The Sound

TrackAlbum / EP
HeartlandJeopardy
Sense Of PurposeFrom The Lions Mouth
Silent AirFrom The Lions Mouth
Party Of The MindAll Fall Down
MonumentAll Fall Down
Longest DaysShock Of Daylight EP
Counting The DaysShock Of Daylight EP
WinningIn The Hothouse
Total RecallHeads And Hearts
Barria AltaThunder Up

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

The Sound photo 1

The Sound (l to r): Graham Bailey (bass), Adrian Borland (guitar, vocals), Michael Dudley (drums), Colvin “Max” Mayers (keyboards)

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Although they never had the commercial success that the quality of their work deserved, The Sound left behind a remarkable artistic legacy which, in my view, establishes them as one of the very best English bands of their generation. In Adrian Borland, their front man and, in many respects, the ‘soul’ and driving force behind the band, they also had one of the most talented guitarists/songwriters to have emerged in England in the last forty years. His integrity, passion and intensity were among the chief characteristics which set the band apart. With The Sound, however, he was also fortunate enough to be surrounded by a group of extremely talented musicians who were as committed as he was to realising his musical vision.

Borland’s first involvement in the music business came close to the beginnings of the musical revolution inspired by punk. Indeed, some commentators have claimed that Calling On Youth the debut album released in 1977 by his first band, The Outsiders (formed with his friends, Bob Lawrence on bass and Adrian Janes on drums), was the first ever self-funded independent full length LP to be released in the UK (the Buzzcocks had released their independently produced Spiral Scratch EP earlier in that year). Calling On Youth came out on the label, Raw Edge, which had been founded by Adrian’s father Bob Borland. Along with Adrian’s mother Win, Bob Borland was to remain a staunch supporter of Adrian’s musical career throughout his life.

Calling On Youth LP

The high point of this early part of his career (for Adrian at any rate) occurred at one of The Outsiders’ very first gigs at the Roxy in London. Reflecting his ambitions for the group, he had put two of his musical heroes, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, on the guest list for that concert. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bowie did not show up that night, Iggy did. Indeed, he was sufficiently impressed by the band to join them on stage during their cover version of Raw Power. For Borland, this was a critical turning point in his life and one that confirmed his determination to pursue a career in music. The Outsiders went on to make two patchy if interesting albums, but it was clear that Borland had not yet arrived at a fully realised musical direction of his own. The key steps towards achieving this end, however, occurred in late 1978/early 1979 when The Outsiders gradually mutated into The Sound.

This process began when Graham Bailey joined the band as a replacement for Bob Lawrence (who had secured a place at university) on bass. When Adrian Janes left the group for similar reasons soon afterwards, Mike Dudley then stepped into the breach on drums. By this point, Bi Marshall had also been recruited as a keyboard player. With this line-up in place, The Sound gradually began to develop a distinctive musical character of its own. This process can be traced, in part at least, on the demo album, Propaganda, which they recorded in 1979, but which did not see official release until 1999. It was during the making of these recordings that the band also changed its name. While these demo recordings give a strong sense of the band’s potential, it was with the release of the 3-song EP Physical World in late 1979 and of their official debut album, Jeopardy, in the following year that The Sound really signalled their emergence as a significant musical force in their own right.

In their early work, the band sounded far rawer and more edgy than it was to do later on. Borland’s writing at this point was also more directly shaped by his early influences than it was subsequently. These influences included those artists mentioned earlier like Pop and Bowie, but also extended to more contemporary songwriters like Patti Smith and German bands like Can and Kraftwerk. In terms of his guitar playing, Borland owed a particular debt to James Williamson of The Stooges. It was, perhaps, through his playing that Adrian came to realise the value of brevity, which he was to use to such superb effect in his own work.

