A blog about the music of Brian Eno, Harold Budd & others

During the day I often have BBC Radio 3 playing at a very low volume: unlike recordings with vocal content the classical music doesn’t interfere with my train of thought in any way, but does provide a level of stimulus. (Radio 3 does play a lot of opera, which is obviously vocal, but you know what I mean.) A while ago the station played a gentle ambient piece by Brian Eno, which caught my attention. I looked up some more Eno, and asked a friend who likes Eno’s music what he’d recommend as a starting point. He suggested a couple of albums.

I’ve found that I love this stuff. The title track of The Pearl, an album by Brian Eno and Harold Budd, is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, a deceptively simple composition that gradually increases in complexity and layering. Through headphones a stereo-pan whooshing sound is audible, which I reckon is one of the analogue effects used on the track, adding an effect of its own. The music overall is like fairies, sparks of light that exist in the spaces between moments. Curious visitors with delicate, pointed features, thin bones visible through their translucent skin.

The Winter Garden album – a collaboration between Eraldo Bernocchi, Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie – is probably my favourite. Harmony and the Play of Light is a beautiful track of sweet, gentle sounds with almost menacing undertones and harmonics. Instead of decaying, notes increase in volume, or shift in pitch, or develop vibrato. The relationships between the notes change and grow. The notes seem to create music of their own as other sounds rise or drift in. I see a black lake in a cavern. The light of the music reflects off the water’s oily surface, changing colour and shimmering. The lights rise, blue and white and sparkling gold, then drift back into the blackness. Some of the notes are old and wise. Younger ones want to play.

Heavy Heart Some More is like signals broadcast by a vast alien machine housed in a subterranean chamber. It’s ancient. Huge. A monolith. It’s sent out these signals for thousands of years but received no response. None will come.

There is Nobody on Eno’s Music for Films is almost tribal-sounding. Quartz is beams of light in ice-blue and gold rising from circles of stone in a pebbled garden, merging with thicker red and orange bands. Alternative 3 is a giant wolf stalking, trailing salvia, all hot breath and coarse black fur.

Slow Water on Eno’s album Music for Films has distant alien broadcasts. Then wine glasses singing. (You know how to make a wine glass sing, right? Right.) And maybe a bit of whale song. Then it all comes together in this incredibly relaxed, gentle piece. A woman in a floaty dress levitates above the ground with her arms swaying out beside her. She’s looking to her right, long red hair rising up above her shoulders. Maybe she’s under water. She just drifts, utterly at peace. As the track fades, she does too.

I find this music really stimulating to work to. All music I’ve previously experienced has been somehow two-dimensional, created and performed. But the music of Eno and Budd et al is not of this world; it is of other, far more exotic places. It is the music of gods and aliens, of transcendence. I don’t think this music is even owned by the musicians who created it – each soundscape is an entity in its own right. It’s as if these musicians have formed these sounds and then released them to find their own way, in turn producing sounds of their own. An analogy is obvious. To me this music seems to represent the purest form of creation.

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Gotta love your man – a blog about Riders on the Storm

Riders on the Storm was never really one of my favourite tracks by The Doors. It was a bit too sophisticated, and that thunderstorm stuff was a bit corny, wasn’t it? I always preferred more rock ‘n’ roll/blues tracks such as Back Door Man and Soul Kitchen. But I was younger then, and while I still really like these tracks, when listening to Riders on the Storm recently I was stuck by the track’s true beauty.

Ray Manzarek’s keyboard shimmers and sparkles. John Densmore’s drums are soft and jazzy and sit snug with the steady bass from Jerry Scheff. The vocals are warm but with a distant, ghostly reverb. And Robby Krieger’s guitar? If I still played guitar and could have only one sound it would be the clean tone on this track. It’s smooth and warm and sweet, with just the right amount of sparkle through the amp as Krieger digs in. Listen as Morrison sings take a long holiday or make him understand within the first few minutes, and you’ll hear the guitar sound thicken as the harmonics develop. There’s a great contrast with the vibrato sound, too.

It’s not just about the sounds of course, but the playing. The musicianship is wonderful, the lightness of touch and the relationship between the members of the band really in evidence. The guitar and keyboards often play the same phrases simultaneously – a feature of many Doors tracks – or bounce off each other while the rhythm section maintains a solid foundation.

Riders is a gradual builder. So gradual you don’t realise it’s happening. The track’s relatively long, too, with an extended jazz/funk instrumental break. This section itself builds, gradually increasing in intensity, pace and complexity until eventually the keyboard takes us by the hand and leads us down into a wonderful, quiet few moments of thunder and rain. Then there’s a brief drum fill, and the steady, mellow music resumes. This bit gives me the tingles every time.

