Are We Having Fun Yet?

Essay No. 4 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)

by Andrew Keeling

Are We Having Fun Yet?

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Contents
Exposition
Background
World Events
Music in 1993
Are We Having Fun Yet?  – the album
Style and Instrumentation
Songs and Personnel
Harmony
Tempi
The Songs
Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard
Swingtime
Wishing You Were Here
Leaving Song
That’s Just Like Love
Ave Lolita
Wish The World Awake
Paper Crown
Change Your Mind
To Take A Piece
Conclusion

Exposition

A gap of two years separated the final Colin Vearncombe album for A&M – the eponymous Black album – from the next release, Are We Having Fun Yet? (Chaos Reins, 1993). On first hearing it is possible to detect a shift in musical style but, on repeated listening, one begins to question whether anything has changed at all. Vearncombe’s stylistic concerns remain intact but there is something new here; at least, something in potentia looking increasingly towards America. Good artists can assimilate influences within their own personal styles and Vearncombe is no exception, following his star without too much attention to external influences.

It had been six years since the release of his debut album, Wonderful Life, with its angst-ridden atmosphere. Now, three major album releases later, along with several hit singles, Vearncombe was able to break away from the mainstream with this, his fourth but now as an indie artist. Black’s management notes, ‘(Following the Black album) we were very happy to go indie and I didn’t seek out another major deal, figuring they would all make demands of Colin that he wasn’t prepared to meet. Colin had seen what life was like at the top of the charts and didn’t fancy it at all. He had a very uncomfortable relationship with fame. His ideal was to be successful without being famous. Not an easy task. We formed our own label and I financed the next record from licence deals I made with various European labels. The album was mildly successful, but without a radio hit it didn’t perform as well as the labels hoped. So, after Are We Having Fun Yet?, we were on our own. Colin had a good time recording the album with Mike Hedges in his chateau in Normandy. He got what he wanted. If the internet had been well established when we put that record out, it would have been a different story because he definitely had enough fans spread throughout Europe to make direct sales and subsequent touring financially viable. Then we would have been able to build that direct relationship with the fanbase.’ [1]E-mail from Colin Vearncombe Management to Andrew Keeling. 27-07-21.

‘We initially called our new label Chaos Reins, but after a few months we got a cease and desist letter from some American lawyers acting for a label that had Chaos in the title, so we reverted to the company name, Nero Schwarz: Nero and Schwarz being Italian and German for ‘black’ respectively. Along with John Warwicker, who had art-directed all of Colin’s output through A&M, in 1991 we co-founded Tomato, the advertising/broad-based creative company. They had a small studio in Soho and Colin rented a tiny space from them to use as a demo room. Then, when Tomato moved to larger premises in the mid-‘90s, he took a bigger space and fitted it out as a functioning studio. Significant parts of his next two or three albums were started there and then finished in more professional studios. [2]E-mail from Colin Vearncombe Management to Andrew Keeling. 3-01-22.

The title of the album has, like Wonderful Life, a hint of verbal irony, not unusual for Colin Vearncombe’s approach to wordplay. As management recalls, ‘The original cover of Are We Having Fun Yet? was a photo of three flies pinned to a board. We were going indie and doing lots of things that you can’t do when you’re signed to a major label and, of course, making a few mistakes along the way.’ [3]Email from Colin Vearncombe Management to Andrew Keeling, 21-12-21.

Background

World Events

With the US presidency falling to Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1993, the first event to hit the country was the Iraq disarmament crisis, followed by the World Trade Centre Bombing with six people killed and a thousand injured. Clinton ordered a Cruise missile attack on Baghdad in response to an assassination attempt on former US President George H. W. Bush, with warships subsequently being sent to Haiti to enforce a UN trade sanctions against the Haitian military regime. In terms of technology, the growth of the internet grew unabated with Windows 3.1, the first version of Windows NT, being released and the first Pentium microchips exported. Later in the year Space Shuttle Endeavour was launched. In the UK, IRA bombings continued first in Warrington and subsequently in Bishopsgate, London. Prime Minister John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty, a document establishing a European Union with EU citizenship granted to every person who was a citizen of a member state. As a result, the Maastricht Rebels vetoed it almost overturning it. Subsequently UKIP (the UK Independence Party) was formed. Other events included the announcement of the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the murders of Stephen Lawrence and James Bulger. 

1993 signalled the growth of Postmodernism, a kind of mix and match philosophy which relativises binary oppositions. Initially explored by the Frankfurt School in the writings of Herbert Marcuse (see One Dimensional Man where Marcuse describes the fusion of capitalism and communism), the likes of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser were to develop the concept further by jettisoning meta-narrative styles in philosophy and literature. Taken into academia, this was to have a knock-on effect for art and music providing an intellectual foundation for past inhabiting present, fusing high and low art and, for example, bringing popular music into the realm of academia and education. With the growth of the internet and the information age along with the relatively new digital CD format, these ideas resonated with musicians, fandom, music journalism and academia. Record companies re-released artists’ back-catalogues, introducing material from the past to the younger generation making it both financially viable as well as teachable at high school and university levels. Postmodernism signalled a period where most things were viable – artistically and economically.

Music in 1993

The fast-expanding new digital format of the compact disc, alongside the beginnings of the modern internet, brought the mix and match techniques of postmodernism to bear on the music industry: a place where past could exist with present; a moment when the term ‘anything goes’ resonated with the wider culture. This also allowed a blurring of mainstream music and ‘indie’ (independent), the recent designation to certain music lying outside the territory of major labels. Indie had existed during the late 1960s and early ‘70s with, for example, Island and Transatlantic Records, under the banner of progressive rock. Punk and new wave bands in the late 1970s and early ‘80s released music on their own labels known as ‘garage music’. In essence, this was a DIY outlook for bands either unable or unwilling to sign with major, corporate liberal labels. As a result, the competition forced the majors to form subsidiaries as an outlet for new emerging alternative music. In the early 1990s bands such as The Divine Comedy and REM would deftly cross over from mainstream to indie thus avoiding definitive labelling which had also been the case during the 1970s with some bands such as Free, Deep Purple, Ace and The Average White Band. 

