Essay No. 3 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)
Colin Vearncombe’s eponymous third album, simply called Black and released in 1991, came two years after Comedy. With the 1980s now passed, music in general had transformed from the slickly marketed sounds of that decade into something more natural and, in many cases, harder edged. Black was to be Vearncombe’s final release for A&M Records and, as the song Feel Like Change encapsulates, there is more than just life change in the air but also musical change. As discussed in the previous essay on Comedy, Colin Vearncombe continued to be less affected by the collective musical establishment of the time both in terms of artistic strategy and style by standing outside both.
Featuring appearances by Robert Palmer, Sam Brown and Camilla Griehsel-Vearncombe, Black was described by the Rough Guide to Music as Vearncombe’s best album. The single taken from it, Feel Like Change, was successful in South Africa but, in general, largely sidelined in the UK.
World Events, 1991
Music is often indirectly affected by events in the collective arenas of politics, art and science with artists unconsciously reflecting concerns emanating from it. In terms of world events, 1991 marked an epochal shift towards worldwide freedom largely from Communism, noted as the final year of the Cold War. The year saw the Soviet Union shedding fifteen republics, although Russian forces aimed to stop Lithuanian independence. In Russia, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was called for in a referendum with Mikhail Gorbachev finally resigning as president in December 1991 with the USSR becoming known as The Russian Federation. Countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia and Latvia would become completely independent, self-governing countries, with the remaining Soviet institutions ceasing operation at the end of December. In hindsight, it is now clear Soviet Communism, since the early years of the twentieth century, left millions dead or imprisoned in opposition to state decrees.
Serbia, along with other Yugoslav republics, would also enter the conflict known as the Yugoslavian War. Serbian forces would attack Croatia and the Yugoslav army and atrocities such as Serbian forces killing two hundred and sixty Croatian POWs would resonate throughout world media sources. Although the dissolution of the country took place in August, 1991, the Siege of Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army took place later in October.
Czechoslovakia also abandoned its communist economic principles with the Visegard Agreement by introducing free-market systems with Hungary and Poland following suit. The Bulgarian Socialist Party was also defeated signalling no remaining Communist governments in Eastern Europe. Even in the UK the Communist Party of Great Britain was dissolved, founding the Democratic Left in its place.
The Gulf War also began with Operation Desert Storm, with British SAS deployed in Iraq. Centring around the occupation of Kuwait by Iraqi forces, the Iraqis were finally forced to retreat although firing Kuwait’s oilfields in retaliation. Iraqi disarmament was called for in Resolution 687, with the abandonment of biological weapons and an end to international terrorism.
The Music Collective, 1991
In musical terms, the beginning of each decade since the 1960s often marks a zeitgeistic climax, summing up world and cultural concerns of the final five years of the previous decade as a far-reaching historical statement. Whether this is unconscious or brought into play by emerging corporate forces, mainstream and alternative media sources remains open to question. Although it was certainly the case with the 1971 watershed progressive rock movement, the new wave of 1981, it may be assumed the same was true of 1991’s neo-psychedelic scene.
During 1991, the collective in indie music began to bear the hallmarks of a kind of neo-psychedelia, felt in the acid house scene during the two late ‘80s summers of love, the effects of recreational drugs such as ecstasy, crack cocaine and crystal meth being as much a driver of the culture as anything else. The period came to be regarded as a reaction to the cold futurism of the early years of the previous decade and its gradual stylisation. To some extent acid house was re-made and re-modelled by the Stone Roses on their first eponymous album (1989), preparing for ground for Oasis some five years later. Digital technology – presented in the new compact-disc format – would allow older bands to release back-catalogues bringing past into present and allowing psychedelic music and progressive rock – such as, for example, Love, Jimi Hendrix and Free – to be rediscovered in a new way, bringing about a reaction to the stylistic concerns of the early and mid-1980s. It was a moment when suddenly all music began to coexist making new emerging fashion not the only cultural new kid on the block, with the new fashion clearly culled from the late 1960s/early ‘70s. New styles in the 1990s had a timbral and rhythmic strangeness enhancing the music, brought about through new technological innovations such as sampling, delay and new digital foot-pedals for guitars.
Important releases in the UK from 1991 include the following:
Primal Scream – Screamadelica. This Scottish band, with its mid-tempo rhythms, wrote and performed songs such as Movin’ On Up which includes reductive harmonic language (C-Bb chording), with a coda consisting of descending harmony (C-Bb-Ab-F) underpinning contrary motion string lines. Slip Inside This House has percussion and reverb with spoken vocal repetition, recalling the Happy Mondays, while Don’t Fight It, Feel It is made from basic 4/4 dance beats.
