When David Sylvian entered Berlin’s Hansa studios in the summer of 1983 to start putting together his debut solo album, Brilliant Trees, amongst his top priorities was returning to the recent chart success ‘Forbidden Colours’, in which his vocal melody was interweaved with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack theme for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. The intent of this was not to lend some familiarity and commercial impetus to the new release, but rather to re-work the composition from a new musical palette. It was also recognition that in this song, Sylvian found his voice for the new chapter.
‘‘Ghosts’ was a pivotal piece…it was a breakthrough in which I thought I was able to talk somewhat directly about personal experiences, but in such a fashion that people could identify with it and have it be relevant in their own lives. And once I reached that stage it was a matter of just trying to stay on that path, and there was a struggle between completing a piece like ‘Ghosts’ and then starting out on a new venture like Brilliant Trees: I wrote material and scrapped it, wrote and scrapped it, until something clicked with me. I think ‘Forbidden Colours’ was the next piece that clicked.’ (DS, 2001)
Sylvian’s lyrics for Japan often created atmosphere through a collage of highly visual images, taking the listener to another place in imagination; still frames in series. Personal experience and emotion were only hinted at through oblique reference. ‘Ghosts’ was direct, an expression of the singer’s state of being:
‘Just when I thought I could not be stopped
When my chance came to be king
The ghosts of my life blew wilder than the wind’
The collaboration with Sakamoto saw the vulnerability extended; not just emotions laid bare, but inner struggle revealed even whilst the turmoil continues. ‘With ‘Forbidden Colours’ I achieved something I’d never achieved before in writing a lyric about myself which had no answer.’
Questions of faith and doubt became a central theme on Brilliant Trees and in ‘Forbidden Colours’ they found their first articulation.
‘It had a question about religion. I’ve got this thing with religions in general. I’m interested in people’s philosophies and why they cling to them. Do they need something to rely upon because they’re not strong enough in their own life, or are they clinging to them because there’s a real value in it that I miss?
‘At that time, I was becoming more obsessed about Christian religion and ‘Forbidden Colours’ was the first time I’d achieved that kind of writing, putting something into lyrics that was just an expression of what I was going through, that had no ending. It still hasn’t got an end to it and the music wasn’t coloured in any way. It was very honest and that’s what made me decide to carry on writing. I couldn’t go back…so I just wrote directly about myself.’
Reading through the words of the song today, so familiar after thirty-odd years of listening, it’s astounding how personal they are, especially put in the context of ‘Ghosts’ being the first unabashed attempt at such writing. Perhaps the resplendence of the original film-theme musical accompaniment took some of the attention away from what was being sung on first release.
Sylvian said that at the time he ‘felt a need, a pulling to be involved in some way, with the Christian religion. I don’t know why. It was very confusing.’ The lyric starts with a central emblem of the Christian faith, Christ’s nail-pierced palms:
‘The wounds on your hands never seem to heal
I thought all I needed was to believe’
Doubt is immediately evident in that opening line. The wounds aren’t healing and the singer can’t move from the pain of Christ’s crucifixion to the joy of resurrection. ‘I thought all I needed…’ appears to question both the Christian faith – can it really be true? – and the singer himself – does he have enough faith to believe it?
Here am I, a lifetime away from you,
The blood of Christ, or the beat of my heart
My love wears forbidden colours
My life believes’
Reasons for doubt become clearer. It seems to the protagonist that a relationship with the God of the Christian religion can only be experienced after death – ‘a lifetime away’ – something so distant from his here and now. This remoteness calls him to question the faith he was brought up with or even draws him towards other beliefs: ‘forbidden colours’.
Of course, the title phrase of the song is appropriated from Yukio Mishima’s 1950s novel of the same name. It was among the literary references suggested by Sakamoto as Sylvian approached the task of putting words to the music. ‘I hadn’t seen the movie, and it was supposed to be related to the movie in some way, and he had mentioned some reference points for me in terms of literature. Some of it I was already familiar with. The title ‘Forbidden Colours’ came up as the title of a book by Mishima and it dealt with homosexual relationships and the idea of forbidden love. And so I ran with that.’ (DS, 2010)
I love how the inner struggle is given straightforward expression: the reference to being ‘in the soil’ – as later in ‘Brilliant Trees’, rooted on earth rather than in heaven; ‘walking in circles’ as the physical manifestation of the whirring mind; calling everything into question in ‘doubting the very ground beneath me’; and the evident striving in ‘trying to show unquestioning faith in everything’.
The lyric alternates between ‘my love wears forbidden colours‘ and ‘my life believes in you once again’. As Sylvian has often stated it is the listener’s interpretation, the application of the words to their own truth, that is the most important. For me these phrases give a window into the uncertain mind, one moment drawn in a new direction, in another moment reasserting trust in Christ; ‘the blood of Christ, or a change of heart’. The song ends with reaffirmation, but it’s in no way triumphant; a reflection of the state of mind in one fragile instant.