During 1993, the charts were dominated by singles from Take That (Pray) and East 17 (Deep) – effectively beginning the era of the modern ‘boy band’ – Freddie Mercury (Living On My Own), The Bee Gees (For Whom The Bell Tolls), M People (One Night In Heaven), Pet Shop Boys (Go West) and so on. Notable mainstream albums appeared by Mariah Carey (Music Box), Annie Lennox (Diva), Kate Bush (The Red Shoes), Genesis (The Way We Walk), Carole King (Colour Of Your Dreams), David Bowie (Black Tie White Noise) and Jamiroquai (Emergency On Planet Earth). Genesis had previously been known as a progressive rock band but, with the departure of vocalist Peter Gabriel, were now identified with a sophisticated approach to rock with the adoption of funk and commercial elements into the band’s musical palette. Kate Bush was another artist managing to cross indie ‘underground’ musical styles with a mainstream appeal in The Red Shoes.

In the US grunge rock had continued unabated with Nirvana releasing In Utero, continuing the harmonic angularity heard on Nevermind and, here, on Heart Shaped Box’s Ab-E-C# chording. The Smashing Pumpkins had developed musically on Siamese Dream with the full-throttle attack of Cherub Rock. In terms of musical fingerprints, grunge demonstrates clean textures which suddenly rev-up into loud distorted textures. This is heard in the music of both Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins. Candlebox, on their eponymous debut album, employ a similar technique on Change with its reduced harmonic C-D chording. 

Indie

However, 1993 was the year in which indie music won the day. Not only was it something marked by artists releasing music on non-major labels, but also by an independent mode of musical thinking lying outside accepted artistic norms. With bands such as The The, Bjork, The Verve and Rage Against the Machine releasing albums in 1993, the following are some the noteworthy indie releases of the year fusing old with new while being stylistically retrospective.

Paul Weller – Wild Wood. The former Jam and The Style Council frontman reinvented himself on an album marked by its nod towards British rock-blues band, Cream. Sunflower is guitar-driven with mellotron (an instrument scorned during the 1980s but re-introduced during the 1990s) and descending chords (Em-Em/D-Em/C#-Em/C) recalling Cream’s White Room, while the title-track points towards the future Oasis (who, during 1993, had secured a recording contract) in terms of its harmonic vocabulary (Bm-F#m-Em-Gm-Bm). Throughout, Weller recalls not only Cream but also The Small Faces and The Beatles, a band he had referenced in The Jam’s single, Start.

The Boo Radleys – Giant Steps. Giant Steps is the third album on Alan McGee’s Creation label from this Wallasey quartet. Described by Sic Magazine, ‘(For) 64 minutes they were the greatest band on the planet’ and the NME as ‘an intentional masterpiece’, I Hang Suspended, with its sustained keyboards and spoken narrative leading into clean guitar and softer verse points the way to the future style of Oasis. Upon 9th and Fairchild has feedback guitar/noise intro, ‘squeezed’ guitar and Em reggae guitar. 

Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish.  Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon and co continued their rapid ascent with the Small Faces-like observation of life in the early 1990s. Unusual core-pitch harmonic sidestepping on For Tomorrow, complete with syncopation, a ‘La La’ refrain and characterised by Albarn’s cockney delivery, this album signifies a step towards their definitive Parklife released the following year. Advert has fast quaver bass and drums with piano before moving to massive A-G guitar chords and police sirens. 

Tindersticks – Tindersticks. Led by Stuart A. Staples, Tindersticks are perhaps one of the more unusual bands of the period. Combining acoustic with electric guitar feedback on Nectar, flugel horn on Tyed driven by snare, Whiskey And Water reintroduces the guitar feedback as a main textural element over Em7 chording. Staples would eventually leave the band to be replaced by Irish singer-songwriter, David Kitt, only to subsequently rejoin the band after one album. 

Radiohead – Pablo Honey. The band’s debut album prepares for The Bends and the third, seminal, OK Computer summarising the technological surrealism of the period. Here, a harder-edged side of Radiohead is heard as the opener, You, demonstrates with its shifting metres (6/8 [x3] to 5/8). The single, Creep, with G-B-C-Cm has harmonic underlay, deploys grunge-like clean to distorted textures.

Sylvian and Fripp – The First Day. Former vocalist of Japan and King Crimson’s guitarist collaborated on this fine album after Sylvian turned down Fripp’s invitation to front an updated version of King Crimson. The First Day, besides preparing for King Crimson’s subsequent mid-1990’s release, Thrak, combines elements of funk electronica and polyrhythm in God’s Monkey which kicks-off the album, before the memorable Jean The Birdman and the Jimi Hendrix-like Brightness Falls. The neo-psychedelia of the latter fuses with funk alongside original metric attacks on 20th Century Dreaming and the epic Darshan with its drone-like underlay.

The Comsat Angels – My Mind’s Eye. Complete with cover-art featuring a Stephen Fellows collage and released in 1992/93, the band’s eighth album and fourth record company release, My Mind’s Eye, marks the start of a new era for the band. Opening with the aptly named Driving, with its almost grunge-like texture and full-on guitar, followed by the melodic Always Near and including the meaningful mantra-like, Eastern-influenced Shiva Descending, the Comsat Angels were further able to reinvent themselves along indie lines. Particularly notable are the early Pink Floyd-influenced I Come From The Sun and the final And All The Stars with its long-sustained keyboard ambience. 

P.J. Harvey – Rid Of Me. Demonstrating the influence of Slint’s album, Spiderland (1991), Harvey’s second album opens with the title-track and its soft A muted guitar chords before eventually exploding, grunge-like, while shifting to the Am7-D4 harmony of Missed. Irrational metres (5/4) are found on Hook alongside the F9 and compound metres of Snake and the slow, slide-led Ecstasy. 

