Sat in the Reading Room for Rare Books and Music at the British Library in London, I don the headphones provided. I’ve come to this hushed space to listen to a conversation recorded with photographer Angus McBean in 1989, just months before his passing. Hearing the excited tones of the sprightly octogenarian, it’s impossible not to be caught up in his enthusiasm for life and his sheer joy at recounting tales from a career in which he captured portraits of the stars of stage, screen and literary arts – Audrey Hepburn, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Ivor Novello, Vivien Leigh, the Beatles, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Margot Fonteyn, T.S. Eliot, Benjamin Britten, the list is truly incredible. If a glint in the eye can be caught on audio tape then surely it is captured here. It’s the same playful energy that comes over in the settings created for his subjects, influenced as they were by his early career as a mask-maker and scenery designer for stage productions and by the impact of the Surrealist movement.
Given the stellar list of sitters in his portfolio, perhaps it’s no surprise to hear McBean recount: ‘When David Sylvian’s agent rang up and said would I like to photograph David Sylvian – because he would like to be photographed – I said, “Who is David Sylvian?!” He said, “Oh, he is a pop singer of note and head of the group called Japan. And he’s just been voted the most beautiful man in the world.” I said, “I’m sorry but I can’t do it, I don’t photograph seriously these days.”’
McBean may have thought that was the end of the matter, but not so: ‘..then they rang up, somebody called Corbijn rang up, Anton Corbijn.. ..he’s a photographer as well, he makes videos for pop groups, and he said he was in a dilemma because David Sylvian had found a photograph.. ..and he wanted his video made based on this photograph, and so [Corbijn] told him [Sylvian].. “..have you asked Angus McBean’s permission? I don’t know how the law looks upon copying a photograph in another medium, but at least I think you should have his permission.”’
Anton Corbijn remembers that it was his work on the ‘Dr. Mabuse’ video that prompted Sylvian to approach him for ‘Red Guitar’. ‘David saw the Propaganda video on TV and subsequently approached me for this song, his first solo single since leaving the group Japan. I had photographed him a few times in that setting, he was often seen as a teenage pin-up, poster boy, very striking and introvert appearance. For him to ask me to direct this video was making a statement, I think. Anyway, it is again a challenge for me to come up with ideas and I spent a couple of days in Bruxelles in a hotel room to concentrate on that. I found it so difficult to come up with anything worthwhile.. ..What I came up with was basically lots of images that have no connection to each other and the main image is based on a photo by Angus McBean.’ (AC, 2005)
The photograph in question was of Dame Flora Robson, taken in 1938, in which the actress rises from a desert-scape, offset in the foreground by, of all things, a large sea-shell. Back to the excitable McBean: ‘And David Sylvian wants them to build the desert picture in the studio, and him to come bursting out of it, singing “the red guitar” or whatever. And so I said, “Yes, of course you can do it so long as you acknowledge me.” And so he said, “Oh, that’s very kind of you,” and rang off, you see.
‘Well after about three days he’s on the phone again. “We’ve been thinking about it.. ..how does one acknowledge somebody in a video? How is it done?” I said, “I’m sorry but that’s your problem! (laughter) I’m not asking for much!” (more laughter) And so he said, “Well, we’ve been thinking, and the only thing we can think of is for you to take part in the video.”
‘..I did and we got to No 7 on Top of the Pops! (laughter). I had to sing one verse of the song and my voice is terrible. I’m practically tone deaf. And so I sang along with the record, and by the miracles of modern science I opened my aged lips and out comes the golden voice of David Sylvian!’
The single actually reached 17 in the UK charts, but it’s clear from McBean’s incredulous tone that he was more thrilled about appearing in a pop video on TOTP than at the specifics of the chart placing!
