I find it amazing how listening to a piece of music can take you back to a specific time and place. I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard ‘Let the Happiness In’. It was my first year in work after university, which involved taking a number of one week courses in Birmingham (UK), staying away from home. September 1987, Sylvian’s new single was coming out and I would be in Birmingham. I had to get my hands on a copy so, when the classes had finished on the day of release, I headed straight for one of the large record stores in town. As I climbed to the first floor, that introduction came over the powerful sound system… It caught my attention although I didn’t know what it was until the vocal started. Realising this was the new song I stood and listened to it for the first time, then grabbed my copy of the 12″ single (still an absolute favourite with the ‘Buoy’ remix and gem ‘Blue of Noon’ on the b-side) and headed out, prize in hand.
The deep resounding brass and its restrained power captivate me every time I hear this song start. It demands to be listened to, and the musical setting is quite unlike anything else I can think of – certainly a departure from the prominent guitars and resounding drums of the previous year’s Gone to Earth. Sylvian had said early in 1987 that he wanted to use ‘orchestral arrangements and traditional instruments’ for his forthcoming project, and later explained that it was the strength of the compositions that lent themselves to this approach: ‘I knew that the arrangements of the pieces could be quite sparse, and that I could get away with that. So I basically orchestrated each track from the original starting point which was either me sitting at a piano or with an acoustic guitar, which is why the material is acoustically based.’
For ‘Let the Happiness In’ the starting point was a keyboard demo created with a sound that suggested brass instruments. No doubt one reason the introduction sounds unusual is Sylvian’s untutored approach: ‘on ‘Let the Happiness In’ there’s the brass, and brass players aren’t used to playing that kind of line, which was very low, for example, for the brass players to play; sustained notes, which is very difficult for them to hold. So it’s just really asking of these musicians things that aren’t usually asked of them, so the instruments start to sound a little different from what you are used to hearing. I think it comes from my lack of education as far as music goes. I mean if I sit at home on a synthesiser and write a brass line…I don’t really know if the instrument I’m thinking of is capable of reaching this register. And in many cases they’re not. And so I work with Ryuichi Sakamoto…and he will listen to the demos I’ve put down and we’ll talk about them, and he will understand what the capabilities are of these individual instruments.’ On this occasion Sakamoto told Sylvian that the part was ‘just within the boundaries of possibility for these given brass instruments that we will select.’
Then of course there is Mark Isham’s trumpet soaring above Sakamoto’s brass arrangement, such a contrast in styles from the underlying brooding chords. Sylvian was to look back on ‘Let the Happiness In’ as the stand out track on Secrets of the Beehive, commenting, ‘I think that Mark Isham on the track gave one of his best performances as a solo trumpet.’ (2003)
I caught up with Mark to understand more. The two worked together on Brilliant Trees, so how did his association with David Sylvian come about? ‘I was living in London and I believe an engineer named Nigel Walker recommended me to David. I think it was Nigel. He was working on Brilliant Trees and we had worked together on something probably through Peter van Hooke. David needed some odd trumpet things. Basically, Holger Czukay had done some early dictaphone-style sampling of trumpet on the record and David needed some more predictable trumpet playing to go along with that. Nigel recommended me and I came in and did a few things for him on that record.
‘It established a nice relationship between David and me. We had similar sensibilities. When he wanted a trumpet on Secrets of the Beehive, he called me. At that point, I’d moved back to Los Angeles but I flew over to London and spent a few days working on the tracks with him.’
Isham’s sessions for ‘Let the Happiness In’ took place at Angel Studios in London: ‘It was a church I believe that had been converted into a studio. Lovely room with big sound and I overdubbed by myself. The track was pretty much finished. The arrangement was completely in place by the time I got there.’
How did Sylvian describe what he was looking for? ‘David talked me through it, and said he wanted a solo part to pretty much accompany him from the very beginning to the very end and establish a conversational style with the vocal. I had experimented with similar things, like a track I did with Marianne Faithfull…so I felt right at home and loved playing on it. It is a beautifully constructed track. Ryuichi Sakamoto and everyone did such a really beautiful job on the whole thing with wonderful voicings and recording.’
The piece with Marianne Faithfull was ‘Trouble in Mind (The Return)’ from Mark’s 1986 soundtrack to the film Trouble in Mind. It’s interesting to listen to the track as a reference point for ‘Let the Happiness In’. An impassioned vocal, with the depth of emotion from the singer finding empathy in the sensitivity with which the trumpet is played. When Sylvian was interviewed by Alan Bangs on BFBS in 1987 to promote ‘Secrets…’ he selected the song to be played.
I asked Mark how he created the sound which contributes so much to the emotional pull of ‘Let the Happiness In’. ‘The solo is playing on trumpet with a Harmon mute. It gives it that much lighter, sort of airier sound. That was a sound that we had experimented with on Brilliant Trees. He might very well have remembered that from those days. It’s also a fairly used sound – Miles Davis, of course, and Chet Baker played a lot of Harmon mute things and it’s a wonderful sound. It makes it very intimate and very soulful.
‘As I said before, we talked about the solo being conversational with him – let the vocal have the primary position in the arrangement but for the trumpet to have a running commentary with the lead vocal. And by the end we are furiously trading back and forth different lines. Of course, having the vocal already recorded allowed me to construct something that worked very well and the balance we obtained was very good in that regard.’