Massive Attack – Blue Lines. Safe From Harm is not a thousand miles away from Primal Scream, with female vocals, funk bass in a slow groove on B which One Love and Blue Lines continue, although Unfinished Sympathy picks up a faster tempo with long synthesiser chording.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless. An Anglo/Irish band largely pioneered by Kevin Shields, whose album of large Fender Jaguar treated guitar textures. The opener, Only Shallow, has an unusual chordal progression (G-Bb/F-C/G-Bb/F) with an instrumental ritornello alternating with vocal verses of soft, low vocals from Bilinda Butcher, Again, the music is slow moving and continues in the subsequent, Loomer. When You Sleep is faster with male and female vocals in octaves, while sometimes uses ‘drop D’ tuning.
Electronic – Electronic. A techno-duo formed by Bernard Sumner (New Order) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths). The opening Idiot Country is essentially a dance groove comprising two chords (Am-G), while the following Soviet has simple Gm-Dm chordal support for a Russian-like folksong on a staccato piano. Getting Away With It was co-written by Sumner, Marr and collaborator Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys, with its strong, memorable chorus and up-tempo rhythmic drive.
Blur – Leisure. At this moment, the highly inventive Blur produced a consistent album important for its rhythmic drive and Damon Albarn’s vocal delivery as well as Graham Coxon’s imaginative guitar lines, highlighted on songs such as Bang. There’s No Other Way, also released as a single, is reminiscent of Pink Floyd, using sustained textural Farfisa organ chording (E-D-B-D).
U2 – Achtung Baby. This album marks a re-invention for the chameleon-like U2, now stripped of their original new wave stance into something more psychedelic. In Zoo Station we hear phased Bono vocals and mellotron and the Edge’s early two-string solos are now embedded within the texture. The single, The Fly – a mid-tempo groove complete with wah-wah guitar and two-part vocals – has verses on a single chordal drone (A) and the chorus utilising two (E and A). The middle guitar solo employs bent guitar pitches over wah-wah rhythm. The most memorable song is Mysterious Ways with its strong descending line chorus over Bb-Eb-Db-Ab, and the two-note wah-wah guitar solo over F minor during the central section.
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.
In the US music would take a slightly different path with the emergence of grunge rock. Fusing metal with punk in a psychedelic atmosphere the movement seemed to epitomise freedom and global regime breakdown.
Nirvana – Never Mind. Establishing themselves as part of the Seattle grunge scene, Never Mind spearheaded the movement. Beginning with the iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit, the upward thrust and memorable verse and chorus structure and its basic F-Bb-Ab-Db harmony, combined with alternating clean and distorted guitar-driven sections, serves as a kind of anthem for an entire generation. The unusual chording of Bloom (verses: Bb-G-F-Ab; chorus: Bb-Gb-Eb-B-A) together with Kurt Cobain’s raw vocal delivery, shares similar concerns with the opener. Come As You Are, with its paradigmatic symmetrical guitar riff, prepares the Am9-Cm9 chorus. Lithium continues the harmonic strangeness (D-F#-B-G-Bb-[C]-A). Cello is introduced in the final Something In The Way and notable for its vocal stasis and two-chord harmony (Fm-Db).
Pearl Jam – Ten. A band who was identified with grunge and whose Ten album demonstrates considerable power, heard in Even Flow with its riff and smooth harmonic shifts.
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger. This was Soundgarden’s third album featuring Chris Cornell, with the powerful Jesus Christ Rose having detuned guitars, speed riffing, central harmonic elaboration and a structural mirror.
Smashing Pumpkins – Gish. Featuring guitarist and vocalist Billy Cogan, Smashing Pumpkins existed prior to the emergence of grunge. Gish is characterised by sudden changes of tempo and atmosphere from soft and melancholic to loud and abrasive and heard to full effect on Siva.
REM – Out of Time. Losing My Religion is probably the standout track also issued as a single, while Shiny Happy People recalls The Byrds with its jangling guitars. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain would admire REM for crossing the divide of mainstream and indie.
Other bands notable albums were: Primus’ Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, with its crazed, funked-up nod towards Discipline-era King Crimson; Metallica’s The Unforgiven, which marked a transition from their speed metal into more commercial music concerns, bearing the influence of Wishbone Ash; The Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde, the title-track including raised 7ths in the vocals and shifting-metres (4/4 to 3/4); the ever-developing Neil Young, whose ’live’ album, Weld, includes loud reinventions of some of his earlier West Coast songs such as Cinnamon Girl into something approaching the indie scene of the early 1990s.