The Cardiacs – Heaven Born And Ever Bright. Perhaps the most original yet equally maligned band of the period, brothers Tim and Jim Smith, along with keyboardist William D. Drake kick off their 1992 offering with The Alphabet Business characterised by its anthemic football chant, loop-like structure and 2/4 stomp. Deploying piece-like songs, The Cardiacs defy any attempt at stylisation largely due to the manic forward movement, unusual harmonic underlay and crazed unison vocals. Although the harmony seems random, it is anything but as in She Is Hiding Behind The Shed coupled with its rapid rhythmic drive, distorted guitars and rhythmic unisons demonstrates. March is principally just that (i.e. a march), with its three crotchet beats followed by crotchet rest and then variants of the same. The band critics were unable to pigeon-hole, this is a high point for music in the 1990s preparing for the seminal Sing To God four years later.

Indie Acoustic

The acoustic indie revival of the early 1990s looked to America – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, CSN&Y, The Band etc. – as a reaction to the stylisations of the 1980s and, as the decade wore on, provided a welcome way out of the grunge impasse. Centring on the interest in ‘unplugged’ artists who would both perform and record their music in softer, acoustic arrangements, the style eventually anticipated the nu-folk scene of the early to mid-2000s with younger musicians such as Devendra Banhart, Greg Weeks and bands like Espers along with the reappraisal of artists such as Michael Chapman, Linda Perhacs and Joni Mitchell. It was quintessentially part of the new, cultural postmodern outlook sweeping culture.

Re-releases and compilation albums by Nick Drake, John Martyn and so on in the new CD format also brought past firmly into present. For example, a year after the release of Vearncombe’s fourth album, Island Records released Nick Drake’s Way To Blue compilation triggering Drake’s posthumous appeal to the new generation. This subsequently allowed the newly founded Nick Drake Estate to capitalise on the singer-songwriter’s appeal not only through further compilations, but also through films and advertising increasing his popularity even more and discovering long-lost songs, such as Tow The Line, along the way. Film and TV celebrities, Brad Pitt and Monty Don would discover Drake largely through this reappraisal, further promoting interest in the singer-songwriter largely ignored during his lifetime. However, important indie acoustic albums are manifold coming mainly from the US.

REM – Automatic For The People. An album central to the acoustic ethos of the period and including acoustic classics such as Drive with its acoustic guitar and accordion texture and the percussion-led 12/8 swing of Try Not To Break. The pivotal Everybody Hurts, with its oscillating D-G acoustic arpeggios and Michael Stipe’s lamenting vocal delivery spanning the upward arching linear A-G-F#-D suspension-like line, is probably the most memorable song here, sparingly arranged with Fender Rhodes piano and memorable chorus over straightforward Em-A chording. 

Eric Clapton – Unplugged. Following the then popular ‘unplugged’ tag, this ‘live’ album includes acoustic classics such as Signe, with its boss-nova swing due largely to the percussion, and the 12-bar blues of Before You Accuse Me, making it a highpoint in the former Cream guitarist’s output. However, it is Tears In Heaven, a requiem for Clapton’s recently deceased son, with the refrain’s descending ground bass (A-A/G#-F#m-F#m/E-D-A/C#-E) and the emotive verse (F#m-C#/E#-A7/E-F#7-Bm-D/E-A) that stands out. Placed against acoustic re-imaginings of Derek and Dominoes’ Layla and Creams’ Rollin’ and Tumblin’ from Fresh Cream the album continues the line down from Eric Clapton (1970) and 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974).

Nirvana – Unplugged In New York. Nirvana would also adopt the ‘unplugged’ direction, swapping electric instruments for acoustic and adding rhythm guitar and cello to their palette. Come As You Are and Polly are given an acoustic treatment alongside acoustic versions of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. The set concludes with a reworking of blues legend Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night complete with cello underlining the root pitches of the basically i-VII—IV-III-VII harmony. 

Boo Hewerdine – Ignorance. Although released a year earlier, this album begins a string of solo Hewerdine records. Colin Vearncombe was aware of Hewerdine and worked with him on a later album. Here, the title track is a waltz in E minor – with related chords – and basically a simple folk song. Straightforward, yet effective lyrics are reflected in the music and arrangements of Give Me Back My Ignorance, a plea for a return to simplicity.

Steve Earle – El Corazón. It is known that Steve Earle was one of Colin Vearncombe’s influences, and songs such as Christmas In Washington, with its detuned acoustic guitar and the line ‘Come Back Woodie Guthrie to us now’, underline Earle’s nostalgic vision with its simple chordal accompaniment (Eb-Ab-Bb-Ab-Bb-Eb [I-IV-V]). Strophic song structures, with the ‘grain of the voice’ central to the album as a whole, demonstrate the influence of Tom Waits’ Closing Time and The Heart Of Saturday Night. Taney Town, however, points towards Lynyrd Skynyrd (Simple Man) and Neil Young (Southern Man) with its harder-edged guitars and Am-C-G-Am accompaniment.

Mazzy Star – So Tonight I Might See. Although not completely identified with the acoustic indie tag, Mazzy Star’s second album features the highly popular Fade Into You with its basic accompaniment (Am-E-Bm) recalling Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – also covered by Guns N’ Roses – alongside the bigger electric textures of Bells Ring with its lengthy C-G harmonic rhythm and David Roback’s sustained organ D natural. Mary Of Silence recalls Joy Division before falling back into the acoustic Five String Serenade and the compound metre of Blue Light pointing towards REM but transformed by Hope Sandoval’s simple vocal line.

Counting Crows – August And Everything. Coming over as a harder-edged REM, Round Here has stripped G9 electric guitars with a contrasting central section on A major. Omaha includes the acoustic fingerprint accordion with its acoustic guitar F# minor. Again, the song is centred on ‘the grain of the voice’. Mr. Jones is Van Morrison/Michael Stipe-influenced with a i-VI-bVII (Am-F-G[D]-Am) chordal progression chorus. 

The Jayhawks – Hollywood Town Hall. Although released in 1992, The Jayhawks resemble Counting Crows with their take on Americana, harmonicas and Hammond organ sustains. Waiting For The Sun has light Am-G-F chording (i-bVII-VI) similar to Counting Crows’ Mr. Jones, and strophic song structures.