Although Jeopardy did not have quite the same level of consistent excellence which the band’s later albums were to have, it did nonetheless contain some outstanding tracks. These included the excellent I Can’t Escape Myself which dealt with some of the personal problems that plagued Adrian during his life and the anthemic anti-war song Missiles which went on to become a live favourite. My choice for inclusion though is the classic song Heartland – here’s a live performance from 1984:

Even on an album as intense as Jeopardy, Heartland stands out for its fieriness and passion. It also features one of Adrian’s characteristic short, sharp guitar solos, which invariably add a new layer of energy and excitement to those songs in which they appear. To quote Kevin Hewick, who collaborated with the band on the excellent This Cover Keeps Reality Unreal EP, as a guitarist, Borland “could do so much with so little”.

If Jeopardy provided clear proof of the band’s potential, then their next album, From The Lions Mouth, confirmed that The Sound were one of the outstanding bands of their generation. Indeed, along with the later EP Shock Of Daylight, it ranks as The Sound’s finest achievement in their career as a band. One of the features which distinguish it from Jeopardy is the presence of Colvin (aka ‘Max’) Mayers on keyboards. He had replaced Bi Marshall in the band in 1981. There had been some friction between her and Adrian on the future musical direction of the band and, in the event, Mayers was to prove far more compatible with the latter’s vision that Bi had been. Mayers had previously been in the excellent group, Cardiacs, and was an extremely talented musician in his own right. He also helped to fill out the band’s sound (for want of a better word) and also proved to have a natural flair as an arranger. His influence can be clearly seen in the superb song, Winning, where the keyboard part is absolutely central to the arrangement.

It is also, probably, Adrian’s most optimistic song, although even there it seems clear that the victories that the lyric refers to might only be extremely hard won and temporary ones. Although the song first appeared on Lion’s Mouth, I have chosen the version from the excellent live album, In The Hothouse. This version, which was recorded in 1985, has an intensity to it which even the excellent earlier recording cannot match. Throughout their existence, The Sound maintained a reputation as an outstanding live band. In part, this was due to the extraordinary concentrated force which they exhibited on stage. The following description of Adrian in full flight by Kevin Hewick gives a good account of what made them such a formidable live presence:

“I always think of Adrian the way I saw him then; all sweaty, hair lank with it, upper lip and forehead gleaming with it, because he flung himself into the songs in a way few can do with every ounce of physical effort possible. He seemed to burst out of his clothes, he seemed to burst out of his skin.”

As with Winning, other tracks on From The Lions Mouth also showed a highly skilled musical craftsmanship on the band’s part. Silent Air is a tribute to Ian Curtis of Joy Division, who had died not long before the album was made. It is one of Borland’s most affecting and atmospheric songs and is a fitting tribute both to Curtis himself and to his band, which Adrian always admitted had an important influence on his own work. An excellent live performance of the song can be viewed here. During his solo career, Adrian also occasionally performed cover versions of Curtis’ songs and one of the best of these can be heard here.

My final selection on From The Lions Mouth, Sense Of Purpose, features a typically forthright lyric from Borland, which stresses his desire never to give in to “comfort and complacency”. As Paul Morley has argued in relation to Ian Curtis, the personal element in Borland’s songs is never there for purely selfish or egotistical reasons. Instead, it serves as part of his broader attempt to come to grips with those larger questions; as Morley puts it, of “who do we think we are and what do we think we are doing?” Indeed, these types of questions are constantly being asked in his songs and a seriousness of purpose and a strong moral sense are ever present elements in his work. Here’s a typically intense live performance of Sense Of Purpose (where Adrian seems in danger of coming out through the screen) on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1981.

While From The Lions Mouth was a remarkable achievement by any standards, sadly it did not have the commercial success which its excellence deserved. In consequence, the band’s record label pushed them to adopt a more overtly commercial sound on their follow-up album, All Fall Down. However, this perceived coercion brought out the contrarian side in The Sound’s character and, as a result, they pursued a more experimental course on it than might otherwise have been the case. Indeed, the perception that All Fall Down is a ‘difficult’ album has meant that the fact that it actually contains some of the band’s most accessible music has often been ignored.

For example, my first selection from it, Party Of The Mind, is one of the group’s catchiest songs and, in other circumstances, could possibly have been a hit. Its lyric does, however, give an oblique indication of some of the personal difficulties which were affecting Adrian at the time. It also features one of his most blistering guitar solos, reminiscent of some of the brilliant work done by the great Australian guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, on the early records by The Birthday Party.

