Wonderful Life and before

Essay No. 1 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)

by Andrew Keeling

Wonderful Life

To download a PDF version click here.

Contents
Foreword
Background
Wider background
The Early Music
Human Features
More Than The Sun
Wonderful Life – 1
Wonderful Life – 2
Wonderful Life
Everything’s Coming Up Roses
Paradise
Sweetest Smile
It’s Not You, Lady Jane
Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers
Coda

Foreword

I didn’t know much about Black (Colin Vearncombe) before writing this essay. Probably like many people I was aware of his mid-1980s hit, Wonderful Life although only through a television commercial. Although I’d played in Blackpool new wave outfit Thruaglas Darkly, by the time Black came to prominence I’d decided to return to university in a part-time capacity to study for a music degree – knowing that the creative musical developments of the early 1980s had largely disappeared – eventually pursuing postgraduate degrees at the University of Liverpool and the University of Manchester. The reason I mention this, is that by the mid-1980s I was distanced from mainstream culture along with the nostalgia associated with the period. Paradoxically, this opened-up an objective approach where musical judgements could be made without being shrouded by subjective memories of music and period.

By mid-2016, my daughter had invited my wife and I to leave the UK and live in Ireland, the same time as Colin Vearncombe died tragically in a car accident. Little did I know then that the songwriter also lived on the ‘emerald isle’. Then, in the summer of 2019, we decided to take a holiday in West Cork and chose the Sheep’s Head Peninsula as our destination. While there, we drove to Mizzen Head on the other side of the bay via Schull, the place Vearncombe had made his home although, again, this was something of which I was completely unaware. During 2020 I wrote about Liverpool band, Modern Eon and, through this connection Steve Baker and Karen Rainford of Nero Schwarz invited me to work on the present project. Although I don’t strictly adhere to the fatalistic view of life, in this case there were one too many ‘coincidences’ which became the main factor in my decision to accept their invitation. 

This, then, is the first in a series of essays which will explore Vearncombe’s music by steering a course through his development as a songwriter. I will use the names Black and Colin Vearncombe interchangeably beginning with a brief artist background, then overviewing the 1980s and its music. Subsequently, I will look at Vearncombe’s earliest recorded output followed by songs from the Wonderful Life album exploring Vearncombe’s musical language. Traditional musical notation will be used to codify the music found in the musical examples section at the back of the essay. Musical definitions may be found in either Eric Taylor – AB Guide to Music Theory (Associated Board, 2002) or, on the internet. This is as much of an education for me as it might be for other people, and I hope it will be of interest for everyone.

I would like to thank Steve Baker and Karen Rainford of Nero Schwarz. Thanks also to Mark Graham at Spaceward Records/Publications.

1. Background

The British singer-songwriter Collin Vearncombe was born in Liverpool in 1962, educated at Prescot Grammar School and studied Art at Liverpool Polytechnic. His earliest musical influence was Elvis Presley, after seeing Jailhouse Rock on television. Adopting the name Black, Vearncombe played his first gig on New Year’s Day, 1981, releasing the single Human Features (Rox Records) and was introduced to Peter Wylie of Wah! along with his manager Pete Fulwell. 

The result of the meeting was Black’s second single, More Than the Sun for the Wonderful World Of label. With new musical partner, Dave ‘Dix’ Dickie, WEA Records showed interest releasing two singles, Hey Presto! followed by a newly recorded version of More Than The Sun. However, following this Black was dropped from the label. 

During the period which followed Vearncombe found himself homeless, staying where he could with friends. His first marriage collapsed, and he was also involved in two car crashes. It was this period, however, that spawned the song, Wonderful Life. Originally released on Ugly Man Records in 1986, the single reached No. 72 in the UK charts. As a result, Black was signed by A&M Records for a two-album deal. Two singles, Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Sweetest Smile, were released as calling cards, followed by a reworked version of Wonderful Life and an album of the same name. 

2. Wider Background

With the optimism of the 1960s turning about-face into the pessimism of the 1970s, the 1980s introduced a dark objectivity. J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, widely read at the time, epitomised the new, futuristic vision of reality characterised as a kind of dystopian urbanisation felt particularly in northern cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. It was more an imagined, fictional future widely promoted and celebrated through the media and in political circles.

With the background of the AIDS virus, the vehement anti-Tory/Thatcher feeling and the threat of nuclear holocaust, the musical movement known as new wave grew out of the punk rock period at the back end of the 1970s. From 1979 onwards, new wave would encapsulate much of this new futurism, as psychedelia and progressive rock had reflected the ‘60s and ‘70s respectively. Bands such as Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and Durutti Column would be closely identified with Manchester, whereas Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and Modern Eon were homegrown Liverpool acts performing at local club venue, Eric’s. As an age which saw the invention of the earliest home computers, inexpensive synthesizers were also developed played by the likes of Billie Currie of Ultravox, and John Foxx on his post-Ultravox solo debut, Metamatic. The age of machines had arrived, superseding the likes of those heard during the 1970s in bands such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Hawkwind and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. As the 1980s wore on the first CD player was developed in Japan and the launch of the Microsoft word-processor, the launch of the Space Shuttle, the first mobile phone, the Sinclair C5 car and so on went together with the Falklands War, airline hi-jackings, the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and the Hungerford massacre. This was a decade of decisive change which may be termed pivotal in terms of the approaching technological revolution of the 1990s known as the Information Age.

As well as the events which formed the backdrop to Colin Vearncombe’s early music, he would have been aware of new acts such as The Human League, The Stranglers, Haircut 100, The Smiths, Eurythmics, New Order and Orange Juice; along with the gradual stylisation of the early new wave into the mainstream in the music of Tears for Fears, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It could be argued stylisation had begun even earlier with the new romantic movement encapsulated by Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. New wave musical language such as guitar harmonics (U2 – I Will Follow; The Comsat Angels – Independence Day) and the tribal drumming style initiated by punk and then broadened by Brian Eno and David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was assimilated into the mainstream (Peter Gabriel – Biko; Siouxie and the Banshees – Spellbound) to eventually transform in new ways on such mid-‘80s songs as U2’s Pride and The Police’s Every Breath You Take. The lead-bass lines technique of Joy Division’s Peter Hook would even reappear in the parallel vocal and bass octaves of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away. Bands like The Cure, The Cocteau Twins and The Comsat Angels would intelligently make the crossover into the mainstream although maintaining a link with alternative music while many other new wave bands disappeared along with its subculture. Yet, in turn, this would give rise to new indie ‘scenes’ such as the Goths.