Crowded House – Together Alone. Although not exclusively identified with indie acoustic, Crowded House’s musical vocabulary lends itself to the style. Kare Kare, with its slide guitar and synthesizer textures, along with the piano quavers of In My Command owes something to John Lennon with its Cm-Ab-Fm harmony, with the same influence apparent again in Nails In My Feet introducing angular guitar lines and mellotron textures. 

In terms of singles, 1991 spawned several memorable offerings in the UK such as The Pet Shop Boys’ Where The Streets Have No Name, Kylie Minogue’s What Do I Have To Do, Morrissey’s Pregnant For The Last Time, Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy, Pulp’s My Legendary Girlfriend, Blur’s There’s No Other Way and U2’s The Fly.  One single that particularly stands out is Spiritualized Feel So Sad, for its thirteen minute duration but also for its multi-sectional, quasi-orchestral variation form. 

Are We Having Fun Yet?  – the album

Style and Instrumentation

As an indie album, Are We Having Fun Yet? is the first indication that a creative change lay around the corner for Colin Vearncombe, although his third eponymous album provides hints that things were undoubtedly heading in that direction. The problem for any artist tied to a major contract is they become known through the promotion of a particular style. What is the outcome when musicians wish to reinvent themselves? Some are able to achieve this progressively, for example, U2 and P.J.Harvey to name but two. Also, artists naturally become fixed on their own careers tending to look inwards for musical ideas rather than looking outwards for inspiration. Like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Vearncombe had discovered his style early on. Now, he was free to discard inessentials along the way. 

Collectively speaking, musical styles in the 1990s had shifted from the smooth production values of the ‘80s to something more natural, rougher and harder-edged while looking back to the ‘70s for inspiration. These challenges were likely to affect Vearncombe’s own approach, and some aspects in the following review of Are We Having Fun Yet? unconsciously observe the tensions:

‘The troubled Scouse troubadour is clearly not aware of the received notions of his public image and persona, as evidenced by the self-deprecatory title and cover art… . Whereas this latest LP is not exactly a laughfest…it is upbeat…and for Colin Vearncombe this amounts almost to hysteria. The songs move beyond the lugubrious crooning of yore…to a…kind of Simon and Garfunkel…to the ringing pop chimes of Swingtime, the rancorous rock guitars of Change Your Mind and the delectable post-punk techno of That’s Just Like Love… .’ [4]Q Magazine, September, 1993.

From listening to Are We Having Fun Yet? it is clear Vearncombe was beginning to question ‘80s post-new wave stylism but, at the same time, demonstrates he remained satisfied to offer fans something in keeping with the three previous albums. The music remains central to commercial pop music, but certainly intelligent pop as the ironic title indicates. Completely jettisoning ‘80s stylisms lay somewhere in the future. Through rubbing shoulders with other musical possibilities he would become aware, largely through working at the top of the music business alongside his personal development as an artist, that technological innovations – such as the synthesizer – were limited and somewhat unnatural, fast becoming dated with new innovations developing on a continual basis. Technology is a fast-changing phenomenon locking an artist into a particular time and place, and it is possible to hear the change in the use of real strings as opposed to just synthesizer on Are We Having Fun Yet? with both combined in the final song, To Take A Piece. Also, as a guitarist Vearncombe was able to look beyond the confines of the previous style and its associated technology by turning towards 1970s America and, by escaping A&M Records, there was now the very real possibility of redefining his musical persona as an independent singer-songwriter not just as major record company product. Unlike the previous albums, Vearncombe now plays all the guitars on Are We Having Fun Yet?.

In terms of the instrumentation, the first and fourth song (Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard and Leaving Song) are more American-like and guitar-centred, while the remainder are as varied and dramatic as the music on previous releases, with big productions which could all function successfully in a musical (Ave Lolita and To Take A Piece). It is here where real strings, or synthesizers resembling strings, add weight to textures heightening the musical drama. The strings are sometimes combined with the synthesizer to create a fuller ensemble as in To Take A Piece. Otherwise, synth is used more for decorative purposes and sonic effects rather than being a textural cornerstone as on Wonderful Life and Comedy.

The question is, was Vearncombe really affected by the musical changes of the period, in particular the new acoustic scene? His wife, Camilla Griehsel remembers, ‘I suppose he was influenced by that wave…and started listening to Bob Dylan more. He also started playing the harmonica quite a bit, too. Colin also became a father for the first time in 1992 and, a few months after our son Max was born, we went to Mike Hedge’s Studio in Domfront, Normandy, to record Are We Having Fun Yet?’ [5]E-mail from Camilla Griehsel to Andrew Keeling, 22-12-21.

Although it is difficult to be absolutely definitive, Vearncombe’s music lies outside the ‘90s zeitgeist, looking not only to America (Wishing You Were Here) but also, like Comedy, to Spain/Latin America (Paper Crown) and, even, to the seventeenth century Baroque period (To Take A Piece). Not having any close comparisons apart from the occasional reference to Scott Walker or Jimmy Webb, overall Vearncombe sticks faithfully to his style regardless which suggests real creative authenticity. This aspect will be discussed subsequently. 