Black – the album
Colin Vearncombe’s management recalls the events surrounding the release of Black: ‘The reason we signed to A&M was because of the combination of Brian Shephard (M.D.) and Chris Briggs (Head of A&R) who were exceptional “music people” and had worked together successfully for many years. Colin got on extremely well with Chris and felt confident and well looked-after. We had a strong relationship with Brian and, after the success of Wonderful Life, were getting all the support we needed. But by the time Black was released, they’d both been sacked and we didn’t see eye-to-eye with the new management team. We had a big falling out about the choice of first single and, after a few months of wrangling, they didn’t pick up on the option for the fourth album. We were quite happy about this. We weren’t the only artist to suffer the new regime. Sam Brown also left the label after a fall-out. We were very happy to go indie and didn’t seek out another major deal. 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.’
‘Black was a more sombre process. Colin had moved down to London by then – just down the road from Powerplant where it was mainly recorded with Robin Millar who owned the studio at the time. Colin hadn’t written many new songs for the album and was digging his heels in that the songs he had were good enough and he wanted to record them. A&M didn’t agree, but by the time Chris Briggs, the one guy who would have been able to help Colin, was largely absent and the second in command didn’t have Colin’s respect. The only person who thought the songs were ready to record was Robin who openly admitted that he thought that by starting the recording process Colin would be freed up to write more, better songs. I knew that’s not how Colin worked, so we wound up with an album with which almost no one was 100% happy. There was a lot at stake. Comedy had done well in most of our major territories (platinum in Spain), with much of the media staying on our side, but we also knew that a third album without a radio hit was going to be a problem. Just one commercially successful song on that album would have led to an entirely different career. Such are the vagaries on which an artist’s life turns.’ Email from Colin Vearncombe management – 29-07-21
It becomes apparent from the above, first with the change of music scene in the early 1990s together with the apparent problems surrounding the changes of staff within A&M Records and, secondly, the combined effect this was to have on Colin Vearncombe at the time of making Black, something different would emerge. Although not just in musical terms but in outlook, Black follows the work of artists such as Nick Drake, whose manager Joe Boyd left the UK for America after managing and producing Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter regarded as his most commercial offering. This was to result in the subsequent Pink Moon and the dramatic musical reduction Drake effected by Boyd’s departure leaving Drake to work on his own. Judee Sill’s output, following 1973’s Heartfood, took an oblique turn after being dropped by David Geffen from Asylum Records to make way for Joni Mitchell who, reportedly, did not want any other female competition on the label. As a result Sill’s career more or less dried up.
The players on Black are: Colin Vearncombe – vocals; Roy Martin – drums; Martin Green – clarinet and tenor sax; Brad Lang – bass; Gordon Morgan – electric and acoustic guitars and backing vocal; Camilla Griehsel-Vearncombe – backing vocal; Steve Sidwell – flugelhorn; Bob Andrews – Hammond organ; Pete Davis – keyboards and programming; Robin Millar – brass arrangement; Luis Jardin – – percussion; Peter Davis – keyboards and programming; Robert Palmer – backing vocal; Rich Taylor – trombone; Sam Brown – vocal. It was produced and arranged by Robin Millar, mixed by Jim Abiss and Dave Anderson and recorded at First Protocol and Powerplant Studios, London, with art and design by John Warwicker.
Stylistic Concerns, Key Structure and Tempi
Continuing from the previous essay on Comedy, what happens when an artist chooses to produce material which goes against the grain of audient interest? That artist defies listener expectations, particularly if the mass audience consists of younger people brought up on a fashionable diet of Radio One hits. A typical Top of the Pops from a week in 1991, would have included, for example, The Prodigy’s Charly, Zoe’s Sunshine On A Rainy Day, Utah Saints’ What Can You Do For Me, Kylie Minogue’s Word Is Out, all with driving, synthesiser-led dance rhythms, sometimes enhanced by turntables and, mostly, by psychedelic lighting; or, in terms of the indie scene, Manchester’s more guitar-oriented The Stone Roses’ I Wanna Be Adored, highlighting the band’s simple, but effective chording anticipating Oasis. This is an example of a largely extrovert tendency in collective music making. In a world of extroversion, the introvert tends to get lost or is simply never heard until the collective fashion has passed. Then, their work is able to be reassessed without the baggage of associated fashion. Vearncombe’s wife, Camilla Griehsel, writes: ‘I’d say Colin was an introvert as he spent a lot of time at home. When he went out he was fairly extrovert in his own circles. He had a few really close friends in the business but wasn’t drawn to it, per se.’ Email from Camilla Griehsel to Andrew Keeling – 21-10-21
1991 was also close to the rise of the internet (1989-2004) and the introduction of the World Wide Web, with the introduction of browsers such as Google from 1997 onwards. As a result, the potential of computer and machine-led music also became a reality and central to the visions of the future taking its original cue from the likes of Kraftwerk and John Foxx from the late 1970s onwards.