The music videos of MTV would become as important as the music itself. For example, there was Robert Palmer’s more direct rock approach in Addicted to Love now made completely memorable by its unforgettable visuals. In America the reinvention of Michael Jackson, largely through Beat It and especially Thriller, Diana Ross and Cher would cross musical and cultural boundaries keeping pace with newer artists such as Whitney Houston, Prince and Madonna. Even contemporary classical music would become more approachable during the decade with works by minimalist composers Steve Reich and Phillip Glass and the ‘holy-minimalists’ Arvo Part and John Tavener becoming widely known through television. 

As the 1980s wore on the acid house-fuelled raves of Manchester’s Hacienda club unleashed the city’s house and rave scenes. Epitomised by The Happy Mondays and heard in the music of Joy Division survivors, New Order, in time it would develop into the ‘Madchester’ scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with its creation of a northern style neo-psychedelia. Artists such as David Sylvian, formerly of Japan, would find a foothold in the style for a while along with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp as heard on their album, The First Day (Virgin, 1993). A more band-centric cultural dynamic was adopted by the ‘Madchester’ scene influenced by US bands such as The 13th Floor Elevators while maintaining a connection with The Smiths. Notable were The Inspiral Carpets, The Charlatans, The Stone Roses and eventually Oasis. Like The Cure, Oasis, particularly, would be pivotal in maintaining both an indie and mainstream stance underscored by their Mancunian roots. Noel Gallagher, however, would soon see-through the Tony Blair/New Labour’s strategy of creating the media-fuelled ‘Cool Britannia’ aping Labour’s approach of the 1960s in appealing to the youth culture of the day. It would take the grunge moment of the 1990s with US bands such as Nirvana and Primus to further revolutionise music. 

Colin Vearncombe would work throughout these decades first in the new wave, then in the mainstream – through his A&M Record releases – and subsequently as an indie artist through his own Nero Schwarz label and management, maintaining a distance from the prime-movers while developing his own, unique style away from the mainstream.

3. The Early Music

Vearncombe adopted the moniker Black from his earliest music thinking his own name might not be strong enough to gain notoriety. I will discuss this more fully later.

Human Features

Black’s first single was released on Rox Records in 1981. With a black and white doodle of a naked man and woman as cover art, the single demonstrates Vearncombe’s interest in the British new wave and involved Vearncombe (vocals and guitar), Dane Goulding (bass) and Greg Leyland (drums). Beginning with drums, bass and guitar it illustrates the accumulative textural build-up utilised by other bands of the period such as The Comsat Angels and Modern Eon ( CV Ex. 1 ). Vearncombe’s chorus-drenched guitar becomes rhythmically more abrasive (0:17) with three chords: E-C9-Bm7 subsequently picking-up energy (0:20) ( CV Ex. 2 ). Vocals enter (0:30) accompanied by chordal guitar (E-C-Bm7), bass and drums ( CV Ex. 3 ). 

The song has some similarities with Aztec Camera’s Lost Outside the Tunnel (Postcard Records, 1981) in terms of vocal timbre, phrasing and accompanying harmony. However, beyond anything else the song anticipates the musical language of The Smiths. The chorus (0:50ff.) has open chordal shapes and a memorable melody line of falling Minor 3rds (D-C-B [‘Don’t begin to…’]) illustrating Vearncombe’s gift in creating unforgettable melodies ( CV Ex. 4 ). The post-verse bridge introduces a fast, strummed jagged guitar part with oscillating E-G chords. 

The strophic design continues with verse two, followed by chorus and post-verse before proceeding immediately to verse three. The chorus here is slightly varied with faster-moving guitar chords. Verse four adopts a similar approach by using staccato chordal accompaniment. Progressive textural transformation is deployed throughout to create variation in the song with the final chorus climaxing in four rhythmic unison chords.

Although the earliest Vearncombe release, Human Features was an important moment for the young musician. Clearly inspired by the new wave, it also provided him with an initial taste of the music business.

More Than The Sun

Black’s second single was released on the Wonderful World Of label in 1982, later re-written and re-released by WEA in 1984. The early version will be discussed here.

In a slow tempo, deeply melancholic and cast in D modal minor, the song underlines Vearncombe’s profound slant towards a kind of ‘nouveau’ romanticism. Beginning with solo piano and string synthesizer, at this stage the voice still retains a connection with new wave vocal styles ( CV Ex. 5 ). The neo-romantic style of the lyric writing is best illustrated in the first verse:

Release my hands
Put them where they should be
Hung at my sides neutrally
The can doesn’t say a thing
Of how things used to be…

The piano accompaniment also demonstrates a reference to Romantic nineteenth century music in the piano cadence (Ic [D/A] – V [A] – Ic [Dm/A]). The second half of the verse includes drums playing on the fourth beat of bars, a typical new wave feature which attempted to deconstruct the rhythmical four-squareness of the previous decade. Timpani lead into the dramatic chorus from the verse (1:00), with the chorus itself including a memorable falling melody of a 4th (D to A) underpinned by piano Dm-Bb (i-VI) and Dm-Gm chords (i-iv) ( CV Ex. 6 ). 

Enhanced by a large arrangement (voices, piano, string machine, guitar, bass, timpani and tubular bells), in some ways the song recalls the grandeur of Midge Ure-era Ultravox. More in evidence, however, is the music of early Scott Walker – especially Scott 4 – and, perhaps, Jimmy Webb. Verse two and chorus follow the song’s mainly strophic design. It also features a coda of Romantic-style solo piano figuration in the right-hand over static pedal bass pitches (Dm [i] – Bb [VI] – A [V]) with a sustained and phrased D minor chord in the string synthesizer ( CV Ex. 7 ). The sleeve-art is a contemporary early-Baroque plate of Icarus flying too close to the sun illustrating lyrics conveying heartbreak and emotional breakdown. 

