Playground Martyrs

‘Childhood trauma’

Steve Jansen was a part of samadhisound from the start. He helped to develop the new label’s studio after David Sylvian relocated from California to the mountains of New Hampshire. Together the brothers explored the possibilities of the latest recording technology and in 2002 they began to fashion compositions that would ultimately be part of the Nine Horses release. Steve even relocated for a year with his family to the remote former ashram site that was now home to Sylvian, his wife Ingrid Chavez and their children. As Sylvian took a six-week break to record Blemish, Jansen turned his attentions to evolving material for a debut release under his own name.

Steve’s approach was moving further than ever from his roots as the drummer in Japan: ‘With this album I approached composition attempting to avoid chord and song structures and the usual familiar building blocks,’ Steve explained. ‘Instead I wanted to piece together unrelated sounds, music samples, rhythms and “events” in an attempt to deviate from my own trappings as a musician.’

The album, Slope, finally emerged in 2007 and it was notable that little of the music was performed in the traditional sense; rather the pieces were constructed through the software and tools that had been incorporated into the samadhisound studio set-up and in ‘the nest’ at Jansen’s UK home. ‘I didn’t play so much on Slope – it was mostly programmed. I find it gives me greater flexibility and choice as many of the arrangements grew over time. I wasn’t so interested in capturing musical performances as such…it’s almost entirely methodical. I enjoy the process of finding interesting sonic combinations and sound designing, therefore it was a much more cerebral approach.’

The availability of technology allowing musicians to share quality sound files straightforwardly all over the globe threw open new doors of creative possibility. ‘I feel as though I’ve been waiting an eternity for technology to catch up…to integrate computers effortlessly within the creative process without issues of expense, cross-platform compatibility and limitations that are impossible to live with,’ said Jansen at the time of release. ‘Now I feel we’re finally getting somewhere.’ Indeed, this new way of operating was not regarded as an internet-facilitated “low budget” method inferior to traditional studio recording – it could even be preferable. ‘Often the results are much better because the artist is able to work on the music when it suits him/her, rather than when the date is fixed. And they will often offer up a variety of choices as they have the freedom to express themselves that much more…People are less inhibited and [are] willing to experiment, confident within their own environment and in the knowledge that they haven’t actually committed themselves until the files are sent. It also creates a certain mystique and romanticism that is all too easily lost in the studio environment.’

The music that became ‘Playground Martyrs’ was initially developed for a female voice, an unknown (to me) French singer who ultimately couldn’t contribute to the album as ‘her schedule was too crazy.’ Jansen then shared the piece with his brother, who was involved in the “casting” for the album.

‘I was working on Manafon at the time that Steve sent me the file,’ David recalled. ‘Steve was working on his solo album Slope, and part of my role in that project was to find suitable vocalists for each given track. So he would send me a track and say, “who do you think should perform on this one?” and then I’d come up with different selections, and then finally we’d settle in on someone and say, “yes, this person is ideal for that particular track.” So he sent me ‘Playground Martyrs’.’

On this occasion though, Sylvian had more to bring than the suggestion of the lead voice. ‘I’d been working late one evening and I got to my room rather tired, and there was this file waiting for me…I listened back to it, and I immediately knew who should sing the piece. But I thought, well maybe I ought to create a melody for it because I could hear it in my head. And as I was creating the melody I scratched down some lyrics real quickly, and I sang the thing back into a digital recorder. I sent the file back to him that night as a complete song, and with the name of the artist who I felt was the appropriate singer for the song… and he was really happy with it. And the vocalist sang the piece, but at the end of the day Steve said he wanted my own version as well on the album. So we ended up with two versions of ‘Playground Martyrs’ on his album.’ (DS, 2010)

Steve explains further: ‘I became very attached to David’s version. Having found Nina Kinert and recorded her vocal I then had two wonderful versions of the same track. I felt that there was a poignancy to both the male and female perspective of the lyrics (concerning childhood trauma), therefore, with differing arrangements, I thought it worked well as a reprise.’

from Steve Jansen’s twitter listening party for Slope, November 2022

The theme resonates with comments that Sylvian has often made about his own childhood and in particular the difficulty of his school days. ‘I found the environment rather brutal. I wanted to protect myself from it. I was and am very shy – cripplingly shy as a child – so I’d spend a lot of time alone. Drawing and painting were my outlet at the time.’ You can feel these emotions in the lyrics which draw a picture through deftly recollected sights and sounds from school life.

‘You run to the gate but you’ll be marked late
It’s for your own good, it’s for your own good’ 

How many times were we all told when growing up that something that felt uncomfortable or even made us feel wretched was “for our own good”?!

The image that accompanies ‘Playground Martyrs’ in Hypergraphia. ‘Sebastian’ by Hideaki Kawashima, acrylic on canvas, 2001.

Alongside the vivid depiction of school days, the inner emotions are as accurately recalled: what seems the injustice of being marked late in the register and the outright humiliation that could be inflicted by teachers and fellow pupils alike – bringing ‘intolerable shame.’ The pleasure that some take in causing pain to others is captured with precision in the central image:

‘Let’s sharpen those new sets of arrows
For the next generation of playground martyrs’

I particularly enjoy the way that Sylvian subverts images from childhood to his purposes in the lyrics of the song. The sharpening of the arrows is reminiscent of the new pencil-case full of lead pencils and other paraphernalia prepared ahead of a new school term.