By 1991, Colin Vearncombe was treading his own path with largely introspective and confessional-like songs, reducing the textures of Wonderful Life and Comedy and further refining the craftsman-like approach heard on the latter. Personal life experiences were worked out in expressive terms. But without the high-profile presence of a US and UK hit single, especially without the now fashionable trance-like dance outlook, the album would be largely unheard by the wider collective. As a result, Black runs counter to the mainstream, rather reaching Vearncombe’s established fanbase and new converts. Indeed, Black retains some of the timbral and production values of the earlier albums without rejecting his deceptively straightforward expressive style. However, the expansive and dramatic styles of his 1980s output are fast disappearing. It must be said therefore, Black, on first hearing, is not as striking as Comedy. This could be for a number of reasons although for the earlier albums Vearncombe had several years of accumulated songs from which to draw and, here, there was less material to be used as a starting point. On closer exploration of Black it becomes apparent, however, that it is subtly understated.
Certainly, Black is more settled both musically and expressively and the outworking of Vearncombe’s own personal life at the time. Songs are less turbulent and certainly less angry – even Learning How To Hate is more cathartic than downright angry – as compared with the Wonderful Life album. It is as though he has found safe harbour from where he is able to reflect on experience and work it into the songs. By now Colin Vearncombe had established a personal style and this was to remain stable, although with progressive modification, until the end. Rather than reinvent himself in the same way as, say, U2, he was to remain essentially as singer-songwriter along similar lines to American singer-songwriter, Jimmy Webb or, even, Tom Waits.
One review commented, ‘Vearncombe has remarried and the 30 months since Comedy seems to have rejuvenated his writing and edged him towards a lessening of the unremitting gloom’. Q Magazine – June, 1991 Compared to the keys/modes of the previous two records, the melancholic ‘affect’ of a largely minor modal structure has been replaced by bright major modes with a corresponding slowing of tempi.
|1. Too Many Times||Bb major/up to C at 3:10||Dotted-crotchet = 44||12/8|
|2. Feel Like Change||D major||Crotchet = 76||4/4|
|3. Here It Comes Again||D major||Crotchet = 84||4/4|
|4. Learning How To Hate||D major||Crotchet = 128c.||4/4|
|5. Fly Up To The Moon||C major||Dotted-crotchet = 60||12/8|
|6. Let’s Talk About Me||A Minor||Crotchet = 126c.||4/4|
|7. Sweet Breath of Your Rapture||A Major||Crotchet = 112||4/4|
|8. Listen||C major||Crotchet = 84||4/4|
|9. She’s My Best Friend||Bb major||Crotchet = 104-108||4/4|
|10. This Is Life||C major||Crotchet = 76||4/4|
The long-term key/mode structure demonstrates ‘progressive tonality’: an upward shift of a tone from the beginning (Too Many Times) – starting in Bb major although ending in C major – to the final song (This Is Life), C major. Progressive tonality had been used by composer Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler in his 4th Symphony often denoting a shift from darkness to light. In Colin Vearncombe’s case, Too Many Times speaks of experiential issues such as death whereas the final This Is Life is about acceptance of the former and, especially, loneliness. Besides that, out of ten songs, nine are in the major mode with Let’s Talk About Me in A minor, although its long-term effect is short lived with the A major of Sweet Breath Of Your Rapture felt as a Tierce de Picardie (sharpening of the 3rd in a key). The presence of D major as a long-term subsidiary key in prolonged through songs 2, 3 and 4 with a subsequent dip to C major and A minor and A major – songs 5 to 7 – and an upward shift to C major and Bb major – songs 8 to 9 – and, finally to the C major of the final tenth track felt as a triumphal homecoming ( Black Ex. 1 ).
In the same way as Wonderful Life and Comedy, the harmony on Black continues to be relatively straightforward comprising major and minor primary and secondary triads, dominant sevenths and variants (i.e. major and minor sevenths). As with the majority rock music, rather than traditional diatonicism, Vearncombe employs modes or a hybrid of diatonicism and modality in his songs. Together with the melody, this implies a kind of improvisatory ‘feel’ rather than academic means in terms of compositional techniques, coming over as something plucked ‘out of the air’ speaking directly to the emotional side of a listener.
