[8 August 2006]
Have you heard the Sound before? Heard of them, even? Answers in the negative would be unsurprising, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. Earlier this year, I raved on and on for 2,372 words about “The Sound: A Musical Missing Link, Waiting to Be Rediscovered”. If you wish to jump in at the deep end, follow that link (but please do come back). Here is a far more encapsulated summary of what you’ve been missing out on for the past quarter-century:
The Sound was first assembled by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Adrian Borland in 1978. They quickly established themselves as one of the best of the new post-punk bands emerging in Britain at that time, joining the ranks of Joy Division, the Psychedelic Furs, and the band to whom they were most often compared, Echo & The Bunnymen. The Sound released their first album, 1980’s excellent Jeopardy, to critical acclaim, which, inexplicably, kicked off a career of lukewarm record sales and a following much closer to “cult” than the “massive” and “worldwide” the band deserved. And this is true enough when only considering their studio albums. Their 1981 sophomore LP, From the Lions Mouth, was even more assured than its predecessor, while 1982’s more somber All Fall Down was a slight letdown, but still quite good. After switching to a new label, the Sound ushered in a new era with the gorgeous 1984 EP Shock of Daylight, which comes bundled with their final great album, 1985’s Hands and Hearts.
If their recorded works more or less followed the musical trends of the time, with 1980’s spiky vitriol gradually opening up into the sparkling tones of 1985, the Sound as a live band remained intense and totally rockin’ throughout this time. Until now, the only official live documents of this era were In the Hothouse, a passable recording of a 1985 concert at London’s famed The Marquee, and the 2004 Renascent double-disc release of the band’s The BBC Recordings. A fantastic document with crystal clear sound, those CDs only manage to bookend the stage career of the Sound. The Dutch Radio Recordings fill out the live history of one of the greatest post-punk bands to ever hit the stage.
Now, I will grant you that it takes a fairly rabid fan to feel the “need” for five more compact discs of live material from a band whose time is now two decades behind us and who were never (as) popular (as they should’ve been) to begin with. If you aren’t already crazy for the sound of the Sound, I wouldn’t suggest even glancing at the five-plus hours of live material collected here from a handful of radiobroadcasted concerts. The set includes five single shows on as many individual CDs, with each year from 1981 to 1985 represented. For a novice to digest it all would be like reading an entire, massive book of nonfiction on a certain subject, when all you really need at that moment is the encyclopedia entry. For you delirious gluttons out there, though, you’re in for some sweet treats (but with one or two sour duds, as well).
While the navy blue slipcases and the accompanying typography are consistent from disc to disc, the clarity of the recordings is less so. If you were to sample through disc one, an Amsterdam show from 1981, you might conclude that the whole set is of somewhat questionable quality. It’s unfortunate that this series of CDs kicks off, chronologically, with the worst sounding disc, but its somewhat muffled tonality is balanced by a ferociously powerful performance. Then again, if you’re only going to lay out the cash for one or two of these entries, the recording from Utrecht’s 1982 No Nukes Festival is far superior, easily matching the impact of the 1981 BBC session. The third in the series, documenting the Sound’s 1983 appearance in Arnhem, is almost as good, although it lacks some bottom end warmth. Still, it’s fascinating to hear how visceral-yet-precise the band were at this period, even as their recording career was floating in limbo. 1984’s show from Den Haag, at the renowned Parkpop Festival, once again suffers from a poor source recording, with the return of the dreaded muffling (imagine your speakers encased in pillows). Thankfully, the fifth and final disc is perhaps the best of the batch, with a “greatest hits”-like set list captured beautifully from the group’s 1985 concert in Utrecht.
Sure, one could argue that acquiring five more live versions of “Winning” is excessive. But you’re a fan of the Sound, so you’ve already learned to spurn the naysayers. And it’s a great song! I’d take ten more recordings of it, if Renascent felt like pulling them out of the ashes of obscurity. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, for the good folks at “the planet’s coolest re-issue label” (as they rightly boast) are also rabid fans of the Sound. If only more labels truly loved the music they released, the world would be a better place, with better music in heavy rotation and non-stop dancing in the streets. Really, it’s all about the love. If you feel it, show it. Fall into the Sound. Get yourself some Dutch Radio Recordings today.