Songs and Personnel

Are We Having Fun Yet? is the final album of four marking the end of the first period in Colin Vearncombe’s creative and recorded output. It is also the final album where he would retain the Black moniker. From then he is known as Colin Vearncombe, later returning to ‘Black’ for the Between Two Churches album (2005). This is telling in terms of style, because it signifies both a retention of musical language and production values of the prior releases while subtly moving sideways in places towards a more natural, American and almost country style on songs such as Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard and Leaving Song. As a whole, the album is as varied as the preceding releases by including Vearncombe’s melodic and harmonic fingerprints along with big, dramatic numbers such as Ave Lolita and the final To Take A Piece, with the voice remaining central to each of the ten songs:

1. Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard

2. Swingtime

3. Wishing You Were Here

4. Leaving Song

5. That’s Just Like Love

6. Ave Lolita

7. Wish The World Awake

8. Paper Crown

9. Change Your Mind

10. To Take A Piece

As before, it is constructed in a craftsman-like way though with a slightly reduced recording and performing team:

Martin Ditcham – percussion; Greg Harewood – bass guitar; Martin Green – saxes, flute and horn arrangement on That’s Just Like Love; Martin McCarrick – cello and string arrangement on Ave Lolita, Paper Crown and To Take A Piece; Pete Davies – keyboards and programming; Doreen Edwards – backing vocals on Paper Crown; Camilla Griehsel-Vearncombe – backing vocals on Wish The World Awake; Colin Vearncombe – vocals, guitars and all other instruments. Engineered by Ken Thomas and Lance Phillips with and number of assistants and additional recording by Andy Todd. The artwork is by John Warwicker. The most notable change is the production which is now by Mike Hedges and Black. Well-crafted arrangements are deployed meaningfully allowing the voice to be placed centre-stage.

Harmony

Compared to the previous releases, the harmony remains straightforward with a tonal/modal basis central to the songs. However, the harmonic spectrum also widens in places, possibly because Vearncombe had begun to listen to more classical music and play more piano (see Essay No. 3), which Ave Lolita and To Take A Piece demonstrate. In other places, though, the harmony is reduced in songs such as Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard and Leaving Song, where fewer chords are used with, sometimes, one chord sufficing over long spans (i.e. in songs one and four). This suggests Vearncombe may have learnt from Bob Dylan, where a reduced harmonic palette – essentially folk-like accompaniment style – is deployed with lyrics as prime focus, although Vearncombe’s own style is in no way Dylan-like. 

Album three, the more settled eponymous Black album, demonstrates a major mode-centred structure as compared to the angst-saturated Wonderful Life and Comedy. Here, out of ten songs, five are cast in major key modes, three in minor key modes and two are harmonically ambiguous using the minor mode for verses and the major for choruses. Centred on A major/minor with other songs in related keys, it does not close on the key ‘centre’ as one might expect. Instead, the final To Take A Piece is a Purcell-like repeating chromatic ground bass on C minor, functioning as a final quasi-Interrupted Cadence giving the impression that something lies unresolved, unfinished or, even, unsaid. ( AWHFY Ex. 1 ) Deployed mainly during the first half of the album, with one exception, the major key/mode creates optimistic, upbeat atmospheres, whereas the minor key modes and harmonically ambiguous songs are reserved for the final half for ambiguous or conflicting states:

Diagram 1

StyleTempoKey modeCharacter

1. Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard

US country-rockCrotchet=88 (4/4)A major Bright/Optimistic

2. Swingtime

USCrotchet=88 (44)E majorBright/dramatic

3. Wishing You Were Here

Latin AmericanCrotchet=96 (4/4)F# minor Nostalgic

4. Leaving Song

US country AORCrotchet=96 (4/4)D majorBright/Optimistic

5. That’s Just Like Love

Euro romanticCrotchet=92 (4/4)A major pentatonicBitter-sweet

6. Ave Lolita

Euro romanticCrotchet=63/66 (4/4)C major Revealing

7. Wish The World Awake

Slow funkCrotchet = 72A minor/majorRealisation

8. Paper Crown

Latin American / Spanish danceDotted-crotchet=72 (12/8)E minor/majorObservational

9. Change Your Mind

US AOR / Fast BoleroCrotchet=132 (5/4)A minor Bitter-sweet

10. To Take A Piece

Baroque-like ground bassMinim=40 (2/2)C minor (chromatic)Aria-like

The interval of a 3rd lies at the centre of the album – both major and minor – reflecting the long-term A (major) to C minor structure of songs one and ten as though in microcosm. For example, the songs themselves have internal harmony such as the linear Major 3rd descent, F#m-E-D, of Wishing You Were Here and the Minor 3rd D-Bm of Leaving Song. There are also melodic features, such as the linear Minor 3rds in the synthesizer opening of Swingtime, and the linear Major 3rds in the chorus vocal part of the first verse of Leaving Song, suggesting Are We Having Fun Yet? is not as musically settled as its predecessor.

Tempi

Diagram 2 illustrates the tempi of the album. The upbeat major mode songs range from crotchet=88-96 (songs 1, 2, 4 and 5). The harmonically ambiguous songs are both set at crotchet=72 while, paradoxically, one of the minor mode songs (No. 9) turns out to be the fastest at crotchet=132: a kind of resurgence before the funereal-like finale. The ‘C’ major/minor-centred songs – Ave Lolita and To Take A Piece – are the slowest at crotchet=63/66 and minim=40 respectively. In terms of an overall tempo-range there is a collapse towards the end, with the exception of a passing tempo eruption (No. 9) preceding the finale:

Diagram 2

1. Don’t Take…Silence6. Lolita10. To Take A Piece
Crotchet=88 ———→Crotchet=63/66———→ Minim=40

The Songs

Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard

Essentially, the first song is about absence with the co-protagonist away in America – hence the title and the country music style. The ad.lib introduction begins with solo acoustic guitar playing a decorated A major chord. Simply by lifting the left-hand fingers, the following pitches are created. ( AWHFY Ex. 2 ) Electric guitar adds natural open-string harmonics on the 12th fret (0:05) making G/A harmony. The introduction continues (0:07), now in strict time (crotchet=88) with solo acoustic guitar playing a syncopated rhythm on an A major chord abruptly cut (0:09) but segued immediately (0:10), this time accompanied by soft electric guitar, bass and drums. With the acoustic simply raising the left-hand third finger on string two, occasional A7 chords are heard along with the fourth finger creating suspensions. Muted electric guitar anticipates the verse providing rhythmic drive. ( AWHFY Ex. 3 ) Decorated guitar chords are used extensively in the song, recalling Dire Straits’, Mark Knopfler.