As discussed previously the entire album is a catalogue of growing experience crafted to expressive ends; a list of experiences fused on the final, This Is Life.
|1. Too Many Times||familial|
|2. Feel Like Change||life change|
|3. Here It Comes Again||imaginary fear|
|4. Learning How To Hate||jealousy/rumour|
|5. Fly Up To The Moon||escape|
|6. Let’s Talk About Me||sinister/ironic|
|7. Sweet Breath of Your Rapture||love|
|9. She’s My Best Friend||love/homecoming|
|10. This Is Life||acceptance|
In these terms melodies are confined to conjunct motion – scales and arpeggios – with some leaps to heighten expressive means. Blues and jazz like vocal improvisation is also employed to similar ends.
Largely, the album comprises of middle-of-the-road ballads, with three exceptions, Learning How To Hate and Let’s Talk About Me, and the funk-oriented, She’s My Best Friend.
|1. Too Many Times||modified slow blues|
|2. Feel Like Change||slow ballad|
|3. Here It Comes Again||slow ballad|
|4. Learning How To Hate||big US AOR rock|
|5. Fly Up To The Moon||slow blues|
|6. Let’s Talk About Me||dramatic suspense/film music|
|7. Sweet Breath of Your Rapture||mid-tempo minimalist/gamelan becoming ballad-like|
|8. Listen||medium-paced ballad|
|9. She’s My Best Friend||mid-tempo AOR funk|
|10. This Is Life||slow ballad|
Too Many Times
Camilla Griehsel-Vearncombe has recently said, ‘Too Many Times was written after a friend of mine’s father was murdered, but I expect Colin was imagining his own father being dead and what that would feel like. His own father, Alan, only passed away in 2019.’ Camilla Griehsel – Zoom meeting with Andrew Keeling, 15-10-21
The song is in the rhythm of a slow-blues, with a metre of 12/8 and a tempo of dotted crotchet = 44. With the introduction beginning with a Bb major 7th chord on solo piano, solo sax joins (0:03) providing the music with an ad. lib feel. The harmony passes through Bbmaj7, Dm7 (third inversion), Eb major (second inversion), Cm before cadencing on F susp to F. Bob Andrews, formerly of Brinsley Schwarz, embellishes the cadence in a blues-like way on Hammond organ ( Black Ex. 2 ). Vearncombe’s voice enters (0:21) over the F major (V) cadential chord introducing verse one ( Black Ex. 3 ). The vocal straddles the beat with a quasi-jazz, improvisatory-like delivery over the same chords found in the introduction. Cast in two halves, the verse is strophic with a light texture – voice, piano, Hammond, bass and drums with rim-shots.
The chorus has the same harmonic structure but now, with the ‘Daddy’ hookline, the ear has something memorable to hold onto. There is also a harmonic contraction with three chords only during the first half ( Black Ex. 4 ). The textural fluidity is characterised, not only with the addition of Camilla Griehsel’s backing vocals, but also with the flugelhorn and sax sustained-pitch arrangement. Nothing is crowded, with everything – included the clean electric guitar – spaciously conceived and the horns seamlessly gluing the harmonic changes. Drums are kept to a minimum continuing with the rim-shots of the verse. Interestingly, the song bears some comparison with Jimmy Webb’s In Cars which appeared on Art Garfunkel’s 1981 release, Scissors Cut. This also includes flugelhorn as part of the arrangement.
Verse two continues (1:46ff.) with off-beat electric guitar playing soft, broken, funk-like rhythms with an occasional clarinet obbligato. The verse, however, is contracted to one half only, allowing the following chorus to be intensified with the addition of further rhythmic guitar. The Middle8 (2:49ff.) consists of the same texture but with drums changing to normal snare under a short tenor sax solo playing of the introductory chords.
A striking abrupt modulation (3:10) takes the music upwards into C major. With the previous harmony transposed up a tone (C-Em7-Fmaj7-Dm7-G sus/G), Vearncombe delivers a contracted verse accompanied by sustained organ and broken drum rhythm prior to the chorus (3:34ff.) now also in C major with four repeats and an added tenor sax obbligato part. The song’s title, with which it also began, is reintroduced – ‘There’ve been too many times’ – replacing the word ‘Daddy’ used as hookline up until now. As a result, structural symmetry is created, with the song completed by a fade to the end (4:57).