The production seems relatively straight, but the simplicity might be deceptive: often a considerable amount of work has gone into making something like this seem uncomplicated. Listening to the track repeatedly, many details become apparent. For example as the track ends and the storm reaches its peak the very subtle percussion becomes busier, and Morrison’s repetition of riders on the storm gradually gets more vocal layers until he can be heard screaming the words way back in the mix.

And then it all slows, the shimmering call and response guitar and keyboards fading as the storm weakens. Wonderful.

Here’s a link to Riders on the Storm, on youtube.

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I Think That’s the One – a blog about my favourite vintage Bowie

While performing a mundane household task the other day I thought I’d put on some music. I had a look through our CDs and settled on some Bowie – a “best of” collection. Just out of interest I thought I’d try to decide which was my favourite of these vintage tracks. (Well, I guess all Bowie’s vintage now, but this particular album covered 1969–1974.) One track did win out for me, but there were a few close runners-up.

Hazy cosmic jive

I’ve been a Bowie fan since I was first aware of Space Oddity. I would’ve been two years old when this was released, so its one of those tracks that’s always just been there. It’s a unique track, and listening to it closely there’s incredible detail in the recording – something that’s true of all of these songs. But this one’s not my favourite.

For a while I thought it’d be Changes, with its warm, alluring intro, shifts in tempo and key. Or Sorrow with its soft, lilting vocals, saxophones and strings. But no. The Man Who Sold the World (my wife’s fave) is another great track. I love it’s lazy, compressed guitar hook, but the lyric I gazed a gazely stare drops me out of this one every time. I’ve got something of a soft spot for Rock n Roll Suicide: like Space Oddity it’s a track that stood out even when I was a kid. But I didn’t feel that was the one, either.

So which track was it? Well, in a way I didn’t want it to be this one, because in many ways it’s an obvious choice.

The winner is (insert drum roll here): Life on Mars

Oh, man, look at those cavemen go

Life on Mars is a stunning track. The piano riff on the run up to the chorus is superb. Take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy. That lyric alone could swing it for me. There are eddies and flows and orchestral flurries, the sheer drama of the cellos and strings. Timpany drums! And that beautiful, delicate piano in the reprise, followed by the ringing phone and the words I think that’s the one – presumably referring to the recording, I don’t know. Life on Mars is melancholy and dramatic and unashamedly epic, and I love all that about it.

While listening to these tracks I was reminded of Bowie’s immense talent. The man’s a master of vocal variation, and the musicianship on these recordings is fantastic. There will not be another like him, so versatile and influential.

So that’s it: my favourite vintage Bowie track. Predictable, perhaps, but with good reason. What’s yours?

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Relax and Swing – a blog about 80s pop group Japan

I was mad into Japan 25-30 years ago. I had David Sylvian hair (well, kinda – and as my wife pointed out, “everyone had their hair like that”; but then she went to a girls’ school). I also had a Sylvian coat, but although I tried to get shoes like those he wore on the back of the Tin Drum cover, the best I could do was a pair of cheap espadrilles from Bacons. It was a fascination with the band I shared with a friend, who wore a similar coat and and had similar hair. We must have looked a right pair when we walked around Tamworth. Where are you now, Warren Garret?

Sometimes I’d have friends round to my house. Being an enthusiastic sort I’d make them sit cross-legged on my bedroom floor attempting to eat Chinese food with chopsticks while playing Japan albums on my Amstrad. When we went out we’d ask the DJ to play Quiet Life, with it’s helicopter sound, sweeping keyboards and wailing guitar. This is a great, powerful dance track that you’ll sing to without realising it, and which somehow sits comfortably between glam and disco and new wave. It’s got depth, too. At the end there are numerous vocal layers, including a very deep vocal that’s barely audible through anything but headphones.


Since hearing about Mick Karn’s premature death from cancer last week I’ve been listening to the band a lot. Back in the day I tended to focus on Sylvian’s voice. He always struck me as somewhat affected and pretentious even when I was 14; but that’s OK, because he was a pop star, and pop stars should always be out of the ordinary, right? Right.

The thing is, listening to Japan now what strikes me most from my older and more musically appreciative viewpoint is the innovation in the band’s music, and the quite incredible musicianship.