The second version of More Than The Sun was released by WEA. It has a more elaborate arrangement and highlights the maturing of Vearncombe’s voice now unconnected with the new wave. The most noticeable revision is the chorus melody which rises rather than falls as on the previous version ( CV Ex. 8 ). The influence of Scott Walker and Ennio Morricone is again paramount. The Morricone influence was also central to fellow-Liverpool band, Modern Eon on their 1981 release, Fiction Tales (Din Disc). Verse two’s broken string arpeggios are notable along with the big piano accompaniment. Beyond all is the memorable impression the song leaves. The piano coda remains from the first version.

Vearncombe’s manager notes: ‘I was involved in both the More Than The Sun releases, as I ran the back-office at Eternal Records, working with Peter Fulwell. The Wonderful World Of was our indie offshoot and that release of More Than the Sun had Jump on the b-side. The WEA version had Butterfly Man as the 7” b-side and I Could Kill You, Widemouth and Stephen on the b-side of the 12”. I have a vague memory of Colin at Eternal’s Benson Street Studio with Colin playing piano. I remember sitting on the piano stool after the session talking to him, thinking that he was unquestionably a star.’ [1]Emails from Colin Vearncombe management to Andrew Keeling, 14-02-21 and 18-02-21.

4. Wonderful Life – 1

What makes a good song? What makes a great song and why do we connect with it? Is it largely to do with the songwriter’s intent in communicating both individual and collective experience through the genre?  In these terms we think of the best of Franz Schubert, Peter Warlock and Lennon and McCartney. Or are we more influenced by marketing forces promoting musical wares through media sources, as well as by zeitgeist and subculture? By demystifying some of these things, I hope to come to an understanding of why Wonderful Life is a great song and why it has been so enduring.

In a mini-documentary, Colin Vearncombe states: ‘I think for me writing is a way of addressing what it is to be alive.’ [2]Mini-Documentary: Black by David Bickley – Nero Schwarz, July 2011. Vearncombe wrote about diverse subjects crossing over into the mainstream with one particular song: Wonderful Life. Although immensely grateful for the many opportunities Wonderful Life presented to him, it began to overshadow everything else he did. He said, ‘Once you’ve had a hit it’s hard to write another song without having that at the back of your mind. For a long time I would hear other people say, “I like it but it’s not Wonderful Life.”’ [3]The Daily Telegraph – 29-01-16. Another example of a band who shared a similar experience were Free whose 1970 hit, Alright Now, tended to typecast them. Their follow-up, The Stealer, failed to chart and although they would subsequently have success with My Brother Jake and Little Bit of Love, the failure of The Stealer hit the band hard, along with their follow-up album to the phenomenally successful Fire and Water, Highway – in many ways a much superior record to its predecessor. 

The problem for any creative artist – musician, painter, poet etc. – is that one cannot choose or even deny what is given at any one time by the unconscious. If that content is real and authentic, bearing the hallmark of its creator, it may not resemble previous creative acts. It becomes largely a case of acceptance, something that Vearncombe came to realise as each new song arrived. The management comments, ‘Colin didn’t want to repeat himself. Melodies were easy for him. He wrote them very quickly. As regards the lyrics he had to work on them.’ [4]Zoom conversation between Colin Vearncombe management and Andrew Keeling – 4-02-21. Vearncombe also spoke to journalist Spencer Leigh: ‘I was really being ironic when I wrote Wonderful Life.’ [5]Spencer Leigh – The Independent – 29-01-16. The article continues, ‘He was broke and could barely afford food. He wrote the song returning from the shops. It took around ten minutes to sketch.’ [6]Ibid. Vearncombe: ‘I worked on it but I didn’t change it much. It was released on Ugly Man Records and was picked up by A&M in 1987. The single sold 2.7 million copies and yet was pretty much the recording I’d made at Pink Studios in Liverpool for £300.’ [7]Ibid.

Colin Vearncombe’s manager remembers, ‘The original demo of Wonderful Life was made using a tiny four-channel mixer that went straight into a ¼” reel to reel tape recorder. It may have been an Akai, but I’m foggy on the details. It was recorded in my flat on Sefton Park because Colin stayed there for part of each week after he’d split with his first wife.’ [8]Email from Colin Vearncombe management to Andrew Keeling, 8-02-21.  

The original demo of Wonderful Life was made during June, 1985. It is also likely it was recorded using just voice, simple synthesizer (or guitar) and drum machine. At this stage, the song would have been a sketch with the melody and harmony probably in place and the lyrics yet to be clearly defined. In 1986 the song was revised, re-recorded and released on Ugly Man Records, making the lower reaches of the UK charts and reaching No. 72. This version eventually appeared on the 2013 double CD release of the Wonderful Life album. The original remained roughly as it was previously on the eventual A&M release, although the keyboards are somewhat refined. Even the sax solo in the Middle8 is included.

The musical components will be discussed in the subsequent discussion on the album. The Ugly Man Records b-side is Sometimes for the Asking, essentially a large-scale boogie recalling Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World from Songs from the Big Chair (1985), an important signifier in the stylisation of new wave into mainstream pop. It may even be claimed that new wave was part and parcel of the music industry’s attempt to rebuild following the reductional excesses of punk. The climax of this process would be heard during the mid-1980s in singles such as Berlin’s Take My Breath Away and Prince’s Purple Rain. Black’s Wonderful Life is also an important marker in the process. Even The Comsat Angels would aim for a more stylised approach on Chasing Shadows (Island), with the album including Robert Palmer as executive producer and making a cameo appearance on You’ll Never Know. 

5. Wonderful Life – 2

The Wonderful Life album, released by A&M Records in September 1987, marks Colin Vearncombe’s first major commercial breakthrough bringing his music not only to the attention of the mass audience. Wonderful Life would reach No.3 in the UK during September, 1987. 

Recorded at Powerplant Studios in London, Pink Studios, in Liverpool and Square One Studio in Bury, the tracks were produced by Dave ‘Dix’ Dickie with one song, I’m Not Afraid, produced by Robin Millar. All songs were self-penned apart from five which were co-written with Dave Dix. Vearncombe management writes: ‘Colin and Dave were credited as co-writers for all the WEA music. Following us being dumped by WEA Colin went solo with me managing him and Dix went out on his own wanting to work as a producer. So, Dix had a production credit for most of the Wonderful Life album as well as co-writing a few of the songs and he produced half of the follow-up album, Comedy.’ [9]Ibid. (7), 18-02-21. 

