In the first days of January 1978, with the Van der Graaf
train rapidly approaching Crisis Junction if not derailment, I moved
out of London to a rented house in Byfleet with the specific intention
of recording "The Future Now". After the small matter of rehearsing for
and recording "Vital", followed by a solo US tour in February, I was
finally able to begin work on this in mid-March. I had just under two
months available to complete the album, since the next (and, as it
happened, last) VdG tour was already booked in to start on the 12th May.
For these recordings I had made the jump to 8-track analogue, using an
ITAM machine which was basically a "stacked" Revox. It was noisy &
chunky but pretty reliable. I'd also got something more of a mixing
desk than I'd had previously - possible an Alice 8-channel job, but my
memory is hazy on this point. Very minimal stuff, in any case. My Gors
& Kallman baby grand piano & my harmonium returned to live with
me from storage and I had my guitars and amps as well as the
(unreliable to say the least) monophonic analogue synth which had been
custom-made by a friend of Charles Dickie's. In addition I had a
primitive but delightfully idiosyncratic Roland beat box, a slow-speed
Revox and various fx boxes. That was the sum of the available equipment.
Evidently going into the recordings I and my planet were in a
tremendous state of flux. VdG were hanging on by our fingernails and
"Vital" really was essential to our future survival. Charisma were
unwilling or unable to see us recording another studio album as a band
and a lot depended on what emerged from this live recording. I, on the
other hand, was still signed as a solo artist, although my own future
career with Charisma was not a gold-plated certainty at this time....
In the light of this it's perhaps surprising that I went into this
project with little prepared. To the best of my recollection only five
or six of the songs were written before I started; I trusted to fate
and hard work to guide me through discovering the rest. My confidence
was evidently not at its lowest at this stage, evidently.
Van der Graaf was still going and - we hoped at the time - might yet
survive; but there was a different approach to this solo recording than
to any others I'd done while the band had been in existence. "Fool's
Mate" and "Nadir" had both been made up of "light", or at least short,
songs; "Over" was evidently a personal and emotional statement. With
"The Future Now" I began to map out an alternative, solo, way of
working which, while "serious", did not bow to or, indeed, make any
reference to, the work and style of the group.
I was partly enthused by the events of '77 in music and had come to the
conclusion that while it would be palpably absurd for me to attempt to
work in or present myself as belonging to either Punk or New Wave then
at least the opportunity appeared to be there to stretch the boundaries
of the pop song, both in its musical and lyrical content and
composition. It's for this reason that a number of the songs contained
here move towards "social" topics - I felt that the time was right for
non-dogmatic takes on things such as these.... I'd also learned enough
about recording, I suppose, to finally essay the "something different
will emerge if I just record by myself" ethos to its logical
conclusion. Hence the fashioning of raw, concrete noise - previously
"held apart" as in, for instance, "Magog" - into the basis of what
could be construed, at a pinch, as "normal" songs.
The physical constraints of recording were somewhat severe. The central
heating system in the house sent clicks down the mains so I had to turn
it off for the duration of recording and wrapped myself in many layers
of clothing, with only my freezing hands out in the cold, in order to
get through things. For most of the time I saw no-one but Cracky Jones,
the ex-VdGG roadie, who lived down the road, and the denizens of local
pubs, where I'd go to write lyrics in lunchtime breaks. I worked
continuously; this was the only way the thing was going to get done.
As for the songs....
"Pushing Thirty" seems a long way away now, of course. The sentiment
still holds, though. I honestly didn't know that I'd still be doing
this at fifty-plus; but "having fun" remains an important ingredient of
the whole thing. "The Second Hand" came out of bass improvisation over
the aforementioned beat-box; more time stuff. "Trappings"...you can
fill in whatever superstar takes your fancy here. The constraints of
8-track recording meant that the B. Vox had to go on very early indeed;
this was helpful in terms of leaving the song comparatively bare. My
guitar playing, or at least my confidence in it, had evidently
benefited from the responsibilities which fell on my shoulders in VdG.
"The Mousetrap" was one of the songs which I had when I started. That
unstable synth is to the fore in the arrangement. Echoes of the synth
overdubbing in Trident in the "In Camera" era, I feel. This became
something of a live staple at the time; evidently I was talking about a
singer as much as an actor....
"Energy Vampires" was a term coined by Graham Smith, so it's
appropriate that he should play on it. Not for the last time the
inspiration came from the specific repeats of the Revox; a succession
of whacky multi-track edits (the joy of the razor-blade!) reduced what
had been a long initial improvisation to this song form. A general word
about this one. Yes, I & we have encountered Energy Vampires over
the years; they're attracted by the energy source that's around any
endeavour such as music...sport's another area where mind & matter
are similarly directed. Most people ("fans" or whatever) are NOT EVs,
though! In general I've found that meeting people takes place on an
understood, if difficult and sometimes nervous, basis.
"If I could" was written around the same time as the "Quiet Zone"
material. I remain happy about this sparse arrangement and particularly
with the BVs. I've played this song many, many times and still seem to
find a resonance with it.
"The Future Now" itself still sounds, to me, like nothing else and this
kind of sound, without musicianly showing-off and with unlikely
contrasts, was, I believe, the kind of thing I'd been looking to head
towards from the outset of my one-man recordings.
"Still in the Dark" features a very early instance of e-bow guitar
being used in an orchestral manner together with synths. in this sense
it's a blueprint for much of my most recent work. In retrospect I think
I've underplayed this song; it's content seems more relevant than ever
The next three songs, "Mediaevil", "A Motor-bike in Afrika" and "The
Cut" are the truly experimental triad here. All came from sheer messing
about with tapes and sounds, the songs themselves having to be "found"
out of the assembled noise. This is a natural part of the process of
songwriting, but normally one works with more logical material. After
making these three I became truly liberated in my approach to
songwriting and production - "anything goes", anything can be a
constituent part of a song, has been my watchword since. I also
continue to enjoy working with sound and recording rather as though
it's all clay, as here. Each decision, each edit, each overdub is an
ineradicable part and one doesn't fully see where one's going until the
thing is finally done. Nor, when one is finally there, does one
necessarily remember exactly what route was taken or where the original
impetus came from. In the days when I worked with analogue tape some
measure of remembrance was retained as the editing tape bounced past
the heads; in digital world even these past moments of decision become
invisible. However, these principles of working towards, rather than
on, songs date from this era and I continue to apply them to this day.
"Palinurus" wraps it up. A rare appearance of harmonica, which was my
first instrument (sic); I never got that far with it. I continue to
search for that white note and, indeed, to be aware of the sentiments
of the final line....
Closing notes: the cover photographs must have been taken on the 17th
May. I'd shaved half of my beard off in Liverpool after the show at
Eric's club. Everyone knew I was going to do it except for Graham
Smith, for some reason. He thought I'd genuinely and finally cracked
when he met me in the lobby of the hotel the next day. I did one show
half-bearded, in Bangor and then took the train to London. Having
looked pretty ridiculous and/or alien at various times of my life I can
honestly say I've never had such strange reactions. The rest of the
beard went a couple of days later....