With quiet tambourine, particularly heard on off-beats driving the song forwards, voice enters for verse one ( AWHFY Ex. 4 ) with pitches from an A major pentatonic scale until the word ‘high’ on D natural at the apex of the line. The vocal melody is accompanied exclusively by A major (I) chord, until the words ‘do to me’ where the harmony descends to F# minor through E and D majors. Light vocal harmonies – a 3rd above – are also sung by Vearncombe. Acoustic and bass are dropped from the texture (0:40) and, momentarily, the voice is doubled by muted electric guitar. The words ‘so she wrote’ provide a clue to meaning of the song: a letter ‘all the way from America’. 

The beginning of the chorus connects with verse two almost segue and electric guitar – also double-tracked by Vearncombe – accompanies the vocal line with decorations. ( AWHFY Ex. 5 ) The chorus line, ‘Don’t take the silence too hard’, repeats twice before connecting to F#m-E-D chords, harmony previously appearing in the verses but, here, accompanying the line ‘Your absence lasts through every passing year.’ Vearncombe declaims the chorus words, accompanied only by finger-clicks ( AWHFY Ex. 6 ) in turn, triggering a passage for full band, with the clean, foregrounded spiky double-tracked guitar. ( AWHFY Ex. 7 )

Verse three (1:33) continues the strophic structure, while verse four (1:52) drops the electric guitar, eventually reintroduced as a kind of country funk style with half and full mutes. The chorus following is sung-whispered (2:29) like a quiet plea.  

The middle eight (2:31ff.) instrumental has tenor sax playing long, low A natural dotted minims every other bar before a solo which uses the first phrase of the verse’s vocal melody, although varied by passing left to right in the stereo. ( AWHFY Ex. 8 ) The sax becomes momentarily double-tracked (2:49ff.) with added reverb and the range pushed higher.

Verse one is again repeated (2:54ff.) with reduced band accompaniment of bass, drums and rhythmic muted A natural quaver guitar harmonics providing variation. Acoustic guitar enters (3:05) along with a distant organ binding the texture together with sustained F#m-E-D chords, recalling the light Hammond accompaniment of Nick Drake’s Hazey Jane 2 from Bryter Layter. Segueing into the final chorus with electric guitar playing all its chordal variants (3:19ff.), sax heard quietly through the cracks. ( AWHFY Ex. 9 ) The accompaniment is full with the vocal based on fragments of the chorus ( AWHFY Ex. 10 ), followed by a fade including more fragmentary sax motifs

Swingtime

Set at crotchet=88, the song begins with acoustic guitar syncopated strumming as the core rhythmic element playing simple E-C#-A-B (I-vi-IV-V) for most of its duration – chords used as the foundation of much popular music. Vearncombe probably realised the value of basic harmony – allowing the importance of words to be heard – through his love of Bob Dylan’s music. Songs such as Blowing In The Wind and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door are but two examples. 

Swingtime’s introductory electronic percussion – claves and triangle with periodic timpani-like tom-toms – immediately place the song back in the 1980s along in production. Sparing piano and low bass guitar secure the harmony at the lower end of the range, with synthesizer adding an instrumental hook reminiscent of Paradise from Wonderful Life (1987). ( AWHFY Ex. 11 )

Vearncombe’s reverb-saturated vocal features in the first verse (0:30) ( AWHFY Ex. 12 ) immediately recalling Scott Walker on Scott 4. With the chorus arriving quickly (0:50), and including a slightly weightier accompaniment of electric guitar, the synth strings along with piano counter-melody are derived from the introductory synth material, but with the voice remaining the main point of focus. ( AWHFY Ex. 13 ) The chorus vocal melody is made exclusively from linear Major 3rds. A 3rd – although Minor – lies in the album’s long-term harmonic structure (A major to C minor). Verse two (1:17ff.) retains the song’s strophic structure, this time including occasional funk rhythm guitar. 

The middle eight (2:11ff.) has simple E-A-C#m-B harmony before returning to the chorus but now with reduced vocal. Verse three follows as before (2:59ff.) including more funk guitar. The coda (3:47ff.) has Vearncombe’s hook-line harmony vocals which are rhythmically active but, more importantly, based on a Minor 3rd. ( AWHFY Ex. 14 ) The song fades (5:23ff.) after a lengthy span of E major harmony, although ending on a sustained string synth B natural. 

Wishing You Were Here

The song not only picks up from the ‘absence’ motif of the first song but plunges a listener into US funk musical territory fused with a Spanish/Latin American atmosphere provided by timbales. Bass guitar provides forward motion (0:02.) ( AWHFY Ex. 15 ) with guitar adding volume pedal, C# feedback and a riff based on 4ths all entering progressively (0:08, 0:12, 0:16 respectively) followed by a guitar riff at the very top of the texture (0:16). ( AWHFY Ex. 16 ) The accumulative texture provides tension by leading the ear into the first verse, where the voice is delivered over bass and timbales (0:22ff.) ( AWHFY Ex. 17

Gradually single-pitch classical guitar is heard (0:32) leading to chordal guitar (0:43) playing F#m-E-D (i-VII-VI) – i.e. the 3rds – of the chorus as well as underlining the 3rds of the album’s architecture. For the song’s duration the music is away from the A major home key, now visiting the relative F# minor. Harmony vocals reinforce the ‘wishing you were here’ title, pointing-up the concept of absence. ( AWHFY Ex. 18 ) Long electric guitar harmonic sustains provide the accompaniment basis for the rhythmic classical guitar, although nothing is texturally cluttered. The verse end is paired down even more, separating classical and electric guitars, but retaining the second classical guitar to maintain a sense of rhythmic drive. ( AWHFY Ex. 19 ) The section divides verse one from two which begins at 1:36, though with more responsive guitar accompaniment for both classical and electric guitars. 

The post-verse has a single-pitch classical guitar solo emerging into the middle eight (2:49ff.) based on post-verse material. Verse three further clears the texture and the following chorus is repeated. An instrumental coda closes the song with classical guitar and, at the very end, sustained gong. 

Leaving Song

Connecting with the previous and first songs A song, Leaving Song is about leaving for America having a distinct US country music feel with its D major/D suspended introduction, its shuffle rhythm and light introductory rim-shots in the drums. 