The musicians involved were: Roy Corkhill – fretless bass; Jimmy Sangster – fretted bass; Jimmy Hughes – drums; Martin Green – saxes; Dave Dix – keyboards and programming; The Creamy Whirls (Tina Labrinski and Sara Lamarra) – backing vocals; The Sidwell Brothers – brass instruments.

The Wonderful Life single release was preceded by two singles released as calling cards for the album. The first was the extrovert, Everything’s Coming Up Roses followed by the more inward-looking, Sweetest Smile. While Everything’s Coming Up Roses failed to get any attention in the UK, it was a hit in Germany, rising to No. 11 on the national charts and No. 8 in Austria. Since that time, it has become a classic in those countries and is regularly played on German radio. Sweetest Smile became a top-ten hit in the UK during June, 1987. This allowed Wonderful Life, as third-time lucky, to reach No. 8 in the UK chart with the album reaching No. 3.

Album Structure/Keys/Textures

The album comprises fifteen songs. The keys (a), tempi (b) and texture/style (c) are listed in the following diagram.

Diagram 1

Wonderful Life – a. Em Aeolian/Gmaj; b. crotchet bpm = 108; c. reduced texture

Everything’s Coming Up Roses – a. Em Aeolian; b. crotchet bpm = 123; c. rock texture

Sometimes for the Asking – a. Em Aeolian; b. crotchet bpm = 108; c. rock texture/ boogie 

Finder – a. Em Aeolian; b. crotchet bpm = 112; c. rock texture/funk

Paradise – a. Ebm Aeolian/Gb major; b. crotchet bpm = 88; c. reduced texture

I’m Not Afraid – a. Cm Aeolian; b. crotchet bpm = 116; c. rock texture/dance

I Just Grew Tired – a. Amaj; b. crotchet bpm = 92; c. reduced texture/ballad

Blue – a. Emaj. (adds E-B-C natural bittersweet feel; b. crotchet bpm = 120; c. rock riff

Just Making Memories – a. Am Aeolian; b. crotchet bpm = 138; c. rock texture

Sweetest Smile – a. C#m; b. crotchet bpm = 96; c. reduced texture

Ravel in the Rain – a. Cm modal; b. crotchet = 80; c. jazz-like texture

Leave Yourself Alone – a. Dm modal; b. dotted crotchet = 66 (12/8); c. jazz-like funk

Sixteens – a. Em (-F#-F) (vocal = major pentatonic); b. crotchet = 96; c. rock riff

It’s Not You, Lady Jane – a. Em Phrygian; b. crotchet bpm = 100-104; c. rock/synth

Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers – a. Cmaj; b. crotchet bpm = 63-66; c. completely reduced

The album is vocal-centred. Instrumental textures are mainly dominated by 1980s keyboard synthesizer timbre supported by piano, saxes, some brass, electric guitar, bass/slap-bass/fretless bass/upright bass, drums and percussion and backing vocals. The tempi throughout are varied with a dip towards the end of the first third (Paradise and I Just Grew Tired) and again for the final third (Sweetest Smile), with a complete slowing of pace at the very end (Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers). 

Around 66% of the album is cast in minor modes with five of the songs – Wonderful Life, Paradise, Blue, Just Making Memories and Sixteens – oscillating between minor and major creating a kind of bitter-sweetness. The arrangements are tight, imaginative and well-wrought. The entire album is clearly aimed at the mainstream.

The harmonic scheme is set out in the following diagram in isolation.

Diagram 2

Wonderful Life  – Em-G  – i

Everything’s Coming Up Roses – Em   – i

Sometimes for the Asking A – Em  –    i

Finder – Em    –    i

Paradise –  Ebm/Gb – bi/III

I’m Not Afraid – Cm  –  bVI

I Just Grew Tired – A   –  IV

Blue – E  –  I

Just Making Memories – Am/C  – IV/VI

Sweetest Smile – C#m   –  #vi

Ravel in the Rain – Cm  –  bvi

Leave Yourself Alone  – Dm  –  bvii

Sixteens – Em   –  i

It’s Not You, Lady Jane – Em – i

Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers – C/Am – VI/iv

It can be seen from the diagram that the ‘home’ mode of the album is E ‘natural’ minor i.e. Aeolian mode. There is a descent from the E minor (songs one to four) through Eb minor (Paradise), C minor (I’m Not Afraid), A major (I Just Grew Tired) to land on the central E major (Blue), the latter serving as a kind of Tierce de Picardie (i.e. minor to major cadence). This also parallels the dip in tempi. It is followed by a balancing harmonic ascent from the centre onwards: A minor/C major (Just Making Memories), C# minor (Sweetest Smile), a passing dip back to C minor (Ravel in the Rain), D minor (Leave Yourself Alone) and back to E minor for Sixteens and It’s Not You, Lady Jane. E minor might be called the modal Tonic (i). The album ends with an abrupt descent – functioning similarly to an Imperfect Cadence – to C major for the slow blues of Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers, although the song ends on A minor. I-VI (I-VI) progressions are heard widely in new wave music (U2 – I Will Follow, The Ocean, The Comsat Angels, Echo and the Bunnymen and Modern Eon). 

The closing A minor may even suggest the albums ‘E-ness’ was in fact not the Tonic mode (i) at all but functioned as the Minor Dominant (v) to create a long-term v-I (E minor to A minor) harmonic descent. This mirrors the long-term descent (v-i – E  minor to A minor) found on fellow-Liverpool band Modern Eon’s album, Fiction Tales (1981). This would certainly reinforce the tension-release in the underlying despair underscoring the album, finding resolution in Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers.

Genres

The songs fall into several genres defined mainly by 1980s technology and performance styles. Songs tend to be strophic (i.e. verses are repeated with differing lyrics) with verse and chorus structural types. 

