Articles / Reviews

The Sound - Big In Rotterdam (Record Collector 01-03-2002)

date: Mar 1, 2002


Joy Division emulated them. They signed to the Bunnymen's label. Yet the Sound were destined to remain firmly underground. Paul Sutton Reeves talks to the band's two surviving members to find out why.

Despite releasing six albums in their lifetime, The Sound remain one of the great unheard bands of the 80s. This goes with the underground territory, of course, but what exactly is the sound of The Sound? There was much in common with Korova label-mates, Echo and the Bunnymen, with Adrian Borland's vocals falling somewhere between Ian McCulloch and The Comsat Angels' Steve Fellows. And if you need further comparisons, it's broadly similar to other early 80s alternative acts like the Teardrop Explodes and Mancunian underground doomsters, The Chameleons.

Like their northern soul mates, The Comsats, The Sound were an enormous act in the Netherlands who never made the breakthrough back home. And while interest over there remains high, here the band has been almost forgotten. In 1996 the Renascent label was set up to rectify matters and make the Sound's output available again, enabling long-term fans to replace their worn-out vinyl and newcomers to explore the Sound archives. Now the entire back catalogue has been reissued on CD for the first time, replete with card covers, lyric booklets and bonus tracks. Most of the albums feature sleevenotes with Sound bites from assorted experts — former band members, ex-manager, Steve Budd, and so on. It's all been masterminded by Mick Griffiths, described by bass player Graham Bailey as the band's "biggest fan and friend". And for those who can't get enough, there's a B-sides and rarities compilation on the way.

The story after the London band's breakup in 1988 ends in tragedy. Keyboard player Colvin Mayers died from AIDS in 1993. And then, in 1999, singer, songwriter and guitarist, Adrian Borland committed suicide by throwing himself under a train in front of horrified commuters at Wimbledon station. He had long suffered from bouts of depression. And so only Bailey and drummer Michael Dudley were left. The Sound emerged from the ashes of punk band, the Outsiders, Their debut album, Jeopardy, met with enthusiastic reviews in the music press back in 1980. What it lacked in subtlety it made up for in energy, containing the early anthems, 'Heartland' and 'Missiles', songs destined to remain fixtures in the band's set throughout their career. Suddenly they were being touted as 'the next big thing'. This is the album of which Graham Bailey feels proudest because it was their first to be released: "I felt I had really achieved something in my life. I couldn't wait to hand out copies to family and friends," he admits. "It was the most fun to record and the biggest challenge to work on in the studio. We were limited to eight tracks, but by putting several overdubs on one track we were able to stretch it to 12-plus tracks."

The Sound's second album, 1981's From The Lion's Mouth, is their most complete. On its re-release, Borland left strict instructions that no extra tracks should be added, he was happy with it just as it was. From its defiantly uplifting opener, 'Winning', to the menacing guitars and timpani of its closing track, 'New Dark Age', it's an extremely powerful record. Bailey describes it as "the most polished, and probably our most commercial album, with some of the greatest songs". Disappointed by the sales of the band's output, Warners/Korova pushed the Sound to produce a more chart-friendly offering for their third album. They responded with 1982's All Fall Down, their least commercial release to date. For many fans, this is the band's finest moment, full of dark twists and turns. Warners responded by promptly dropping the band. The Sound signed to the independent Statik and released the Shock Of Daylight mini-album in 1984, reminiscent of the Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds. Steve Sutherland, then writing in Melody Maker, and a big fan of both the latter bands, continued to devotedly champion the Sound. And though Shock Of Daylight saw the band at its most melodic and accessible on tracks such as 'Counting The Days', it still failed to bear commercial fruit.