Years later, Sylvian said, ‘It can be read in a number of different ways that lyric, it can be read in the way that I wrote it as something of a spiritual crisis, but it can also be read in terms of the context it was meant for, which was the film itself and the relationship between the two lead characters in the film.’ (DS, 2010) It may seem a stretch that a lyric can work both ways, but setting it for a moment in the context of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence it does have relevance to the bonds that form between the prisoners and their captors, forged despite a brutal context. Ryuichi Sakamoto played the role of Yonoi, the captain of the prison camp, who has such an attraction towards Jack Celliers (played by David Bowie) that it reaches across the codes of different cultures, philosophy and religion. Laurens van der Post describes it as ‘the unfathomed identification between Celliers and himself’ in his book The Seed and the Sower on which the movie is based. The relationship between Gengo Hara, the ruthless enforcer at the camp, and John Lawrence also displays what is an unlikely connection. Hara spares Lawrence in an act of Christmas clemency, and Lawrence’s genuine empathy for the Japanese sergeant is clear as they meet on the night before Hara’s execution. Here the tension is between loyalty to country, cause or belief and depth of feeling for a fellow human being.
Sylvian was interviewed by BBC Radio One’s David Jensen in late June 1983. These were always great chats with a good chemistry between host and guest, attracting a lot of attention from fans. Asked about his recent activities, Sylvian said, ‘In February I went to Japan to do the single with Ryuichi; since then I’ve been in London…writing my album, getting everything together, which I start in August.’ Probed for what we might expect from his debut solo effort, he expanded, ‘I will be doing my own version of ‘Forbidden Colours’, but other than that it will all be new material…I would like to do a “not so grand” version, because all the music was already done when I went to Japan, all I did was put the vocal on. I really had no say in it. I really love it – but I’d like to do my own version of it.’
Sakamoto’s collaborations with Sylvian to date had displayed his talent for creating unique electronic sound – on Japan’s ‘Taking Islands in Africa‘ and the duo’s first single release ‘Bamboo Music’/’Bamboo Houses’ – and then adding cinematic orchestration to the mix for the original release of ‘Forbidden Colours’. In a display of the breadth of his musical versatility, Ryuichi’s primary role this time would be to bring his sensitive piano playing to the new rendition. From the gently resounding chimes of the opening notes it is clear that this is a very different setting of the piece. The restrained piano is augmented by gorgeously sparse drums played by Steve Jansen in a style so different from his architectural constructs on Tin Drum. The added space in the mix gives room for an expressive vocal delivery from Sylvian, who also plays airy synthesiser parts recalling the signature melody of the original. Sakamoto, Jansen and Sylvian as a trio, with the later addition of a sympathetic string arrangement for which Ryuichi shares the credit with Ann O’Dell, who had contributed so beautifully to Japan’s ‘The Other Side of Life’ and ‘Nightporter’.
I remember my delight many years ago at finding Ryuichi Sakamoto’s cd Coda in the racks of a music store. A disc of Sakamoto playing the entire score for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence on solo piano. I’d bought the vinyl of the original soundtrack at release and was familiar with all the musical interludes for the key moments in the film. Ryuichi’s piano playing has the same sensitivity as on ‘Forbidden Colours (version)’ and yet at times he summons up all the power of those familiar orchestral pieces. On my playlist I like to accompany the re-recorded ‘Forbidden Colours’ with two tracks from Coda, the main theme for the film and the track ‘Last Regrets’.
As Sylvian grappled with finding the right flow for the tracks on Brilliant Trees he wrote new material. Ultimately, the last piece recorded for the album, ‘The Ink in the Well’, took the place of ‘Forbidden Colours (version)’ in the running order. The piece nevertheless emerged as part of the Brilliant Trees recordings, taking its place as the b-side of the single ‘Red Guitar’. It may not have made the final cut for the album, but this remains one of my favourite recordings and very much a part of the story of the Sylvian’s creative path at the time of his debut release.
‘Forbidden Colours (version)’
Composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Released as b-side of the single Red Guitar by David Sylvian, Virgin, 1984. Produced by Steve Nye, arranged by David Sylvian & Steve Nye.
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
The image of David Sylvian is an out-take from the sessions for the ‘Red Guitar’ single, thank you to photographer Simon Gargette for his kind permission to use it here. The photograph can be found in the book Cries and Whispers by Anthony Reynolds, available here. Thanks also to the publishers burning shed for their permission to reproduce it.
Thank you to Steve Jansen for posting the video of Ryuichi Sakamoto at Hansa Studios, Berlin, 1983.
All David Sylvian quotes are from interviews conducted in 1984 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
‘The song was written during the period…where faith itself was under scrutiny. Having been brought up in Christian based schools where classes such as “scripture”, in which the bible was read and studied, were mandatory, my belief system naturally had a Christian bias or cosmology. As the subject of Christianity itself was under scrutiny my writing pursued this enquiry also. The lyric deals with the loss of faith, doubt, suffering, and divine love.’ David Sylvian, 2003