The first verse vocals are light and memorable with the 3+3+2 semi-quaver syncopations, ( AWHFY Ex. 20 ) the bright feel underpinned by major and relative minor harmony (D-Bm) further underlining the 3rds in the background structure. The second half of the verse closely follows the melody of the first half except with the addition of more rhythmic electric guitar until the chorus hook-line arrives. ( AWHFY Ex. 21 ) Essentially, verse and hook-line chorus are a descending 5 – 1 line with an upper neighbour-note (B natural). ( AWHFY Ex. 22 ) The melody line is telling, in some ways resembling Simon and Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound (1966) which also uses an upper-neighbour note in the melody. 

Verse two (1:14) omits electric guitar, only to be reintroduced when the harmony reaches G major (IV) (1:37). The optimism is intensified by hand-claps but only for the duration of the G major (1:37-1:41). ( AWHFY Ex. 23 )

Verse three follows segue (1:59ff.) with the G major repeated as if to hammer-home the music’s optimistic character. The chorus, repeated three times, now includes low tenor sax at the bottom of the texture playing a syncopated rhythm. ( AWHFY Ex. 24 ) On the third repeat Vearncombe passionately declaims the vocal an octave higher. ( AWHFY Ex. 25 ) The long-spanned D major coda includes low tenor sax playing fragments of its material heard in the chorus.

That’s Just Like Love

The moderately paced A major-centred That’s Just Like Love follows with its reduced instrumentation sounding outside its time with bell-like keyboard and catchy pentatonic melody, complete with woodwind imitation from Martin Green. ( AWHFY Ex. 26 ) Acoustic guitar joins at the end of verse one as the main accompaniment feature. The short middle eight grows with larger sax forces, leading to the final repeated chorus and fade.

Ave Lolita

This dramatic and slow-paced song (crotchet=63-66) is placed central in the structure with its key-shift to C major, a Minor 3rd above the album’s ‘home’ key. However, the song begins a tone higher in D major with a slow kind of Spanish dance feel, funereal in character. This is fitting bearing in mind the subject: the passing of time. The title is connected to the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov published in 1955, dealing with obsession, later adapted into a film by Stanley Kubrick. Vearncombe transforms the original meaning in a truly postmodern way by taking passing time and approaching future to create intertextual meaning. The gravity and drama of the song is also symbolic of Vearncombe’s own musical maturation, perhaps being close to an opera aria and a composer such as Giacomo Puccini.

Timpani take the slow rhythm and electric strings, resembling real strings – metaphorically speaking, the strings remain electronic because Lolita’s reality remains largely unrealised – provide a Kurt Weill chamber/cabaret-like ensemble. ( AWHFY Ex. 27 ) The harmony is wider than in previous songs – implying the song was probably written on piano – although the D-Bm shift (0:31) connects to Leaving Song as well as to the background harmonic structure. ( AWHFY Ex. 28 ) The second half of the verse demonstrates a dramatic modulation from D major to C major to prepare the chorus with its wide Minor 7th leaps in the voice (G-F natural) increasing the tension even further. ( AWHFY Ex. 29

The previous Minor 7th, G-F natural (1:00), is widened to an octave and, including a fermata, increases the dramatic intent. The strings introduce A diminished harmony used as a pivot-chord (1:44) with a modulation from C major back into the opening D major for the second verse ( AWHFY Ex. 30 ) which continues the strophic structure, although the following chorus is louder and even more dramatic than the first. The middle eight moves through F-Gm-Am-F-G-C with final string arpeggios segueing into the chorus (3:43) complete with string pizzicato accompaniment. The coda (4:20ff.) references the string section connecting the previous chorus one with verse two. (1:37). 

Wish The World Awake

The harmonically ambiguous Wish The World Awake is moderately paced (crotchet=72) funk, with an instantly memorable chorus (1:10) ( AWHFY Ex. 31 ) and some instrumental drama. (1:35). ( AWHFY Ex. 32 ) The subsequent stacked vocals in 3rds are reminiscent of the vocal arrangements of British rock band, Uriah Heep. ( AWHFY Ex. 33 ) Other features are the abrupt tritone harmonic modulations from C-F# ½ dim-Am-Em (0:33ff. 0:58ff. 2:19ff.)

Paper Crown

This could be a set piece from a musical with its Euro Spanish/Latin American carnival atmosphere, its rapid 6/8 metre and pulse (dotted crotchet=72). In a sense, the carnival atmosphere underlines the falseness at the heart of the lyrics and particularly the song’s title.

The introductory flute melody sounds piccolo-like and thrust into the foreground as the main instrumental hook. ( AWHFY Ex. 34 ) Although the song’s harmonic centre is E modal minor, the verse is underpinned by descending chromatic chords, B-Bbm-A-Ab-F#m-E sus-B. ( AWHFY Ex. 35 ) 

Real string instruments are featured, reinforcing the two-facedness of the friends who ‘come around smiling then push you in the dirt from behind’, making the song an apt epigram for the realities of the hypocrisy found in the music business. 

Doreen Edwards’ harmony vocals thicken the texture of the chorus’ E major tonality (1:05) with flute playing three rhythmic pitches over the top (D-D# turn-B) accompanying Vearncombe’s vocal along with the rhythm section. ( AWHFY Ex. 36 ) 

Verse two’s introduction has flute doubling the strings at the octave, while strings help define the concept of ‘truth’ at the centre of the song. The middle eight includes ascending strings creating tension with the contrary-motion, descending chords segueing into the repeated chorus with its further thickened texture (vocals, flute, strings, bass and drums) to the fade (by 5:11). 

Change Your Mind

Change Your Mind changes the album’s direction plunging a listener into US AOR rock territory with its Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler-like guitar opening recalling the timbre of Money For Nothing. And then, suddenly the music of Spanish Latin America is referenced, recalling the atmosphere of Comedy. ( AWHFY Ex. 37 ) Initially starting in 4/4 and then moving into 5/4, the guitar and reverb-saturated drums are offset by syncopated accordion referencing something in the acoustic indie field. ( AWHFY Ex. 38 ) Bass guitar eventually joins (0:12) together with extra guitar placed at the back of the mix. 

