Articles / Reviews

We Could Go Far: The Sound (Clashmusic)

date: Feb 16, 2012


On the 18th of May of each year, fans from all over the world make a pilgrimage to the pit of Lancashire known as Macclesfield to pay tribute to Ian Curtis. Coming up to the thirty second year since death at his own hand, the passion of fans has only become more fervent whilst the commercialisation of his death has reached its lowest ebb, sneakers, bath-towels, Disney t-shirts, his band's bass player hawking third rate cover versions, that kinda thing.

On the 26th of April each year there is nothing. There are no 180 gram re-issues, no crying fans arriving from Japan, no commemorative box sets, nothing. Even a canny career move such as death, especially as shocking as suicide, has gone un-noticed but it’s what Adrian Borland would have expected. As the lead singer and guitarist of South London post-punk four piece The Sound and ten years as a solo artist he had become used to his heartfelt outpourings being looked over for artists more glamorous and photogenic. On the morning of the 26th of April 1999 after dealing with a lack of recognition and severe manic depression, he ended the many years of internal turmoil, he jumped in front of a train.

Despite almost everyone saying no when asked if they have heard The Sound, their extensive back catalogue rich with 80’s alternative gloom-rock can be heard in almost every recent band of misery guts from Interpol to Editors, O. Children to White Lies. Adrian Borland as a lead singer is cut from the same mould as the barely suppressed fury of Kurt Cobain and Craig Nicholls of The Vines, watch his incandescent performance of ‘Missiles’ on YouTube and see for yourself.

Back in 2007 I was given a CD of MP3’s by a friend who had recently spent £40 on what I eventually found out was The Sound’s second album ‘From The Lion's Mouth’. I dropped the usual line of ‘yeah I’ll take a listen’ and the CD ended up in some pile or other, forgotten about. During a half arsed attempt at a bit of spring cleaning I came across the CD and decided to put it on. Taken aback by what was coming from the speakers I sat and listened properly to this band I’d never even heard of let alone heard anything by.

The fact they are so overlooked is made even more confusing when you take a look at their contemporaries at the time, all of whom enjoyed much love; they shared a record label with Echo and The Bunnymen, they supported a young U2 and could be bunched in with Joy Division, early Simple Minds and The Chameleons. Their critical acclaim failed to translate into actual sales but they had a dedicated albeit small following in UK and achieved bigger success elsewhere in Europe while holding a healthy disdain for their attention receiving rivals The Smiths which was actually illegal at the time. Since that accidental listen to ‘From The Lion's Mouth’ I’ve become familiar with most of The Sound’s material, they easily held their own amongst the bands mentioned above, anyone who goes on to listen to their scratchy post-punk debut ‘Jeopardy’, the jagged indie pop of sophomore ‘From the lions mouth’ and personal fave ‘Heads And Hearts’ will reap the endless benefits of a back catalogue that endlessly gives and expects nothing back.

Their status as a long lost band could be down to a number of things; who needed another alternative guitar band in the early 80’s? They didn’t have the lips of Mac, the glorious pomp of Stephen Patrick or the ultimate sacrifice of Curtis. People go on about how pop music these days is all about image rather than musical integrity but The Sound's lack of success could easily be attributed to their non-image: a lead singer carrying a few extra pounds than the ‘norm’ (and a short fuse) was not Smash Hits pull out poster material at the time.

The Sound split up in 1988 after a fifth album the year prior, Borland continued to make music while Mike Dudley, Graham Bailey and Max Mayers all retired immediately. I managed to track down one of the two surviving members of the band (Mayers died in ’93 of a HIV related illness), Mike Dudley and asked him several questions about his time in The Sound….

One of the main things about The Sound’s lack of success to me seems that you either had indie bands on indie labels or rock bands on majors, the two scenes were very much separated. The Sound were an indie band but on a major label so they weren’t taken that seriously by indie fans and treated with suspicion by rock fans, it was an incredibly snobby time for guitar scenes at the time therefore I guess you guys suffered because of it.

“That’s an interesting hypothesis and I suppose there may be something in it. My own feeling is that our lack of further success following a promising start was down to a lack of promotion from the record company, who seemed to prefer focusing their resources on Hairdo and the Funnymen".

They probably thought Mac was a safer commercial bet, what with him being prettier and all...

"To be frank, we didn’t do ourselves any favours either. We were a truculent bunch. Not the sort to meet a record company halfway over anything, really“.

These days it’s the direct opposite, there are very few indie labels left but the concept of indie is anyone with a guitar regardless of them being on 4AD or Universal, do you think you would have stood a better chance if you were active now?

“Brutus: “There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
is bound in shallows and in miseries...”

Or, to quote Captain Beefheart: “When it’s time for steam trains, it steam trains.”

There’s an interview on YouTube where there’s some reference made to the Smiths and Adrian gets really pissed off and spits something really angrily out about them, was there rivalry, jealousy about those guys, if so, why?