Diagram 3

Wonderful Life – memorable ‘80s pop

Everything’s Coming Up Roses – large, up-tempo power-pop

Sometimes for the Asking – ‘80s synthesizer boogie

Finder – ‘80s funk strophic song

Paradise – soft ballad

I’m Not Afraid – ‘80s pop

I Just Grew Tired – soft gamelan-like textured rhythmic pop

Blue – rhythmic, up-tempo pop

Just Making Memories – up-tempo pop

Sweetest Smile – slow ‘80s ballad

Ravel in the Rain– slow jazz

Leave Yourself Alone – mid-paced ‘80s pop/funk with South American feel

Sixteens – ‘80s riff-funk

It’s Not You, Lady Jane – up-tempo, synthesizer riff-funk with Spanish flavour

Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers – ad-lib blues 

Song Subjects

Vearncombe’s songs include a wide range of subject matter not immediately apparent on first listening.

Diagram 4

Wonderful Life – originally ironic/fleeting memories/loneliness

Everything’s Coming Up Roses – optimism/change (song title borrowed from Styne/Sondheim song)

Sometimes for the Asking – aspiration

Finder – search for reality

Paradise – romantic/utopian illusion

I’m Not Afraid – blues

I Just Grew Tires – pessimistic

Blue – veiled depression

Just Making Memories – retrospective/optimistic

Sweetest Smile – heartbreak

Ravel in the Rain – oblique references

Leave Yourself Alone – death of the past

Sixteens – searching 

It’s Not You, Lady Jane – post-break up

Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers – object of search found

The lyrics here, as compared to earlier songs, are tempered and more controlled but the symbolic excesses of a poet such as Poe sometimes remain (i.e. Sweetest Smile – ‘And now I’ve come to that fateful day’; Just Making Memories – Oh the rain dribbles down me in my beatititude’). There are nostalgic references (Ravel in the Rain) reinforced by the wide deployment of the minor key mode. The whole appears to be the working-through of former angst-ridden experiences with the maturing process as the main signifier. In the stylisation of new wave into mid-‘80s styles fashion excess was a significant factor. Some of that is found here but the melodic flair and arrangements are such that the lyrical side becomes a secondary factor suggesting Vearncombe was more melodist than lyricist. 

However, subjects do run deep often with veiled symbolism at the root, which poses the question, why did Vearncombe call himself Black? Management responds, ‘Ha! The single, most commonly asked question in every interview he ever did. There was no reason. He wanted something short and he just liked the sound of it.’ [10]Ibid. (8), 14-02-21. Creative people often make impulsive decisions which may well reaffirm the unconscious is an undoubted reality; a directive force above the ego. Black is a colour par-excellence of the deep unconscious dimension and the shadow archetype. The album’s sleeve photographs are also in black and white tie-in with the original video accompanying the Wonderful Life single also shot in black and white.

Songs

A cross-section of songs from Wonderful Life will be discussed individually to look at the components of each in some depth. Other songs will be briefly reviewed. 

Wonderful Life

This is the version which became a major hit mainly through its simple strophic structure:

Introduction: 0:00-0:29

Verse one: 0:30-1:05

Pre-chorus: 1:05-1:22

Chorus: 1:24-1:42

Verse two: 1:42-2:17

Pre-chorus: 2:18-2:34

Chorus two: 2:35-2:54

M8 sax solo: 2:55-3:12

Verse 3: 3:13-3:30

Chorus: 3:31-3:47

Chorus variant: 3:48-4:24

Coda sax + repeat of chorus fragment: 4:25-4:47

The song begins simply with string synthesizer octaves, underpinned by bass guitar, playing the melody line of the song’s chorus. A DX7 synthesizer – or similar – enters (0:10) with light, repeated quaver 3rds ( CV Ex. 9 ). This light, breezy texture together with string synthesizer, bass and drums lay the foundation for the song leaving space for Vearncombe’s vocal melody and lyrics to be clearly heard. There is nothing excessive in terms of arrangement. It is the moment when Vearncombe’s early musical experiments, alongside industry stylisation, bear fruit.

The vocal of verse one is simple, comprising of an upward, arching line which rises to sunshine, symbolising upwards gaze and inward elation, followed by a descent towards the end of the first half of the verse ( CV Ex. 10 ). There are two main melodic, linear intervals: B natural to G natural and back again (‘Here I go out to sea again’) and the linear Minor 3rd, D natural to B natural (‘Sunshine fills my hair’) which become the cornerstone of the entire song. The G-B has been previously presented in the repeated DX7 synth part during the introduction though in vertical form. 

The band arrangement is soft yet secure with simple Em-Gmaj chording, creating a kind of bitter-sweet character with both minor and relative major involved. The lyrics denote fleeting thoughts; gestures, actions and observations and the composer’s reaction to them: going out to sea; sunshine filling the hair; dreams hanging in the air; gulls in the sky; magic everywhere. Above all, a listener relates fully to both descriptive content and the moment with both captured in memorable melody. 

Elation is reinforced by upward rising chords in the pre-chorus (1:05). Here the chordal basis becomes Em-D/F#-Em/G-Am alongside a transformation of synthesizer texture coming as a welcome variant with the 3rds of the verse expand into octaves ( CV Ex. 11 ). The emphasis, however, remains on the vocals and lyrics ( CV Ex. 12 ). Vocal pitches centre on the Mediant (B natural) using melodic decorations of upper and lower neighbour-notes (C natural and A natural) while accompanying chords ascend from Em-Am. This creates pleasing, passing discords with the melody line on the word ‘sunshine’ (D6/F#) and a fleeting Am7 at the very end. The entire pre-chorus is centred on rising melodic, harmonic and lyrical expectation rising up to and anticipating the chorus. 

At this point the accompanying texture thickens heightening both Vearncombe’s voice and the memorable melodic content. Vocals remain as the primary foreground feature with the ‘wonderful, wonderful life’ closely following the rhythm of the words. ‘Wonderful’ is repeated twice and treated as a melodic sequence emphasising pure ecstasy ( CV Ex. 13 ). The harmonic rhythm also increases with two chords (Em-Am) underneath ‘wonderful, wonderful’ anticipating the cadence on ‘life’. The accompanying texture includes snare drum proper replacing the rim-shots of the verse adding percussive weight. Strings sustain and ‘glue’ the texture together with the DX7 continuing the rhythm with which it began ( CV Ex. 14 ). Timpani are also added (1:30) together with syncopated tom-toms strengthening the cadence.