Feel Like Change
The first of three consecutive songs in D major, the key has often been associated with luminosity from composers as diverse as J.S. Bach to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s signature song, Sweet Home Alabama. The tempo is crotchet = 76, and is the first of eight songs in a 4/4 metre, with the concept underlining personal and musical change. Camilla Griehsel says, ‘Colin and I married in 1990. We met in 1988 while I was still in a band called One 2 Many which was also signed to A&M records and, after six months, our friendship became a relationship. It was a whirlwind romance and we were completely wrapped up in one another. Sometimes he wrote from an imagined experience that had nothing to do with real life. When you live with a songwriter you can detect parts of conversations you’ve had in the songs but, as Colin once reminded me; “not every song is about you”.’ Camilla Griehsel – Zoom meeting with Andrew Keeling, 15-10-21
Beginning with a sustained D major chord, Griehsel’s vocalise emerges from the soft, sustained synthesiser with soft drums and Fretless bass, entering at 0:12. A synth, sounding Aeolian pipe, is also heard at 0:24. All this texture symbolises change ( Black Ex. 5 ). Colin Vearncombe’s voice enters for verse one (0:27) immediately stating the song’s subject, ‘Everything changes as you think about it…’ over oscillating D major and G major harmony, complete with soft, rhythmically accented bass. Drums play soft ride-cymbal quavers, with snare rim-shots on the fourth beat of bar ( Black Ex. 6 ). With verse leading into chorus (0:54) ( Black Ex. 7 ), the textural density is increased with additional acoustic guitar, full and subtle drumming, bass and sustained synthesisers. The Dominant (A major – V) is added in the later stages increasing the tension.
The second verse continues with the programmed synths fading in and out and increased rhythm in the acoustic guitar. A post-chorus follows the second chorus (2:08) over G major (IV) ( Black Ex. 8 ). Electric guitar resembling pedal-steel is heard (2:10ff.) for textural differentiation, with the Middle8 following. Here, Martin Green’s high clarinet resembles soprano sax over oscillating D major and G major harmony, with B minor introduced (2:35) over which Vearncombe speaks ‘…like change’.
With post-chorus reappearing (2:41) now providing structural symmetry, Camilla Griehsel’s siren-like vocalise is reintroduced although, now, limited to two pitches (F# and A) (3:01) preparing the final chorus as the climax of the song (3:15), with Griehsel’s voice again occasionally emerging from the texture. The song fades with a piano solo over the texture (4:09ff.).
Here It Comes Again continues with conga and claves-led rhythm, together with soft, picked electric guitar. Including Vearncombe’s multi-tracked backing-vocal hook, timbales are added to the texture of verse two providing further rhythmic impetus. The song is immediately accessible, and the striking D major modal-centre offsets ‘the chill in me’ reappearing like a wave throughout. A video for the song features Vearncombe and Camilla Griehsel, including a cameo appearance from former Modern Eon bass guitarist, Danny Hampson.
Learning How To Hate
The third in the triptych of D major-centred songs is fast (crotchet = 128), angry AOR US rock. It is particularly suited to former Vinegar Joe Robert Palmer’s backing vocals. At the time, Palmer was enjoying huge success with singles such as Simply Irresistible and Addicted To Love, along with the albums Don’t Explain. He had also guested on the Comsat Angels’ Chasing Shadows (1986), introducing the band to Island’s Chris Blackwell who subsequently awarded the band a contract for two albums.
Beginning with loud, semi-distorted electric guitar ( Black Ex. 9 ), a second guitar is soon introduced (0:11) ( Black Ex. 10 ) with the harmony extending through G major. With full band entering (0:23), synth, bass and drums are added, the synth meshing with guitar ( Black Ex. 11 ). Following the strident introduction, verse one begins (0:30) with Vearncombe’s voice over the introductory chords and reduced guitars allowing the words to be heard clearly ( Black Ex. 12 ). In between each half of the verse, the loud introductory synth-driven chording is reintroduced. Palmer’s vocals and sometimes heard a Major 7th above (0:55).
The chorus follows (0:59) led by Vearncombe but with Palmer’s dual backing-vocals heard through the gaps as if in dialogue ( Black Ex. 13 ). Other idiomatic Palmer parallelisms are also detected in the chorus such as parallel 4ths ( Black Ex. 14 ). The abrasive guitar and synth chords also divide the two halves of the chorus. (1:11 – see Black Ex. 11).
Vearncombe’s second verse vocals – resembling his vocals in the first verse – are also counterpointed by Palmer’s now sustained backing voice ( Black Ex. 15 ). There is a slight tailing-off of energy (2:44ff.), drums being momentarily omitted followed by choppy and then sustained bass (3:00ff.), and subsequently with Vearncombe’s high falsetto heard as the main point of focus. A section of vocals, phased synthesisers and drums (3:13ff) is introduced as a varied chorus before the full texture arrived as the grand slam (3:24ff.), with Palmer’s ‘learning how to hate’ harmony vocal (3:48ff.) heard over the song’s final fade-out.