Verse one’s vocals outline a Minor 9th with a symmetrical arrangement of pitches. ( AWHFY Ex. 39 ) The second phrase introduces reverb-imitation in the voice, while the chorus (0:39) includes Phrygian harmony (E-F) together with a counter-melody in the strings outlining the harmony. ( AWHFY Ex. 40 ) 

The reduction of texture in verse two of classical and muted electric guitars allows the vocal to stand out. The classical guitar – more Oud-like than guitar – from the second verse is carried over into the middle eight underpinned by verse and chorus harmony, with wordless vocals allowing the guitar to the heard as the foreground. 

Verse three (2:34ff.) further reduces the texture taking the dynamic range down to mp with the classical guitar reintroduced in the coda (3:27ff.).

To Take A Piece

The finale continues segue from Change Your Mind’s final bent electric guitar pitch. Beginning with a low sustained C natural in the synth strings, together with the reverb carried over from the previous song and with occasional electronic congas, the strings move into an ominous slow Purcell-like ground bass with electric piano two octaves playing the approaching verse’s vocal melody. ( AWHFY Ex. 41 ) 

The song is a true lament referencing the central Ave Lolita, but here the atmosphere is further darkened. Vearncombe’s voice intones a varied repeat of the ground-bass (0:23ff) using the Minor 3rd doubled by piano two octaves higher. ( AWHFY Ex. 42 ) Vocal tessitura is kept low and the atmosphere funereal. The texture thickens slightly in the second half of the verse, with a further vocal part doubling the lower voice in octaves. The ground subsequently becomes even more chromatic ( AWHFY Ex. 43 ) colouring the lyrics, ‘You’re my find/But I’ll take my time until your eyes have dimmed from hot to soft and mellow.’ 

The second verse (1:42ff.) texture continues to accumulate with the addition of tremolo strings (2:07ff.) over the ground with a string quartet arrangement developing prior to the second chorus. (2:34ff.)  This centres on the ‘vixen queen’, a reference to Dido, Queen of Carthage, the subject of Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas but, here, intertextually transformed. 

The song pauses on Db (3:45), resulting in a further moment of Phrygian harmony (Db-Cm) and resolving into a decorated C minor with the first violin paying chromatic triplets high above as if improvising on the ground-bass. ( AWHFY Ex. 44 ) The remainder of the string quartet play suspension-like harmony Ab over a sustained C pedal pitch in the cello and synth strings. The song eventually comes to rest on C minor (4:10).

Conclusion

The impression resulting from hearing Are We Having Fun Yet? cannot be precisely defined. At heart it is easy listening, but with a twist. One thinks of Jimmy Webb’s songs Mr. Shuck ‘n’Jive and Highwayman, or Bob Dylan’s Blowing In The Wind, each melodically and harmonically straightforward allowing the ‘message’ at the heart of the subject-matter to be foregrounded and projected clearly. And, like Scott Walker’s Scott 4, Are We Having Fun Yet? is far more diverse and weighty than other mainstream music of the period. From the optimistic opener, Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard, to the maturation subject of Ave Lolita, the carnival dance of Paper Crown and it’s sister-piece, Change Your Mind – both with Spanish/Latin American overtones – to the dark and sombre, To Take A Piece, the album is nothing short of a metaphorical journey from light to darkness and undoubtedly a musical maturing in Colin Vearncombe’s output. As always, central to the album is song.

Like Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan and Scott Walker, Vearncombe would not have had a permanent band surrounding him for musical collaboration. The closest available musician was his wife, Camilla Griehsel who, as a classical soprano, introduced him to an entire array of classical music. This may account for the swing from US country and AOR (Don’t Take The Silence Too Hard and Leaving Song, for example), to the Baroque-inspired To Take A Piece. The operatic connection may not be too far-fetched either, in terms of the album’s structure. With the diverse musical content and high value placed on drama, perhaps Vearncombe had begun to think in quasi-classical terms and, with a title such as Are We Having Fun Yet?, certainly in terms lying outside atypical pop music. Although the title opera may be too grand, the dramatic content could quite easily be found in the setting of a musical.

Unlike its predecessor, this is decidedly unsettled music due possibly to Vearncombe becoming an indie artist – now, without the support of a major record company – as well as becoming a father with the responsibilities that brings. The album may be the outward expression of the stresses and strains of the period indicating an unknown future.

Are We Having Fun Yet? lies some way outside the immediate musical culture of 1993 and it is possible Vearncombe was thinking in terms of it being the fourth album planned for release by A&M. In terms of contemporary releases by other artists of the period, it is completely out there on its own and may be regarded as having an original vision. Bearing in mind the ‘anything goes’ culture of postmodernism at the time of its release, it can be accepted as viable a release as any other. 

In conclusion, notable Vearncombe musical fingerprints from the first period may be listed as follows:

Pop music ballads/narratives with the song as central; possible operatic connections; strophic verse/chorus song structures; confessionals; straightforward tonal/modal harmony deploying primary and secondary chords, with some added-note chords, Major and Minor 7ths and, occasionally, diminished chords; big productions with meaningful and well-crafted arrangements; angst-centred songs becoming less so; a gradual shift away from 1980s styles; Jimmy Webb/Bob Dylan/Scott Walker-influences yet only peripheral; technology at an optimum becoming less so.


(Thanks to Peter Sweeney for discussing music of the 1990s with me. AK).

Author: Andrew Keeling     © 2022 Nero Schwarz Music Limited

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Footnotes

Footnotes
1E-mail from Colin Vearncombe Management to Andrew Keeling. 27-07-21.
2E-mail from Colin Vearncombe Management to Andrew Keeling. 3-01-22.
3Email from Colin Vearncombe Management to Andrew Keeling, 21-12-21.
4Q Magazine, September, 1993.
5E-mail from Camilla Griehsel to Andrew Keeling, 22-12-21.

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