Verse two follows the same structural format as verse one with prominent word-painting in the vocal phrasing on the word ‘happy’ ( CV Ex. 15 ). The pre-chorus again connects verse with chorus. The solo alto sax (2:54ff.) improvises a solo during the jazz-like Middle8, decorating the melodic motifs heard in the verse such as B natural to G natural Major 3rds as well along with the chorus melody ( CV Ex. 16 ). 

Verse three includes a vocal variant with an additional harmony vocal ( CV Ex. 17 ). Here, the Major and Minor 3rds are combined on ‘not so alone’ symbolising the bitter (Minor 3rd) – sweet (Major 3rd) character lying at the back of song and album. Chorus three is the same as before but now with added congas. The chorus repeats twice, segueing into the coda (4:25) with varied fragments of the ‘wonderful life’ emphasising the triplet rhythm and the linear Major and Minor 3rds ( CV Ex. 18 ). The harmony of the coda comprises two chords – Em and Dmaj. – the major chord appearing at the end of every other bar.

Wonderful Life is a textbook case of simple, effective melodic writing together with memorable lyrics and performance. The vocals include the prominent hookline of ‘wonderful, wonderful life’ during the chorus clarifying why the chorus melody was initially placed as introduction completely stripped of texture. The repeated DX7 dyads provide a continuous pulsing rhythmic instrumental hook. The song is the perfect opener, preparing the listener for the dark intensity about to be evoked during the album’s trajectory. Clearing the air before the storm it balances with the final Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers. 

Even with Vearncombe’s identity partially hidden under the apparent darkness of Black, his individuality peers through the persona revealing him as a melodist. The Black persona is underscored by an interplay of light and dark and yet it would take towards the end of his life before Vearncombe would be able to shrug-off the persona entirely to reveal his true identity. Colin Vearncombe would return to the song most notably for a re-recording appearing on the later album, Any Colour You Like (Nero Schwarz, 2016). The song would also be covered by several artists, most recently by Katie Melua (2014).

Everything’s Coming Up Roses

The first A&M single, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, is the album’s second song. Coming as a complete contrast to Wonderful Life, this is ‘big’ music scored for voice, backing vocals, electric guitar, electric keyboards, fretless-bass and drums. It is also up-tempo from Wonderful Life. 

Beginning with driven electric guitar (Em barre VII), it states the modal centre of E minor and the rhythm set by the bass guitar ( CV Ex. 19 ) over which the guitar plays B, F# and D harmonics. Keyboards softly ascend in the background from F#, through G and A (0:00-0:04-0:08-0:011) reaching the Dominant B (0:15). The entire introductory section is sustained, creating tension into the forceful rhythmic second part of the introduction. Here, the guitar plays loud and rhythmically over the gently pulsing bass (0:19ff.) ( CV Ex. 20 ) followed by full band entry (0:26), the symphonic-sounding string synthesizer playing sustained second inversion triads outlining the harmonic basis of the rhythmic introduction ( CV Ex. 21 ). The drums power the music together with the bass with the bottom-heavy timbre of ‘80s production to the fore ( CV Ex. 22 ). Even though it is extrovert and dramatic everything is kept within the bounds of harmonic and rhythmic moderation.

Vocals enter for verse one (0:33) with the timbre smooth and soft, a foil for the abrasive band texture of the introduction ( CV Ex. 23 ). Soft octave strings accompany the vocals together with bass and drums with the guitar now tacet ( CV Ex. 24 ). Eventually, guitar is heard again (0:48) and the dynamic range increases to ff with a rising line C-D/C-C , gradually up further to D-G/D-D7 ( CV Ex. 25 ). High piano triads are heard at the top of the texture reinforcing the symphonic-dramatic soundscape recalling Ultravox. The rising chords accompany Vearncombe’s upwards expanding vocal line, featuring the crotchet triplets also heard in Wonderful Life ( CV Ex. 26 ). The band arrangement strengthens the pre-chorus section closing on a huge rhythmic unison (0:57) ( CV Ex. 27 ). String pizzicato-like textures are placed in the textural middle-ground and heard mainly as syncopated off-beats mimicking the role of second violins or violas in a classical orchestra.

The pre-chorus vocals (1:03ff.) includes the rhythmic element heard in the dramatic strings (0:56ff.) unifying the music from section to section. Here, there is a modulation down to A minor with vocals (‘I should’ve known, should’ve know, should’ve known’) placed in the foreground (1:02ff.) ( CV Ex. 28 ). On the word ‘how’ the music falls to what should be E minor but delayed with the bass playing A natural creating an Em/A discord. 

With the true harmonic resolution delayed, the chorus finally arrives (1:18) ( CV Ex. 29 ) and the home mode E minor is felt decisively. The memorable melody is reinforced by harmony vocals a 6th and 8ve above the lead vocal with Vearncombe’s voice kept at the front of the mix ( CV Ex. 29 ). As in the verse E minor and D major harmony is retained although the arrangement is more powerful with guitar referencing the rhythm of the introduction. The guitar is heard through the gaps during chorus phrases ( CV Ex. 30 ).  

Verse two follows segue though here it undergoes contraction. Following a section of sustained E-pedal (2:48), with kick-drum emphasising every beat of the 4/4 bars and the bass playing its introductory rhythm (see CV Ex. 19 ), the guitar again includes feedback (B natural). Keyboards allude to the sustained ascent heard previously (0:00-0:11) unifying the song’s structure. This prepares the loud reverb-drenched Middle8 where the guitar plays a slow-motion archetypal late-‘80s solo over C-D-Em harmony which returns to the big, rhythmic chorus (see 0:56) (3:02) ( CV Ex. 31 ). There is something approaching a slower version of the tapping/slurring guitar technique of Eddie Van Halen and the players of the early 1990s new metal genre here, but probably more a nod towards Slash’s style in Guns N’ Roses of the mid-late ‘80s. The section eventually cadences (3:17) with solo guitar now substituted for the ‘should’ve known, should’ve known’ section. This anticipates the final chorus (3:32ff.) repeated several times and ending abruptly on a unison E band downbeat (4:02). 