“Adrian was often spitting angrily about something or other. A journalist was probably unwise enough to ask him what he thought of The Smiths and I just think he was excoriating Morrissey for being the antithesis of what he considered to be a genuinely passionate artist - like his heroes Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, for instance. Personally, I’ve always been fond of Morrissey’s louche and slightly mocking approach, but that was Adrian for you - forceful when speaking or singing from the heart.”

There seems to be a rapid progression from the proto-punk stuff with the outsiders and the harder bits of debut album ‘Jeopardy’ to the mature musical subtlety from ‘From The Lion’s Mouth’ onwards where it seemed to click as a band, is that the case?

“I suspect that Adrian had known from early on that, although he was as enthusiastic about the first wave of punk as we all were, it wasn’t going to last. He soon wanted to move on and explore more creative depth and this is why his manager, Geoffrey Cummant-Wood, approached me as being a different type of drummer when Jan wanted to leave The Outsiders. I tried to encourage a more exploratory approach to making music with the band, although I do remember one very early rehearsal round at my place where Jan was trying to teach me how to play along to The Stooges’ 'TV Eye' - 'just hit the kit four to the bar, Mike....'"

I read that third album’ All Fall Down’ was a deliberate attempt at commercial suicide, this is used as an excuse these days for why the audience didn’t buy it. Was that the case here or did you go out to deliberately challenge your fans, what was the reaction to this?

“’All Fall Down’ was to be an attempt at a more “commercial” direction, as encouraged by Warner Brothers, into whose care we had been sloughed off by Rob Dickens at Korova. Naturally, we were having none of that! Adrian and Graham, as their alter-ego '2nd Layer', had had some success with the album 'World of Rubber' and felt that, as our (hand) gesture at commerciality, we could incorporate some of the '2nd Layer' techniques into the new album’s style".

"We felt completely pissed off at the situation which we saw as being a complete lack of faith in us from the 'business' and we were in no mood to be dictated to. As it happens, some of the “electronic” approach worked and some of it didn’t. It’s a real mixed bag for me, but does have some of my favourite stuff on it. 'Monument', 'Party' and (the original) 'We Could Go Far', for instance“.

With the benefit of hindsight you can see hints of Adrian’s depression through his lyrics just as much as you could with Ian Curtis. When did you realise there was something wrong and what did the band do to help?

“At Adrian’s wake, his mother Wyn reminded me that as far back as 1984 I had mentioned to her that I suspected Adrian was having some sort of internal problem. It did not become a full-blown situation until around 1986, when Adrian’s mood swings and unusual behaviours were beginning to have a detrimental effect on the band and the organisation around him, he had become very difficult to deal with on all sorts of levels. We did what we could, in our different ways, to cope or to try and help, but of course none of us had any experience in dealing with serious psychiatric illness“.

My favourite album of the catalogue is ‘Heads And Hearts‘, it’s the one that sounds the most contemporary twenty five years later. The keyboards and drumming in particular stand out especially the tribal sounds on tracks such as ‘World As It Is’ and ’New Way Of Life’; you sounded like a band on fire with some of Borland’s most desolate lyrics. It’s a pretty intense album, was it an intense one to make?

“There are some songs on this album that display Adrian at his most gloomy and unattractive and they are my least favourite songs of our whole output. 'Wildest Dreams', 'Under You'... For a long time, they caused me to dislike the album as a whole, but over time I’ve grown to appreciate the better songs".

Also featured on the album is the great saxophone playing of Ian Nelson. His work on 'Love Is Not A Ghost' and 'Whirlpool' is just some of the best I’ve heard, and I’m a particular fan of the great jazz players - Cannonball Adderley, 'Lockjaw' Davis and John Coltrane for instance. It is very moving to think that he hit such breathtaking artistic heights whilst playing with us, before passing away through illness not long after, sadly".

You left the band prior to the dissolution in 1988, was this down to the pressure of dealing with Adrian’s illness or general ‘musical difference’ issues?

“I thought that Adrian needed to get off the treadmill and seek alleviation of his illness, this being more important than the survival of the band at that stage in my opinion. It may have been that, in time, we could re-convene and make some progress in a sort of “Part 2” career. Although this strategy had been agreed upon between myself and Max and Graham, when push came to shove, I found myself standing alone".

"However, it seemed to me that to hold to this principle, I would have to resign and that if I did so, the band would not be able to carry on and the outcome would be that my aim of getting Adrian to a quieter place away from the pressure would succeed. This proved to be the case“.

There seemed to be a time when The Sound were going to get back together, during the mid 90s and the reason it didn’t happen seems to have the fingers pointing at you, is that the case?

“I think you are referring to a later interview where Adrian said that he had made this point moot. I did not hear about it at the time, although I would have said no and I recall that in the interview, Adrian had said that he would have expected me to say just that".

"I had got myself what mothers everywhere refer to as a “proper job” by then and was enjoying the luxury of a regular salary cheque. Besides, I would have had no wish to re-attach myself to three such unhappy, disappointing and difficult working relationships, as they had all become”.

Words by Chris Todd

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