Cult heroes: the Sound – critical darlings who were crowded out by kings of angst
With the zeal of Joy Division, the majesty of the Bunnymen and the melancholy of the Cure, it’s one of music’s eternal mysteries why this band never made it big. Some bands rack up hit after hit and enjoy fame and fortune. Others never reach the top 20 but amass a following substantial enough to sustain a decades-long career. Then there are those who – if they don’t fail entirely – amass an array of glowing reviews that never translate into large-scale public recognition, and end up with that poisoned chalice of a tag, the “critics’ favourite”.
So it was for the Sound, who blazed forth in the post-punk years alongside the likes of Joy Division, the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen. They left behind five terrific studio albums and one in particular – 1981’s From the Lions Mouth – as great as virtually anything in the canon. As Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland put it at the time: “Lions Mouth could be the end of the line for me and ‘rock’ records – it’s that good.”
The Sound’s second album had the raw intensity (and brooding basslines) of Joy Division, the majesty of the Bunnymen and the tender mournfulness of the Cure, but its own identifiable sound. In Adrian Borland, the band had a frontman every bit as driven, compelled (and compelling) as Ian Curtis. Just why it never quite happened for them is one of those mysteries that baffles fans to this day.
Maybe it was that with so much great music flooding out in the early 80s, the Sound were simply crowded out. Maybe it had something to do with them being on the same label – the Warners subsidiary Korova – as the already successful Bunnymen, meaning they received less of their label’s attention than they should have done. Maybe it was because Borland didn’t have the otherwordly good looks of, say, the young Ian McCulloch, or that the band dressed more like office workers than trailblazing kings of angst. Ian Curtis’s suicide in 1980 catapulted Joy Division to national attention. When Adrian Borland killed himself 19 years later, his equally tragic loss went virtually unnoticed.
The Sound emerged from the ashes of the Outsiders, a little-remembered London band whose 1977 debut, Calling on Youth, was the first self-released punk album, just months after Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP, Britain’s first DIY punk single. The band didn’t last, but Borland took bassist Graham Bailey (later surnamed Green) into the Sound, searching for something deeper and longer lasting than three-chord tirades against the government.
I saw the Sound before I heard them, chancing upon the sleeve of their debut album, Jeopardy, in the racks of Leeds HMV. It featured a moody monochrome illustration, and I knew instinctively that I’d like them. Even so, in those far-off schooldays when an album purchase was a significant investment, I put off buying it, unaware of the five-star reviews comparing it to Joy Division, the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes. Some time later, I finally got to hear what they sounded like via a killer John Peel session containing songs from Lions Mouth. I rushed back to HMV and that second album became my Sound first.
Like, say, Joy Division’s Closer, time hasn’t blunted its intensity. If anything, it sounds even more powerful now, because so little rock music sounds so audibly, desperately real. In 1981, Borland’s emotional lyrics confronted his troubled crossing from teenage years to early adulthood, but today those concerns are universal: they’re the anguished cry from the heart of someone finding himself consumed by all around him, always swimming against the tide.
In From the Lions Mouth’s anthemic opener, Winning, Borland turns this on its head, Max Mayers’s hypnotic keyboard riff propelling the singer’s roar of defiant positivity: “I was gonna drown … I was going down, and then I started winning.” The second track, Sense of Purpose, is a similar call to arms – “a call to the heart, a call to have a heart”. The exquisite Contact the Fact is an unconditional but seemingly unrequited love song of almost painful vulnerability: “Hate it when I’m crazy. It’s a side of love, you never wanted to see.” By the driving Skeletons, the demons have reappeared: “There’s a gaping hole in the way we are, with nothing to fill it up any more.”
The early-80s pop scene was certainly not short on moody types – and every fifth teenager (this one included) would perfect a sullen pout, grow their fringe over their eyes and carry a Joy Division album (or Russian novel) under their arm, to try to look enigmatic and mysterious. But listening to From the Lions Mouth as an adult, it sounds like an album that has been inspired by genuine, deep depression. Borland’s troubles are laid bare in A Fatal Flaw – “I’ve made a strange disappearance, one that no one can see. You can’t reach me any more, turn to face the fatal flaw.” Possession finds him fighting his demons: “A war being waged, that can never be won.” The sense of futility in the closing track, New Dark Age – “Scratched away at the walls for years, and all we’ve got to show is the dust on the floor” – is almost completely banished by the percussive, raw, primal scream of the music, in which Borland sounds ready to kick down the doors and take on all comers.
“This was going to be it then. The BIG IMPORTANT second album,” writes drummer Michael Dudley, in the sleevenotes of the reissued album. It wasn’t it. Although From the Lions Mouth shifted 100,000 copies worldwide, Dudley observes that the Sound made much more of an impact in Germany and the Netherlands than in the UK. “And every time we came back, it felt like the cell door clanging shut behind us.”
Under record company pressure to deliver a more successful follow-up, the Sound instead turned in their Metal Machine Music. All Fall Down isn’t as impenetrable as Lou Reed’s raised finger to RCA – and it is adored by fans - but it was so brutally intense that Warners dropped them afterwards and reviewers turned. The six-song EP Shock of Daylight (1984), Heads and Hearts (1985) and Thunder Up (1987) appeared on independent labels, and the last was another magnificently brooding effort. But there were fewer takers every time, which was the story of the Sound.
Borland went on to minor European success, produced albums for others and made several fine, accomplished solo albums. His last single, Over the Under received rapturous reviews. Borland sang: “I want to live, at least I’m going to try, but I’m over the under.” Then suddenly he was gone.
It transpired that he’d had schizoaffective disorder for many years, developed a drinking problem and had made several failed suicide attempts before killing himself at Wimbledon railway station in the early hours of Boxing Day, 1999. He was 41.
Perhaps, had Borland – and Mayers, who died of Aids in the early 90s – lived, the Sound would have reformed and, with ever more acclaim being showered on their reissued catalogue and more exposure via YouTube than they ever dreamed of during their original existence, would be touring these songs to the appreciative audiences they deserve.
My big regret is that I never saw them live, but I did meet Borland once, in the mid 90s, when I was introduced to him in the audience at the Marquee in London. He was lovely, hugging me and shaking my hand again and again as he thanked me for my wonderfully glowing Sounds review of a Sound gig that had been recorded for the live album In the Hothouse, which he proceeded to quote, almost in its entirety. “If I’ve seen a more intense gig this year, I’d appreciate being told,” he recited. He was so visibly and movingly thrilled that I hadn’t the heart to tell him that he was mistaking me for the writer Chris Roberts. I just wanted to let Adrian Borland enjoy a moment of glory and what looked like real happiness. The tragedy of the Sound is that there really should have been so many more.
Dave Simpson (The Guardian)