It could be said that by 1991 the production values on a song such as Learning How To Hate, particularly the rather bottom-heavy, reverb-laden drums, were beginning to pale in favour of a more natural sonic approach. However, even on an album such as The Stone Roses’ debut two years earlier, a similar production remains on I Wanna Be Adored, although I Am The Resurrection demonstrates a more dried-out timbre, complete with wah-wah guitars. Camilla Griehsel comments, ‘Colin kept up with a lot of new music, but he called some of it ‘nursery rhymes’. His main influences were Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Steve Earle, James Blake, Neil Young, Mick Flannery, David Bowie, Queen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Crowded House, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin. In terms of songwriting technique, he’d often start with a few chords on guitar and sometimes the words came first. He was composing all the time. We’d be sitting at dinner and he’d be tapping away on the table, sometimes you could tell his focus wasn’t on the room at all, but somewhere following his muse. He did most of his structured writing at night. During the time Colin was writing this album we were listening to a lot of classical music: Verdi, Bellini, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Mozart, Chopin, Bach…and so much more! He started playing the piano differently using new and complex colours.’ Camilla Griehsel – Zoom meeting with Andrew Keeling, 15-10-21
Fly Up To The Moon
Placed centrally, Fly Up To The Moon, features fellow A&M recording artist, Sam Brown. Not only is Brown a solo singer in her own right, but has also worked with Pink Floyd, Barclay James Harvest, George Harrison, Spandau Ballet, Jon Lord and Nick Cave, and her performance here suits the song admirably.
In 12/8 with a slow pulse (dotted crotchet = 60), it is a tone lower than the previous song with Bb major being particularly apt and positioned as a dramatic reduction in tension returning to the slow ballad feel of the album. The song features Vearncombe and Brown both in dialogue as well as in duet.
With an introduction in C major and G/G7, and an eventual F major, the texture comprises Vearncombe’s acoustic guitar, sustained Hammond organ and snare rim-shots. The refrain, sung by Vearncombe, comes first (0:21) and is reinforced by bass (0:23) ( Black Ex. 16 ). The second refrain is delivered by Sam Brown over the same accompaniment, with the following post-refrain sung by Brown and Vearncombe in harmony ( Black Ex. 17 ). The accompanying harmony ascends from F, A minor and Bb major and C major before cadencing on the Tonic. The second refrain (1:47ff.) includes a thickening of texture with a calliope-like organ and more intense, improvisatory vocal duetting, leading to a more embellished post-refrain.
Coming as the emotional climax of the song, the central section (2:19) has falling harmony – C-G/B/Am-F-Am-Bb – with a brass arrangement consisting of trombones then saxes supporting Vearncombe’s solo vocal before being joined by Sam Brown (2:31ff.), eventually reaching the climax on the word ‘Fly…’ and followed by a collapse (2:37) over C-Am-G chording. It closes simply with Vearncombe’s picked guitar arpeggios (2:55ff.).
Continuing with Let’s Talk About Me, its James Bond-like riff ( Black Ex. 18 ) and punchy octave brass line ( Black Ex. 19 ), the song sounds suited to a movie or a musical with a distinctly South American feel. With a certain irony, verse one introduces the subject ‘Little queen beware fashion tempers flare…’ with the vocal part made from descending E natural to B natural quavers, and the second phrase treated sequentially all over a moving A natural pedal in the bass ( Black Ex. 20 ).
The ‘hollow vase’ from Learning How To Hate is reintroduced during the second half of the verse. With the chorus introducing Camilla Griehsel’s harmony vocal, there is a shift to F and E majors leading to the climax of the chorus ( Black Ex. 21 ). Marimba is introduced over the introduction which uses similar material, except for muted electric guitar and brass.
The song is effective mainly for its relentless driving rhythmic momentum, its sinister overtones and dramatic tension-building together with the electric guitar (2:43), and its Adrian Belew-like noise elements, together with sudden textural reduction (2:57ff.). A false fade-out (4:11ff.) and reappearance (4:23ff.) intensifies the song.
Segueing into Sweet Breath Of Your Rapture, successful mainly for its simplicity and memorable melody, the harmony – A major – brightens the preceding A minor of Let’s Talk About Me as a kind of Tierce de Picardie (sharpened 3rd). The repeated electric guitar pitches are reminiscent of the early 1980s new wave and Bob Andrews’ Hammond is particularly apt, with the song becoming more funk-like as it goes on.
The bright C major mode of Listen includes a calming and assured vocal delivery from Colin Vearncombe. Not only is it the vocal that makes the song noteworthy, but its memorable instrumental hookline on soft synth winds its way through ( Black Ex. 22 ).