‘You suffer alone in the skin and the bone’

…to me recalls through assonance the saying, ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.’ My mother would send me off to school with this ringing in my ears as an encouragement and to use as a riposte when other kids were being unpleasant. But maybe those words could indeed cause real harm…?

‘School bell rings, single-file in
Trade you my unhappily ever-afters’

…encapsulates how empty those children’s stories sound where everyone lives “happily ever after” in the context of a school experience that can haunt you for life.

I like to read some hope in the closing lines, however. Lives are being forged through these formative experiences and the image of flying implies to me that rather than wings being clipped, the young pupils can soar free in the years that are to follow:

‘So bring out the things to hammer the wings
Of the next generation of playground martyrs’

Perhaps this interpretation is all the more appropriate given the motivation for tackling this subject matter, which was simple: ‘I actually wrote it for Steve’s son at the time.’ (DS, 2010)

Jansen later commented that the lyric had a personal depth that might usually be more suited to David Sylvian’s solo work rather than collaboration, but in this case it was appropriate because ‘it was a sentiment we shared as school children.’ (2017)

Steve’s meticulous methodology for constructing the tracks could have led to a dense and over-complex backdrop but in fact the sound environment he created is discreetly sculpted and gorgeously sparse. Has there been a finer “piano and Sylvian vocal” piece since ‘September’? The acoustic piano and strings complement the melody of the ballad, their purity suiting the theme perfectly.

Tender extinction

I like to precede ‘Playground Martyrs’ on my playlist with a track from Steve Jansen’s 2016 solo album Tender Extinction. ‘Memory of an Imagined Place’ is an instrumental that again features piano and a string arrangement which incorporates a deep, mournful cello part. It’s quite beautiful and eloquently captures the sense of place referenced in its title.

‘Playground Martyrs’ is a rare recording in that it features only contributions from David Sylvian and Steve Jansen. It’s truly a gem.

‘Playground Martyrs’

Steve Jansen – piano, synthesisers, sampled instruments, string arrangement; David Sylvian – vocals

Music by Steve Jansen. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Produced, arranged, engineered and mixed by Steve Jansen at ‘the nest’, UK and samadhisound studios, USA. From Slope by Steve Jansen, samadhisound, 2007.

All computer programming by Steve Jansen

David Sylvian vocal recorded by David Sylvian at samadhisound studios, USA

Lyrics © samadhisound publishing

Download links: ‘Playground Martyrs’ (iTunes) (bandcamp), ‘Memory of an Imagined Place’ (iTunes) (bandcamp)

Physical media: Slope (Amazon) (bandcamp); Tender Extinction (Amazon) (bandcamp)

All quotes from Steve Jansen are from interviews in 2007 unless indicated. David Sylvian’s recollections of childhood are as quoted in ‘A Foreign Place’ by Anthony Reynolds (burningshed). Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.

‘I guess it’s one of those pieces that fall together so easily and so intuitively that you have an attachment to them in some way…It was indicative of the ease of the relationship between Steve and I as writers, as collaborators – which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what we are working on – but in terms of ‘Playground Martyrs’ everything seemed to fall into place quite beautifully.’ David Sylvian, 2010

Read about Jansen/Sylvian’s work as part of Nine Horses:

The Banality of Evil
A History of Holes
The Day the Earth Stole Heaven

7 thoughts on “Playground Martyrs”

  1. Two beautiful tracks…although I have to admit, the reprise is actually my favorite of the two due to the female vocal…the added poignancy of it, but it was still marvelous to hear Sylvian too. I bought my Steve Jansen signed copy of ‘Slope’ only recently and, once again thought to myself ‘where have I been!’. I can thoroughly recommend it for any ones collection.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recall the shock of Sylvian’s utterly frank and desolate lyrics and vocal delivery on this. I was always fascinated by a particular interview from around the same period post-Blemish where he ruminated on what a profound and uncomfortable journey it would be for him to visit his childhood surroundings of Lewisham. There is so much barely suppressed indignation in the performance, obviously lent further poignant heft by Jansen’s involvement, that I feel some kind of career film/documentary exploring this evident and enduring unease would have been a cathartic exercise for all concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A decade ago, a YouTube contributor, Justin Fraser, used the song against still photos and videos of knife crime among young people in the capital. The song, both music and lyrics, amplify the feeling of loss and desolation, almost overwhelmingly so.

    The problem has only become worse in the ten years since.


  4. “Has there been a finer ‘piano and Sylvian vocal’ piece since ‘September’?” “The First Day” comes close I’d say…
    “Playground Martyr” is indeed a fine track and the subject matter is definitely up my street as I never liked school for the exact reasons broached in the lyrics.
    You mention a French singer approached originally (unknown to you) but who was she?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘The First Day’ is another stand-out track for sure, good call. Perhaps I wrote the comment about the French singer ambiguously – I don’t know her name. This is the quote from Steve in 2007: ‘.. i originally wrote the music for a female vocalist, (a french singer), but it turned out that her schedule was too crazy. i later sent a rough mix of the track to david…’

      Liked by 1 person

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