Everything’s Coming Up Roses is extrovert American rock issued as a calling card for Vearncombe, yet there is nothing abrasive bearing in mind the stylisation of metal into the glam-metal genre during the mid-1980s with bands such as Def Leppard. In E minor, the song continues the ‘E-ness’ of the album leading into the following Tears For Fears-inspired rhythmic boogie of Sometimes for the Asking and, in turn, the funk rock of Finder which also includes the Em-D-C (i-VII-VI) chords heard in Everything’s Coming Up Roses.

Paradise

Like Wonderful Life, Paradise begins with a phrase from the verse melody in a high solo synthesizer. The phrase is expanded by three pitches and then imitated in a second synthesizer – using slow envelope-shaping – an octave lower and accompanied by chords of Ebm/Gb-Eb7/Bb-Abm-Cb/Gb (0:06ff.), with the high synthesizer reappearing (0:17), though this time given rhythmic thrust with the addition of soft congas ( CV Ex. 32 ).

Vearncombe’s first verse (0:29ff.) introduces the melody announced previously in the solo synthesizers. The ‘weight of your heart’ in the lyrics is pointed-up by the weightless texture. Bass synth is added along with rhythmic hi-hat increasing both the propulsion and weight through gradual textural accumulation ( CV Ex. 33 ). Vearncombe’s vocals continue in a more improvisatory manner (1:03ff.) as if floating above the texture and synth accompaniment, the dip to Eb modal minor affecting the atmosphere by harmonic affect.

A sudden change of texture (1:15ff.) provides textural body along with an abrupt modulation to the relative major of Gb of the chorus. Here, thickened synth bass, drums and a higher synthesizer enter as accompaniment. The song follows the same bitter-sweet approach of Wonderful Life where minor is followed by major ( CV Ex. 34 ). The Gb bass extends over four bars into Fb/Gb and Cb/Gb (1:21 – 1:23) grounding the harmonic movement. During the second half of the chorus (1:38ff.) bass and vocals move in contrary-motion creating tension and adding a greater sense of rhythmic impetus ( CV Ex. 35 ). The song may have had an impact on Gary Barlow in the context of Take That, in turn owing  something to the Bee Gees with its addition of high harmony vocals. 

There is a sudden lowering of harmonic tension (2:01) with a sudden, almost static shift back to the Tonic Eb minor for a contraction of the verse (2:01ff.) ( CV Ex. 36 ). The chorus reappears (2:24ff), this time with a high syncopated synthesizer rhythm in 3rds and 4ths (3:10) ( CV Ex. 37 ). Although the rhythm is temporarily suspended it continues with the full band (3:21ff.) and Vearncombe’s joyous, ‘And we roll and dive and laugh and cry about it’ under the high synth part (3:27ff.) ( CV Ex. 38 ) with the vocal shifting gear into falsetto for the high Bb and Cb taking the range ‘right out into paradise’ (3:35ff). The music slips effortlessly back into the second half of the chorus heard previously (see 1:38ff.) and into Gb major initially without the voice part but eventually adding it (3:44), the syncopation in the rhythm section pushing the music on from phrase to phrase ( CV Ex. 39 ). The song comes to rest on the high synth motif heard previously (see 3:10ff.) closing on Gb major. 

Paradise is one of the stand-out songs on the album with its flowing musical arrangements along with the imaginative harmony which word-paint the lyrics allowing the vocal to present a meaningful picture. With the musical journey from Eb minor to Gb major a listener has been metaphorically transported from earth (Ebm) to heaven (Gbmaj.).

The up-tempo of I’m Not Afraid follows with its parallel 4th synthesizers connecting to the previous high synth parts of Paradise. I Just Grew Tired, with its gamelan-like keyboard references and memorable chorus connects to the subsequent texture of Blue. This is pushed further rhythmically with the Ultravox-like introduction of Just Making Memories and its references to The Edge-like, two-pitch, intervallically expanding and contracting guitar phrases.

Sweetest Smile

The tenth song begins with a high B natural bass harmonic. Emerging from this, a sustained string synthesizer (0:05ff.), together with bass synthesizer presents the main harmonic material of the entire song ( CV Ex. 40 ). The key is C# minor and the sustained symphonic effect is grounded by a C# bass pedal-pitch with parallel chords moving slowly above. 

The music becomes more rhythmic (0:31ff.), the fretless-bass playing syncopated C#’s while the synthesizer chords continue ( CV Ex. 41 ). Electronic percussion is added with hi-hat, congas and reverb-saturated distant synth drum with rim-shots on every third beat of every other bar. Each of these percussive elements are separated in the stereo without crowding the texture or impeding the fluency of the song. These elements accompany a spacious, solo soprano sax heard at the very top of the texture. 

Sade’s music is recalled, with Vearncombe’s voice finally entering for verse one (0:56) accompanied by the same chords which began, the voice now foregrounded without the sax (0:56ff) ( CV Ex. 42 ). The voice is supported not by strings but by soft, sustained organ with a gentle, double-tracked harmony vocal added a 3rd above. At the verse’s end Vearncombe adds double-tracked, wordless vocals providing both a memorable quasi-instrumental hook together with a foreground rhythmic element. This serves as a perfect foil to the sustained keyboards (1:42ff.) ( CV Ex. 43 ). 

Verse two continues the strophic structure of Sweetest Smile along with the wordless vocals with the sax heard again (3:09). The music comes to rest momentarily (3:27) on a G# suspended chord allowing the sax to solo further. With the verse repeating again (3:37) the voice rises to its apex (4:03), dipping down into the depths of despair ( CV Ex. 44 ). The vocalist improvises with broken, fragmented melismas for the remainder of the song together with the sax, before a Fender Rhodes piano timbre begins the coda (5:03ff.) playing C# minor chords and B/C# chords ( CV Ex. 45 ). The sax continues to swirl and spiral above, the piano coming to rest eventually on an unresolved B/C#. The song’s reduced harmonic palette is essential to the one-thought despair lying at the centre of this study in desperation. 

The blues/jazz of Ravel in the Rain, with its solo upright bass, continues the despair by taking the harmony down to C minor, leaving a listener marooned and alone in a rainy New Orleans. The sadness isn’t prolonged with the up-tempo Leave Yourself Alone following, and the funk slap-bass riff of Sixteens with its pentatonic major vocal of G#-B-G#-C#-B-G# creating false-relations which grate against dissonant Emb5’s of the guitar rifferama, somewhat raising the temperature.