The video itself is far more sure-footed than what Anton Corbijn considers his ‘“real” first video’ for Propaganda (preceded only by a little-seen effort for German band Palais Schaumburg). The ‘Dr. Mabuse’ film is characterised by its hand-held camera which mingles with hooded figures as they move around an ancient castle, lending it a somewhat low-budget, amateur feel. For ‘Red Guitar’, on the other hand, each image is carefully composed with the flair evidenced in Corbijn’s black and white still photography. The real positive was not succumbing to the fashion in promo videos of the time for telling a story in the four minute duration, thereby constraining the viewer to one interpretation of the music.
‘Most of the videos you see accompany rather superficial, hollow pieces of music, that’s why they’ve got those horrible storyline videos because there is very little there and you’re giving a disposable piece of music a disposable image that will last a month or two..’ (DS, 1984) Sylvian has always stressed that it is for each listener to seek their own meaning in his lyrics, finding whatever resonates deepest for them. Anton Corbijn’s series of images similarly serves to open up the imagination rather than to narrow things down through a concocted story.
Some of the shots in the video are as surreal as the recreation of McBean’s set for the portrait, others hint at the fundamental questioning that Sylvian found himself facing throughout Brilliant Trees – for instance in the words ‘LIFE’ and ‘SOUL’ on the black balloons inflated by the child and kindly photographer, and even in the stark age difference between these two as the only other characters in the video. Memories differ on the youngest cast member, McBean remembered a little girl who disliked being dressed in boy’s clothing, Corbijn recalling that it was a lad found in Lycee Francais in London. McBean’s appearance was successful as an acknowledgment of the use of his portrait concept, and as a tribute of sorts to his impact on the world of photography. ‘He’s a lovely character. It shows so much in the pictures you see of him. It showed in the video I think as well even though he’s giving a performance. He’s such a warm-hearted man and such a creative man.
‘It’s amazing to me that he’s been ignored for so many years and only on his 80th birthday he’s recognised as being a major influence to the major photographers of this age.’ (DS, 1984)
Sylvian has been open about his drug use during the writing and recording of Brilliant Trees and confided in a later interview: “Red Guitar’? Oh, that was written at home during a drugged up stupor one morning. That whole album was done on coke. I couldn’t stay awake during that period and I figured a coke habit would be easier to deal with than constant exhaustion.’ (2000)
When it was released as the first single ahead of his debut album, he was positive about the piece as an introduction for listeners to his new work, and as an expression of his life in music. ‘It’s quite a good commercial for the album. ‘Red Guitar’ symbolises art in a way, and art is my means of expression. The chorus just says, “it’s my vice and my virtue. It’s something that will pre-occupy my life and give it the most pleasure and the most pain.” It’s that simple.’ (DS, 1984)
‘I recognise no method of living that I know
I see only the basic materials I may use
If you ask me, I may tell you
It’s been this way for years
I play my red guitar
It’s the devil in the flesh
It’s the iron in my soul
I understand you’re facing problems inside you
A certain difficulty of being that I know too’
Sylvian barely veils his influences in the lyrics here, with ‘the devil in the flesh’, ‘the iron in my soul’ and a ‘difficulty of being’ directly referring to Le Diable au Corps – a novel by Raymond Radiguet, Iron in the Soul by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau’s memoir La Difficulté d’être. Cocteau and Radiguet were close associates in the same artistic set and Sylvian seemed literally to find companionship in the pages of the books of these past greats. ‘When I was reading Cocteau what fascinated me most was what normally fascinates most, the similarity of your feelings with the writer’s. It’s like stepping stones – it’s knowing that somebody trod that way before you or is going the same way, or is feeling very similar things. Reading things like that is useful, especially to isolated people like myself who don’t socialise very much, it builds up a confidence in a way or just a strength – you think, “it’s right what I’m doing.”’ (DS, 1994)
The striking cover photograph for ‘Red Guitar’ (featured above and taken by photographer Simon Gargette) includes a nod to Cocteau in the simple sketch of a guitar in the background, based on the singer’s own drawing in the style of the French writer. Sylvian’s fascination with the creatives and thinkers of the early twentieth century seems to have a parallel in his own friendship with McBean, which continued through correspondence for a time after their video shoot at West Wickham. Whilst Cocteau was never a member of the Surrealist movement, his creative output could certainly be considered surreal, and in Angus McBean Sylvian found someone with links to an era that he had hitherto only experienced in books.