Japan got lumped in with the whole New Romantic thing that was developing at the beginning of the 1980s, but that wasn’t really what they were about. Yes, they wore make-up and had hair in spades, but this was more to do with their glam roots than anything. They were Avant-guard, more influential of the New Romantic scene, particularly Duran Duran, than part of it. Although let’s face it, being labelled “New Romantic” probably didn’t do the band any harm at the time.

Japan’s music is complex and carefully constructed. Although not a style the band is associated with, there’s considerable funk, and intricate rhythms with lots of percussion, drum machines and “real” drums from Steven Jansen, all usually happening at the same time without sounding a mess – not an easy trick to pull off. Then there’s the minimalist guitar work; often it doesn’t sound like a guitar at all, with great dive-bomb sounds or sitting just the right side of rock – more attitude than anything. Then there’s wonderfully warm and warbling sounds produced by Richard Barbieri’s keyboards, with everything underpinned by Karn’s fantastic bass playing.

Karn was probably the coolest member of Japan for my money. His bass playing was nothing short of phenomenal. He used a fretless bass, which has a unique, woody sound anyway, but this guy played bends and slides and vibrato in a very percussive and funky style. He was also responsible for the Bowie-esque chorused saxophone sound the band used such a lot, as well as more exotic instruments such as the ocarina.


The Smokey Robinson classic I Second That Emotion was a big hit for Japan, being very accessible to many people, and coming along as the New Romantic scene began to blossom. While this is a great track that the band covered in their own style very effectively, it’s not my favourite simply because it’s a cover. However, I could listen to Karn’s bass line all day, with that little slide down at the end of each phrase.

My all-time favourite Japan track is Swing, from the album Gentlemen Take Polaroids. Why do I like it so much? I understand now that what draws me to much of Japan’s music, and this track in particular, is the use of flat notes, semi-tone changes and minor chords. This is what makes many of the band’s tracks pretty dark, despite somehow managing to remain “pop”. This is something that also draws me to artists such as Nick Cave and Radiohead.

The vocal is pretty soulful. While I always liked Sylvian’s voice I thought it was somewhat over-croony at times, but respect to the man – he could really sing. Underneath it all, a drum machine and Jansen’s drumming perfectly compliment each other, supported by synth textures that are by turns powerful and beautiful, but often subtle enough to pass by the casual listener.


Ghosts is perhaps Japan’s most famous track, and possibly the one which encapsulates the band. Back in 1981, and even today, Ghosts as a pop song is pretty daring, with Barbieri’s wibbly-wobbly keyboard notes and fart noises reminiscent of the sounds generated by Louis and Bebe Baron for the beginning of the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet.

This is a dark song that draws you in gradually. The guitar complements the keyboards as Barbieri uses pitch bends and great warmth in the synth sounds to offset the tortured vocal. Everything grows gently as the song builds to Sylvian’s plea in the last chorus, beneath which is a beautiful, minimalist high keyboard line. It is pop genius in what is an otherwise very downbeat song.

Cantonese Boy was one of Japan’s biggest hits, with a more poppy sound than many of the band’s other songs. To be honest I never really liked the chorus on this one – the oriental thing’s just a tad overdone – but Karn’s bass is something really special, with wonderful percussion. There’s also a great instrumental bridge from the chorus back into the verse, with Barbieri’s synth whistles and chirps and percussive playing.

There are great dynamics and space in most of Japan’s tracks, and Cantonese Boy is no exception, despite sounding relatively full. There are also very subtle touches in terms of production, with shifts in the stereo field and changes of reverb. Huge kudos to Steve Nye here.

The first verse is a perfect example: the high synth lines switch from left in the stereo field to the right on alternate phrases, and act as a minimalist hook throughout the verse; the bass and drums are quite up front, the bass central and steady. When Sylvian’s voice comes in it is initially quite dry with little reverb, and central in the stereo field; it then separates, with more reverb, supported by multiple vocal overdubs, and alternates with the dryer, single vocal.

This is all within the first 45 seconds, kids.

The Art of Parties

Okay, so Japan’s eastern thing was perhaps a little overcooked, but it gave them unique positioning. Looking back, they were a band whose musicianship was perhaps not as appreciated as it should have been.

Does Japan’s music sound dated? I don’t know. I’d have to get a teenager to listen to it and gauge their reaction. To me, it’s a tremendously creative sound that’s way more than the sum of its component parts, and stands its ground in terms of creativity.  Play a few tracks, and take a listen beyond that which immediately presents itself – you might hear stuff you’ve never heard before.

All you’ve got to do is relax, man. Relax and swing.

I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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