My other selection, Monument, one of The Sound’s greatest songs, features an arrangement of rare grandeur. This builds gradually from the bottom up just as a monument would be constructed and brilliantly complements the beautifully stated melody on which the song is built. Here’s an audio clip.

In the event, however, The Sound’s continued lack of commercial success meant that they were let go by the Korova label (a wing of Warner Music Group) soon after All Fall Down came out. Shortly afterwards, the band signed for the independent Scottish label, Statik. In consequence, it was on that label that their classic EP, Shock Of Daylight, was released in 1984. In my opinion, this record ranks among Adrian’s supreme achievements as a songwriter. All of the songs on it are consistently excellent and I could have included any of them here.

By this point, the band had developed an enviable and seemingly intuitive tightness. While Adrian remained the focal point of the band, the other members all brought their own individual strengths to it. Between them, Bailey and Dudley provided the essential engine room which enabled Mayers to provide the filigree work on keyboards, such an essential part of the overall sound. Shock Of Daylight also features some of Bailey’s finest bass lines and, perhaps, the best of these appears on my first selection from the EP, Longest Days. Both it and my other choice, Counting The Days, are also examples of how beautifully crafted the band’s songs were by this point.

My final choices come from the group’s last two albums. By this point, The Sound’s failure to win a wider audience had begun to have a debilitating effect on its members. There was also a growing friction within the band while Adrian Borland was experiencing increasingly severe personal problems. Ultimately, these tensions were to result in the band splitting early in 1988. Despite such difficulties, however, both of their final albums contain some very fine music. My first choice, Total Recall from Heads And Hearts (1985), is one of Borland’s finest bitter-sweet love songs. Like many of his lyrics, however, its meaning is rather oblique and its reference to “a distant victory” could, perhaps, be taken as a veiled commentary on The Sound’s fortunes up to that point.

My last choice, Barria Alta, is a brilliantly atmospheric song, which it appears was inspired by a night out in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon. Like many of the other songs on their final album, Thunder Up (1987), it has a distinctly experimental feel and it demonstrated that the group were still seeking out new ideas even at this late point in their career. Indeed, Thunder Up is maybe the most underrated in their entire body of work and has only recently begun to receive the kind of critical reassessment which it deserves.

More broadly speaking, the last few years have seen a major revival of interest in the group’s work and a growing appreciation of the exceptional character of Adrian Borland’s songwriting. With the recent release of a documentary on his life, there has also been a long overdue acceptance that both he and The Sound deserved far greater recognition than they received during the band’s existence.

 

The Sound photo 2

 

Adrian Borland (1957–1999)

Colvin “Max” Mayers (1961-1993)

 

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

The Sound, Adrian Borland solo + associated discographies

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

Adrian Borland – Toppermost #688

Cult heroes: The Sound … by Dave Simpson (The Guardian, 2016)

Bi Marshall: interview by John Clarkson (Penny Black, 2014)

The Sound 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 ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Buzzcocks, Can, Cardiacs, Kevin Hewick, Rowland S. Howard, Joy Division, Kraftwerk

TopperPost #683

4 Comments

  1. Wally Salem
    Dec 12, 2017

    Brilliant piece of writing on an amazing group that deserves more of a following. Adrian’s work is consistently great and anything he released is worth searching out.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Dec 14, 2017

    Wally, thanks for the kind words and I agree about the consistent excellence of Adrian’s work. What is also striking is his versatility – some of his later solo work is strikingly different from The Sound but equally as good. It is a pity he remains so underrated, but it is good to see the revival in interest in his work in recent times.

  3. Chuck Shackelford
    Jan 5, 2018

    I agree with Wally. This is a great piece on one of music’s more criminally under-appreciated musicians / bands. And, as far as I’m concerned, the more light shed on both his and their collective brilliance the better. Yeah, well done, Andrew.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Jan 7, 2018

    Chuck, many thanks for the kind words and completely agree that The Sound’s music has been unduly neglected. You might also be interested in my piece on Adrian’s solo work which has recently been posted on this site.

Submit a Comment

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

↓