Somewhere in the career of Terence Trent D’Arby lies a cautionary tale, but precisely what moral might be extracted from it I’m unable to say. Possibly it’s related to the idea that talent, by itself, won’t get you far enough. There’s a moment in The Hustler when a pool shark played by George C. Scott says as much to Paul Newman: “Talent isn’t enough. You need character.” Terence Trent D’Arby possibly possessed character, and undoubtedly is a character, but neither fact combined with his talent to make him as successful as he should have been. Perhaps somewhere in the equation, another key element went missing: Luck
Of course, there are those who would argue that D’Arby poisoned his own chalice when he emerged to enormous fanfare — blown exclusively by himself — in 1987. In comparing himself to Prince and to the Beatles before he’d even released an album, the singer failed to endear himself to anyone, and this was as a mere appetizer for the display of arrogance to come. His obnoxious persona alienated even those who displayed faith in his talent, so much that his debut release, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, found only begrudging admiration in the music press, when in point of fact, it was one of the brighter debuts in recent years.
For my part, I recall seeing him at the Manchester Apollo in England and being hopelessly unable to give away an extra ticket. Such was the general distaste for his megalomania (and this at a time when he enjoyed a top 10 single in the charts) I almost skipped the show myself, having suffered through a one-hour television special dedicated to his puerile ranting. I was practically embarrassed to be going to the show, but having already purchased tickets I belatedly ventured… and was promptly blown away by his performance.
Why didn’t someone tell him to shut up? I’m sure many people did, but no one with the power to make him listen.
Some months later, around the time of a follow-up album that disappointed in every way except its degree of pretension, D’Arby opened for David Bowie at Maine Road football stadium. The significant increase in venue size daunted him not one bit, and one of my more vivid recollections of that day is of the ground throbbing beneath my feet to the bass-line of “Wishing Well”. Unquestionably he had the music chops, and the only issue was whether he could get people to listen.
As it turned out, mostly not.
D’Arby’s career is a tedious adventure in artist mismanagement featuring a catalogue of poorly publicized releases and a string of record label fiascos. Introducing… was a debut of extreme promise that featured three or four exceptional songs, but the work that followed, Neither Fish Nor Flesh, was a muddled mess. His third and best album, Symphony or Damn, finally delivered on early promise, but by then few were listening anymore. When that work disappeared with barely a trace, D’Arby seemed to lose his way completely as a recording artist.
Typical of the errors made by D’Arby and his various record labels over the years is the newly released In Concert DVD, originally filmed in October of 1987. To begin with, it features not a “concert”, but rather a live studio performance filmed for German TV. Apparently set in a working man’s club decked out for the occasion in garish neon strips, the stage is cramped and poorly lit. Although the music itself is certifiably “live”, the audience members seem on collective life support. D’Arby himself works hard enough, backed by vocalists who perhaps appear courtesy of Frankie Goes to Hollywood (this was the ’80s after all) or the Camp Tour De France (take your pick), but seldom is he at his best. Only with a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” does he seem to fully find his way, before eventually wrecking this too with considerable over-elaboration at song’s end.
While other artists overcome early bouts of dreadful publicity, somehow Terence Trent D’Arby never managed to do so. In spite of a fine soul voice, solidly creative musicianship, and looks that might have made him a star of significant proportions, D’Arby has instead been reduced to little more than a punch-line answer to ’80s trivia questions. A resurrection appears unlikely, and this poorly produced DVD certainly isn’t about to jump-start one.
At present he lives with his model wife in Milan, Italy (which just goes to show that life isn’t without its consolations), and he’s adopted the Buddhist name Sananda Maitreya. His latest release Terence Trent D’Arby’s Wildcard! can be downloaded free at his website.