Everything in the instrumentation works together in harmony. Both Sylvian and Sakamoto play organ which imperceptibly enters, first in parallel to the wind part and then coming to the fore. Brian Gascoigne’s orchestral arrangement subtly supports, adding shimmer. Isham is credited with flugelhorn as well as the trumpet of the solo: ‘Not quite sure what that is. There might be some flugelhorn loop at the end. Whatever it is, it’s blended in with brass so it doesn’t stand out in a soloistic way.’ The skilful percussion work from Danny Cummings and Steve Jansen is crucial to the sense of progression. Danny told Anthony Reynolds for his recent book Cries and Whispers: ‘The percussion on ‘Let the Happiness In’ would have been layered, with a bespoke setup…it would have been possible to get a whole performance in one take, but to keep everything nice and even sonically it would best be recorded bit by bit, which is what we did. Of course you have to know when to stop’ (2018). When the percussion comes in it lifts the dynamic, first with rhythms that are placed across the stereo mix – widening the vista – and then come lighter sounds such as cymbals caressed, as hope rises.
Sylvian was pleased with the results: ‘I liked the piece because it was a kind of composition that fascinated me, that in a sense I’d been working towards for a number of years; where a piece would start off in a rather melancholic place, introspective place but ultimately resolve in a feeling of celebration, so in other words it lifts the spirit through the process of development. And to me that was something that fascinated me for a long time and I felt that I’d nailed it to some extent with that particular piece, it’s the best example of that approach to creating that kind of music. I remember writing the piece on a sample keyboard and deciding that it would be best performed by a brass section…and we did a very good job, I think it was like a first or second take, but they got it…it was beautiful..’ (DS, 2003)
The lyrics are a study in summoning the clearest of visions from an economy of expression. Sylvian had been travelling, and there is a sense of place that he admitted was most likely drawn from a specific location he had visited. The scene at the start of the song is described in so few words, but I’m there in my mind’s eye:
‘I’m waiting on the empty docks
Watching the ships come in
I’m waiting for the agony to stop
Oh, let the happiness in’
The physical surroundings reflect the inner world – ships move in and out of port, but stood in that place on the harbour-side there is emptiness and desolation.
‘I’m watching as the gulls all settle down
Upon the empty vessels
The faded whites of their wedding gowns
The songs of hopeless selflessness’
First it was the movement of the boats that made this a real-life scene rather than a still photograph image; now it is the reeling of the birds as they come to settle on the boats moored there. How sublime is the line ‘the faded whites of their wedding gowns’! Beautifully observed, adding to the imagined surroundings, perfect in metre, and hinting at a reality that hasn’t measured up to expectation. Recalling their sound, ‘the songs of hopeless selflessness’, brings an added vibrancy to the setting.
‘Listen to the waves against the rocks
I don’t know where they’ve been
I’m waiting for the sky to open up
And let the happiness in’
Sylvian takes us from the epic in scale – the unfathomable vastness of the ocean – to one individual, eyes to the heavens calling in happiness with open heart and open hands, hopefully.. ..expectantly. The vocal becomes more relaxed as certainty grows –‘ ’cause it’s coming’ – even released into echoing the tune in wordless joy as the track fades. Having been drawn in to the scene through the lyric and irresistible melody, we find ourselves standing in the place of the singer and taking the words as our own.
Interviewing Sylvian in Melody Maker at the time of release, Chris Roberts remarks on Sylvian’s use of such a strong term as ‘agony’. ‘It’s…probably a word I’d normally avoid because I thought it was too…dramatic,’ Sylvian responded. ‘But in the context I thought I could get away with it. Because…the mood of the music is very descriptive. I think it must be an experience we all know, we’re all familiar with. And because it moves on to that kind of uplifting ending, it’s not like it’s leaving you on a sour note. It’s bringing you through that experience, lifting you out of it. And if you can do that through music, you can do it in your life.’
How does Mark Isham reflect on ‘Let the Happiness In’ now? ‘The piece is exceedingly uplifting, expressing this desire for hope and the surety that it is coming, and happiness – if you allow it – can be yours. I think it’s a beautiful song and expresses that sentiment so lovely. Having just listened back to it again now, so many years later, it absolutely stands the test of time as a beautiful, beautiful piece.
‘I grew to admire and respect David very much…I spent some really marvellous times with him on tour and playing at different settings. I think he is one of the great artists of my generation. I admire him tremendously and this is one of his finest tracks on one of his finest records.’
Secrets of the Beehive is so perfect in its running order that it’s difficult to listen to it in any other way than as a complete album. However, a track where Isham again captures a depth of feeling in his playing is ‘Empty Chambers/Romeo is Bleeding’ from perhaps an unlikely source, his soundtrack for the 1994 film Romeo is Bleeding. Here the interplay is between Mark’s solo playing and the acoustic bass, piano and electronics. Isham’s sound is so moving and poignant, a perfect foil for Sylvian’s vocal on one of his masterpiece works.
‘Let the Happiness In’
Danny Cummings – percussion; Mark Isham – trumpet, flugelhorn; Steve Jansen – percussion; Ryuichi Sakamoto – synthesisers, organ; David Sylvian – synthesisers, organ, vocal. String arrangement by Brian Gascoigne, brass arrangement by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian. Arranged by David Sylvian.
Produced by Steve Nye, assisted by David Sylvian. From Secrets of the Beehive by David Sylvian, Virgin, 1987.
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Grateful thanks to Mark Isham for contributing to this article, and to Aaron Jorgensen for helping to arrange this. All David Sylvian quotes are from interviews in 1987 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
“Let the Happiness In’ is very much a kind of map, if you like, helping to create a sense of uplifting from the rather pessimistic starting point. And I hope the work allows people to find themselves within it, regardless of the state of mind with which they approach it.’ David Sylvian, 1999