The beauty of the vocal line is due mainly to the descending conjunct scales with its varied repeat ( Black Ex. 23 ). The harmonic rhythm is also slow, descending along with the vocal line, with light band accompaniment (synth, electric piano, bass, drums [snare rim-shots of the fourth beats of bars] and occasional string synth usually heard as a sustained pitch [i.e. C natural-0:49]). Vearncombe plays guitar and keyboards, as well as taking all the vocals and his Danny Kirwan-like guitar solo (2:24) is notable both for its rhythmic detail and arch-like design ( Black Ex. 24 ). Nor is just the guitar Kirwan-like, but the entire song may well owe its influence to Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees album. The optimism of the music offsets the advisory wisdom of the song’s subject.
She’s My Best Friend
A song about Camilla Griehsel and starting with marimba and electric piano, the texture develops with repeated synthesiser chords. Picking up momentum, along with textural accumulation, the song’s powerful chorus and memorable hook leave a long-lasting impression ( Black Ex. 25 ) along with the subsequent instrumental hook ( Black Ex. 26 ).
The song is rhythmically direct, in a 4/4 metre and the strength and optimism of the Bb major mode serve as a homecoming; a resolution to the stormy waters traversed during Vearncombe’s previous two album releases.
This Is Life
If the preceding song is a homecoming, then This Is Life is a catharsis. In C major, a tone higher than She’s My Best Friend, it is an acceptance of Vearncombe’s journey so far, in life as well as profession.
Beginning with long C-Cmaj7-Fmaj7-G harmony on piano, with a sustained string synth pitch on C natural binding the chords together, there is a parallel octave phrase in piano and bass reminiscent of the octave riff in Berlin’s Take My Breath Away and Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control ( Black Ex. 27 ). The parallelisms also point backwards to the same in Paradise Lost on Comedy.
Vearncombe’s vocal overlaps the cadence of the octave riff, with the vocal line superimposed over the introductory chords but with the addition of Am7 ( Black Ex. 28 ). The parallel octave riff is used as a landmark, much as in Paradise Lost, signifying structural bookends as a start and end of verses. The accompaniment is clear with electric piano, strings, bass and electronic percussion.
The post-chorus is delivered over G and G7/B with verse two introducing more direct rhythmic propulsion in the drums and percussion. Vearncombe again plays guitar and keyboards with a further guitar solo (2:46ff.) also reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Danny Kirwan ( Black Ex. 29 ).
The third verse (3:12ff.) is varied with guitar arpeggiations, besides structural contraction before moving to chorus (3:34) and including further parallel octaves plus Vearncombe’s solo guitar fills. The coda repeats the words ‘This is life’ with a fade and comes as an effective end to a positive album and coming as the antidote to the drama of Paradise Lost.
When reviewing the first three A&M Colin Vearncombe albums, it is possible to detect a gradual stylistic transformation. From the overt mid-1980s production of Wonderful Life with its synthesiser-saturated textures, the electronic funk of songs such as the angry It’s Not You, Lady Jane and the full-on US AOR rock of Everything’s Coming Up Roses, expressing Vearncombe’s post-first marriage breakup; to the Spanish dance-centred and sleekly designed architecture of Comedy with its voyeuristic classical guitar-led Let Me Watch You Make Love alongside the two big stand-out songs The Big One and You’re A Big Girl Now, besides the anthemic sway of All We Need Is The Money and summarised by the dramatic grandeur of Paradise Lost; landing on the final A&M eponymous album, heard as a settled homecoming and resolution to the tension set up in albums one and two, Black is an understated and successful catharsis due largely to Vearncombe’s marriage to Camilla Griehsel and her presence on the record. The previous review encapsulates Vearncombe’s approach on Black: ‘More Nick Drake or Jacques Brel than Leonard Cohen or Matt Johnson… Colin Vearncombe is a field of one, making music for the heroic but despondent and Black is a convincing statement of intent.’ Q Magazine – June, 1991
With Feel Like Change and the popular approach of She’s My Best friend, Vearncombe begins to cast-off 1980s stylisations pointing forward to the future. Black, on first hearing, may not sound like much, yet on repeated listening it yields rich musical and lyrical gold, unavailable to the songwriter of the first two albums. It is a maturing, both personally and musically and, as such, completes the triumvirate of A&M releases in its musical, emotive and confessional expressionism.
Author: Andrew Keeling © 2021 Nero Schwarz Music Limited
|↑1||Email from Colin Vearncombe management – 29-07-21|
|↑2||Email from Camilla Griehsel to Andrew Keeling – 21-10-21|
|↑3||Q Magazine – June, 1991|
|↑4||Camilla Griehsel – Zoom meeting with Andrew Keeling, 15-10-21|
|↑5||Camilla Griehsel – Zoom meeting with Andrew Keeling, 15-10-21|
|↑6||Camilla Griehsel – Zoom meeting with Andrew Keeling, 15-10-21|
|↑7||Q Magazine – June, 1991|