It’s Not You, Lady Jane

The penultimate song includes the line, ‘It’s not you, I won’t give you all’ as opposed to the line heard in the final song, Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers, ‘It’s you, you’. It’s Not You, Lady Jane begins with the hammered, Spanish-sounding Phrygian chordal motif, F-E 5th chords in the synthesizer alone. The harmony returns to the E minor modal centre of the album ( CV Ex. 46 ) though, here, with references to the Phrygian mode.

With the keyboard continuing a sustained electric guitar, on a low G natural, is heard (0:09ff.). Drums play fragmented rhythmic attacks stabilising into more regular rhythm (0:10) ( CV Ex. 47 ). This becomes ever more driven with a howling high guitar added (0:20ff.) ( CV Ex. 48 ). Vearncombe’s voice enters for verse one (0:29) ( CV Ex. 49 ) outlining a decorated descending B-E line. The chorus is different, inverting the line to a 4th (B-E) which rises and falls (0:49ff.) ( CV Ex. 50 ) with the command, ‘Get out of my face!’. In the phrase’s consequent hookline’s angry harmony vocals of 4ths are added over the F Neapolitan (0:57) ( CV Ex. 51 ). 

Verse two continues the vehemence with ‘You took my houses, you took the furs’ with the hook repeated (1:37ff.) and subsequently repeated three times further ever more angrily (1:51ff.). Up till now everything has been at the top end of the timbral spectrum, but now (1:56) a low E enters in the bass and the harmony stabilises on E. Peter Gabriel-like percussion is heard – though more electronic – with rapid semi-quaver kick-drum ramping-up the rhythmic pressure to boiling-point.  

It is short lived, however. With verse three and chorus continuing (2:25 and 3:02) and then with the chorus repeating again, the song comes to an abrupt halt (3:21) with distorted guitar left sustaining a low E. Undoubtedly, this is the furious side of Vearncombe set in stark musical relief.

Hardly Star-Crossed Lovers

The song begins more or less segue. Like a complete clearing of the air, the reduced texture of just voice and piano comes as welcome relief to the claustrophobic rhythmic barrage of It’s Not You, Lady Jane. 

Here, solo ad.lib piano begins outlining a C major tonality with added 6th (A natural). The song is a slow blues but with subtle harmonic twists. The A natural reappears in both piano and vocal ( CV Ex. 52 ). The music slips effortlessly to F (IV) (0:29) but with a jolt the F abruptly modulates to Amaj.7 on the word ‘you’ (0:35) ( CV Ex. 53 ). In this context Vearncombe is heard as blues vocalist, yet without the gritty edge of a Paul Rodgers or Paul Young.

Verse two continues with slightly more piano rhythm and vocal improvisation, including harmonic shifts to E major (1:11) again on the word ‘you’, and again to A minor (1:17) on the same word. Verse three repeats verse one with different words moving to E minor (2:23), A minor (2:29) and to end freely on E minor (2:35), then F major and A minor to close. Vearncombe is heard laughing quietly at the very end over the fading piano resonance.

6. Coda

Wonderful Life showcases Colin Vearncombe’s considerable range of vocal and songwriting skills as a part of small and large-scale band ensembles and, more or less, in a solo capacity. His ability to write memorable songs which successfully communicate is never in question, though it is possible to hear the album in an ambiguous way. This is not happy, run-of-the-mill, production-line pop; instead, there is something darker lurking beneath the surface mainly in the form of relationship break-ups codifying emotional and psychological damage. Songs are never too musically complex to obscure Vearncombe’s melodic intentions and never too obscure to savour. For a debut album, Wonderful Life delivered Colin Vearncombe to the wider mass audience. It was, however, only a start and much water was to flow under the bridge as Vearncombe developed further as performer, songwriter and musician.


Author: Andrew Keeling     © 2021 Nero Schwarz Music Limited

To download a PDF version click here.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Emails from Colin Vearncombe management to Andrew Keeling, 14-02-21 and 18-02-21.
2 Mini-Documentary: Black by David Bickley – Nero Schwarz, July 2011.
3 The Daily Telegraph – 29-01-16.
4 Zoom conversation between Colin Vearncombe management and Andrew Keeling – 4-02-21.
5 Spencer Leigh – The Independent – 29-01-16.
6, 7 Ibid.
8 Email from Colin Vearncombe management to Andrew Keeling, 8-02-21. 
9 Ibid. (7), 18-02-21. 
10 Ibid. (8), 14-02-21.

3 comments on “Wonderful Life and before”

Shouldn’t it be:

Release my hands
Put them where they should be
Hung at my sides mutually
The candles don’t say a thing
Of how things used to be…

A really enjoyable article. I’m glad that both ‘Sade’ and ‘Scott Walker’ were mentioned as musical references in terms of style / vocal performances. Although long term CV/Black fans will know a lot of the facts in elements of this article it is great to see so much of the detail and information in one place. I think one of the problems / joys of the ‘Wonderful life’ track is the ambiguity, partly due to the ironic nature, partly due to the quality of the musicality / vocal delivery. In the same way that Police’s ‘Every breath you take’ is sometimes chosen as a ‘first dance’ in a marriage ceremony – and picked as a romantic track (completely missing the ‘stalker’ point of the relationship narrative) ‘Wonderful Life’ is both optimistic and sad at the same time, and transformative due to the melody/vocals. Perhaps echoing many of the early Scott Walker solo tracks. Transformation to me is the joy of a good song or artwork and is of course personal to the listener/viewer etc.

I’m sure that many Black / CV fans understand the depth of Colin’s catalogue and know that the term ‘one hit wonder’ does not apply. It’s both a joy and a shame that Colin’s last album ‘Blind Faith’ held so many gems and points to further development for as long as Colin felt the need to create music. Either way, I enjoyed this article and look forward to more content. Plus as a intermittent fan of Samuel Beckett I’m wondering if some of the lyric references do echo some lines or ideas from SB writings intentionally.

What a fantastic piece of writing. I followed Black when he first hit the scene in the 80s and even managed to correspond with him – with him calling me his ‘number one fan’. Sadly, as with all things I didn’t realise the worth of these letters at the time and they were destroyed when I left home. Such a pity as he had taken the time to write to me.

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