been recorded over a four year period. In my opinion, it is Adrian Borland’s masterpiece and belongs on the same shelf as a small handful of similar classics such as Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals For Retirement.

All three albums can be seen as reports from the edge from people who have come very close to the end of their tether. While there is a bleak quality to all of these albums, this is also combined with a sharp clarity of vision and a stark poetic beauty which identifies them as works of the very highest artistic quality. There are no hiding places on these records, but rather a raw honesty and intensity which is both disturbing, at times, and compelling. Like Pink Moon, Last Days is an extremely pared back album (just Adrian and an acoustic guitar) where the arrangements remain relatively simple throughout. In consequence, it is an extremely intimate album, where his skills as a guitarist and as a very fine singer are very much to the fore. His melodic sense also remains as strong as ever as is evident on my first choice from it, Walking In The Opposite Direction.

The lyric to Walking In The Opposite Direction also clearly reveals Adrian’s intense alienation from the ‘values’ (or lack of same, as he views it) of contemporary society.

My next selection from The Last Days Of The Rain Machine, Inbetween Dreams, charts his attempts to escape from these false values (as he sees it) through dreams, although it is clear that even these do not satisfy him in the way that they previously did.

My final selection from the album, Dead Guitars, is a moving exploration of the importance which music had in Adrian’s life and features one of his most beautiful melodies. By this point, however, as the lyric to the song makes clear, even music had begun to lose its allure. I would also have liked to include the brilliant if bleak Excavation Bones whose central lines (“if you dig deep enough, you hit the darker stuff”) could serve as an epigraph for the album as a whole .

My penultimate track comes from Harmony & Destruction, the album which Adrian had begun work on in early 1999 but had not completed by the time of his death. It was put together by a number of his friends and collaborators (including Pat Rowles, who had played bass guitar on the original sessions), who attempted to stick as close to his original intentions for it as they could have under the circumstances. Like Adrian’s other posthumously released recordings, it displays the extremely high level he was working at, artistically, in this late phase of his musical career.

Again, it proved extremely difficult to choose which numbers from this album to omit. Among those that came very close were the two beautiful, if melancholic songs, Heart Goes Down Like The Sun and Destiny Stopped Screaming. Eventually, however, I settled on Summer Wheels, one of Adrian’s most exuberant songs. It is strikingly different in tone from many of the other songs on that record and its predecessor and reflects the light/dark duality which had been a key feature of his work from the very beginning of his career. The song also arguably marks his attempts to lift himself out of a mood which was very different from that of the song itself.

My final choice, Sea Of Noise, comes from The Amsterdam Tapes, the album put together by the Dutch musician, Bart van Poppel, from demos which Adrian had recorded in his studio for a proposed new album (which had eventually been abandoned) in 1992. Van Poppel remastered those original recordings and added some new musicians to those tracks where he felt it was necessary. Like all of Borland’s posthumous releases, it is of a very high quality indeed and demonstrates that he was continuing to produce first-rate work, despite the personal difficulties he was working under and the disappointment he felt at his failure to break through to a wider audience. Sea Of Noise itself is one of his finest rockers, the lyric of which graphically describes the psychic pain which Borland had to live with in his later years.

Tragically, after many years of struggling with mental health issues, Adrian took his own life on 26th April 1999. He left behind a superbly rich musical legacy (both through his solo work and his earlier work with The Sound) with which many musicians who have had far longer careers would find it difficult to compete. Throughout his career, he also retained a rare integrity and a deep-seated commitment to his art. In more recent times, it also seems that his work has begun to find a new and ever more appreciative audience. While this is long overdue, it is also a testament to the continuing relevance and seemingly ageless quality of his music.

 

NOTES

1. A trailer for the recent documentary on Adrian can be seen here. Unfortunately due to rights issue in relation to the music it has not yet been made available on general release. It has, however, been shown at documentary film festivals in London, Amsterdam and some other cities.

2. An essential purchase for fans of The Sound and of Adrian’s solo work is the excellent tribute album, There Must Be A Hole In Your Memory: A Tribute To The Sound & Adrian Borland, put together by the long-time Sound fan and Toppermost contributor, Wally Salem, and released on his great label, The Beautiful Music (TBM).

3. Because Adrian’s solo albums all appeared on relatively small and obscure labels, they are quite difficult to obtain in hard copy form. As a result, the decision by the Dutch label, Sounds Haarlem, to reissue Beautiful Ammunition both on CD and vinyl this year was particularly welcome. Hopefully, this will lead to a reissuing of all of Adrian’s solo work making it available to the wide audience its quality deserves.

4. There is very little video footage available for the solo part of Adrian’s career. Unfortunately, some of the clips which have appeared of him in live performance in these years have been relatively poor in either audio or visual quality. However, this clip is a welcome exception to that rule and it also includes part of a revealing interview in which he discusses both the Sound and the early part of his solo career.

The following clip from later in his career shows Adrian performing an unreleased song, which may, perhaps, have been an early version of Over The Under from 5:00 AM.

 

 

Adrian Borland (1957–1999)

 

Brittle Heaven: Dedicated to Adrian Borland & The Sound (Official Website)

Adrian Borland, The Sound & associated discographies

“Walking In The Opposite Direction” – a film about Adrian Borland

Adrian Borland’s albums on bandcamp

The Sound Toppermost #683

White Rose Transmission – Adrian Borland, Carlo van Putten, Claudia Uman, Florian Brattman, David Maria Gramse (Wikipedia)

Adrian Borland biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

TopperPost #688

6 Comments

  1. Wally Salem
    Jan 7, 2018

    Excellent piece of writing Andrew and so true that Adrian’s music is highly under valued. I hope more of his records get a reissue. Thanks also for the mention.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Jan 7, 2018

    Another great piece Andrew and I’m delighted to have made the acquaintance of Adrian. I’ll be investigating further.

  3. Esther
    Jan 8, 2018

    Great overview of Adrian’s solo work and wonderful picks. What a consistently great songwriter he was. I hope more people continue to discover his work.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Jan 9, 2018

    Dave, Esther & Wally, many thanks for the kind comments. Agree that the quality of Adrian’s solo work means that it deserves to reach a far wider audience than it has done up until this point. As Wally has pointed out, it would be great if the good work which Sounds Haarlem has begun with the re-issue of ‘Beautiful Ammunition’ could be continued. In this regard, it would also be great if some record company were to gather together Adrian’s unreleased recordings along the lines of the excellent Nikki Sudden box set ‘The Boy From Nowhere Who Fell Out Of The Sky’.

  5. Chuck
    Aug 25, 2018

    Well damn. It only took me a mere 7 months to find this post. Again, excellent, excellent work, Andrew!

    Regards

  6. Andrew Shields
    Aug 26, 2018

    Chuck, thanks for the kind words. And it is always great to hear from someone who appreciates Adrian’s music.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