‘Red Guitar’ is considered one of the most conventional tracks on Brilliant Trees, and in this context it’s easy to skim over the musical ingenuity displayed here. Mark Isham makes his first appearance for Sylvian, and far from being straightforward he admitted, ‘there’s been a couple of times when it’s taken me a while to figure out what the hell he’s doing. The changes on ‘Red Guitar’ for example, are very complex and non-traditional. There are certain accepted orders of chord relationships that most all music has, but this piece goes against all of those, and that gives it a wonderful mood and sense.’ (1988) Alongside Isham’s spiralling brass there are piano colours from both Ryuichi Sakamoto and co-producer Steve Nye, the notes in one solo falling like crystal raindrops. Then there is the funk influence of Ronny Drayton and the late Wayne Braithwaite which is perhaps a surprise element in the mix on the song-based ‘Side A’ of the album, alongside the cultured guitar of Phil Palmer who would continue to appear all the way up to Rain Tree Crow.
Steve Jansen contributes his always immaculate and inventive drums and percussion, the care to produce just the right sound always evident: “‘Red Guitar’ snare was recorded in a stone stairwell at Hansa Studios, Berlin. The reverb created by the snare in the stairwell was then fed through a Leslie Hammond organ rotary speaker which spins, giving a stereo effect. This was added to the snare sound to create what you can hear, a sort of breathy modulation (the fact that the snare spring was not applied to the snare helps to create a more smooth, rounded sound).’ (SJ, 2016)
Steve’s passion for photography even crosses over into the music on this occasion. He told jansenphotographyblog, ‘The Canon A1 was fit for all purposes and has a great feel to it. It also sounds nice as can be heard on the downbeat at the end of the choruses of the song ‘Red Guitar’. It was something I wanted to try and it seemed to work. I had to find the correct shutter speed for the track tempo, but that was about it.’ (2015)
We are so fortunate to have some short video clips which allow us to slip back in time and into those recording sessions at Hansa. I love these insights to the laying down of the piano, percussion and bass tracks for this song. It’s a pity that the German TV documentary voiceover exists on one clip, but still well worth viewing and then listening back to the track to follow these parts.
I’ve never found a suitable piece to pair up with ‘Red Guitar’ on my Vista playlist, so it’s sequenced there alongside other tracks from Brilliant Trees and from the collaborators on that album. I think it’s because this song is such a great amalgamation of the sum of its parts. No single contribution dominates, rather each comes together to form a unique pop song. The music, words, cover art and video formed the perfect package with which to launch David Sylvian’s solo career. We can now look back with the benefit of over thirty years of musical perspective and the heft of the career-spanning Hypergraphia stands witness that Sylvian’s art has indeed been his life’s driving force as he foresaw. What a well crafted first step this was.
Wayne Braithwaite – bass; Ronny Drayton – guitar; Mark Isham – trumpet; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion; Steve Nye – additional piano; Phil Palmer – guitar; Ryuichi Sakamoto – piano; David Sylvian – vocal, synthesiser
Music by David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye. From Brilliant Trees, Virgin, 1984
Recorded in London and Berlin, 1983/1984
Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Download links: ‘Red Guitar’ (iTunes)
The Polaroid montage of Angus McBean is from Sven Jacob’s private collection, thank you to Sven for permission to reproduce it here. Thank you also to VH-1 and Steve Jansen for the studio video clips.
The archive of Angus McBean’s photography is online at the Harvard Library site here.
Sources and acknowledgements for artist quotes in this article can be found here.
‘Atmosphere is extremely important to me in photos.. ..I like Angus McBean very much because there’s so much of his character in the pictures he takes.’ David Sylvian (1984)