The follow-up was 1985's Heads And Hearts. Both albums are reissued now on a single CD. Songs like 'Total Recall' pay homage to the Comsat Angels, while 'Burning Part Of Me' again brings to mind Simple Minds in the days before they went all stadium on us. The jazz-inflected runs of Bill Nelson's saxophonist brother, lan, add an extra dimension to the album. Bailey is ambivalent about this stage in the band's career. Dudley is more damning, describing Heads And Hearts as "a real low point - drab, lifeless and miserable". The Sound recorded one further album, 1987's Thunder Up, still available on Play It Again Sam. Bailey describes it as their "crowning glory". Dudley agrees: "It was recorded in the teeth of all the problems that caused us to break up, on a budget of tuppence and a shirt button, yet contains the best songs we ever wrote and Adrian's best lyrics". In 1988, the band's trip on the London underground arrived at its terminus. Dudley explains: "We'd come to the end of our collective tether - no money, no progress to bigger and better things," he ruefully states. "Adrian's illness was proving a real burden to him and us, leading to a cancelled European tour. Some Dutch dates to fulfil contractual obligations proved the final straw for his state of mind. My impatience with certain habits that the band had fallen into and concern for Adrian's health led to my departure. After that, it ceased to exist." Bailey takes up the story: "Dud left. We tried for another drummer but none were even close to a match for him. We stopped rehearsing and felt no point in continuing as The Sound. We decided that we couldn't do a better album than Thunder Up and we would rather quit at the peak. How many bands do you know that should have quit years ago, instead of churning out all this stale crap?" He's got a point...

Listening to 1985's excellent live album, In The Hothouse, it's not a million miles away from bands like U2 and James, who obviously became massive. And yet the Sound never did make it big. Why not? In the rock world, the difference between success and failure often depends on something pretty trivial. It's been suggested that the band was insufficiently 'northern' to fit in with the gloom-merchant scene at the time. Yet this never hindered the Cure or Banshees. Unlike the Bunnymen, The Sound didn't have a strong visual image, and Borland wasn't a heart-throb or icon in the Mac or Bono mould. In the world of doomster-rock these constitute a considerable handicap. How do the surviving members account for it? "We spent too much time splashing about in the shallows, too afraid to strike out for the ocean, and missed the tide," says Dudley, who admits he wouldn't have minded tasting a little commercial success. "I think that Adrian was in love with the idea of being an under-current influence In the world of 'alternative' music rather than a major figure. Our relationships with the media, record company, promoters and others who may have ohelped us were always awkward and difficult."

"We simply wouldn't comply with the demands of Warners," confirms Bailey. "We wouldn't play the game the way they wanted and weren't prepared to relinquish any artistic control. After the rebellious All Fall Down, Warner 'let us go'. In hindsight that was the kiss of death - at the time we saw it as freedom to do whatever we wanted! We spent some time with Statik - they went belly-up. Then we were conned by Play It Again Sam." (Bailey claims the last label paid the band no royalties either) Perhaps the very accomplishment of that live album tells its own story. Bailey certainly thinks so: "We were a live band, without a doubt - the studio albums generally lacked the fire. I remember Hugh Jones' (producer on From The Lion's Mouth) frustration at us speeding up and slowing down all over the place. We fed off the audience - changing tempo gets them going, changes the mood ...'

Borland went on to a similarly low-key solo career. The other members quit the business. Dudley works in occupational psychology, Bailey at an American TV station. Borland also produced several bands, among them the Servants. This band contained a certain Luke Hainaa, who would go on to form the Auteurs. It's fitting then that this leading light of the 80s underground should usher in the career of one of the 90s key figures. As a strange epilogue to The Sound story, the band's earliest recordings were released in 1999 as Propaganda, making these original Sound tracks available on album for the first time. It contains fast-paced, moody rock and roll In the Iggy-Bowie-Roxy vein. Ironically, of all their albums, it's the one that sounds least dated. Perhaps this is the sound they should've pursued. Dudley concurs, "I heard Propaganda recently on its release as a proper album and was shocked at just how good it sounds - fresh and alive, even after all this time."

Borland's sleevenotes for that album record his view that Joy Division's lan Curtis adopted both his vocal style and outlook on fife. How ironic then that Borland should follow Curtis, committing suicide shortly after writing those notes. He had just put the finishing touches to the second White Rose Transmission album, his collaboration with Carlo van Putten of the Convent. As a tribute to Borland, the new material was performed live by van Putten, with Mark Burgess of the Chameleons taking on his late friend's duties. And what has the world lost with the death of Adrian Borland? "A hugely talented but deeply troubled and confused individual," suggests Dudley. The final words belong to Bailey, who had been friends with Borland since primary school days: "I can't answer for the world. I have a hole in my heart, for him and for Colvin. Judging by all the comments left on Brittle Heaven (the official Borland website), a lot of people are going to miss him. I didn't realise how many people he touched - I don't think he did either."

Paul Sutton Reeves - Record Collector - March 2002

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