I was at university in London in the mid-1980s, and my primary connection to what was happening in the world of the ex-members of Japan was the fanzine Bamboo. I would eagerly anticipate each new issue, taking a walk after lectures to the Virgin megastore on Tottenham Court Road to check whether they might have a new issue in stock. If in luck, I’d hop on the bus back to Denmark Hill, make a coffee and sit in the one easy chair in my student accommodation to devour the content from cover to cover. The full set of these A5 volumes still sits proudly in my music cabinet at home – and if any of the dedicated band of instigators and contributors should read this, then please accept grateful thanks for being a lifeline to fans in those days before the information superhighway.
Issue 6 from 1985 carried pictures of David Sylvian taken on 7 July that year; he’s wearing large shades, a designer white shirt with bold black design and has a portfolio case tucked under his arm. The photographs are accompanied by the following news: ‘It’s been over a year since the release of Brilliant Trees and the wait for another LP continues. David’s second album provisionally titled The Holy Blood of Saints and Sheep was due for release in September but has now been delayed until November when the video Preparations for a Journey will also be released.. ..Side One of the album is an instrumental piece entitled ‘Explosion of Faith in a Cathedral’. Side Two consists of three or four songs.’
Things didn’t quite turn out that way. The follow up to Brilliant Trees arrived in September 1986, carrying the title Gone to Earth. Sylvian explained, ‘I should have had a clearer vision for the record, I think. Initially I started out recording ‘Steel Cathedrals’, ‘Words with the Shaman’ and then three tracks from what became Gone to Earth as an album project. I was working on all of this material and when I got it to a point of completion I realised that no way did it hold together as an album, and so I removed the vocal material and used that as the basis for what was to become Gone to Earth. So in a sense I was kind of making it up as I went along; it wasn’t an overall vision – I didn’t know where I was heading with the material when I started writing it. So I basically used the three tracks that I had which was ‘Wave’, ‘Before the Bullfight’, and ‘Laughter and Forgetting’ as the cornerstones of the album in a sense and continued writing from that point.’ (2003)
When it came, the song-based album was part of a double set with a series of delightful instrumental vignettes which will be explored on this site separately. But whatever became of The Holy Blood of Saints and Sheep? This was in fact both the slated name of the album and the initial title of what we know as ‘Wave’, a track that struggled to find the form that Sylvian desired. Not only did it have an unfamiliar name in its early development, it also had a completely different feel – with its closest cousin being the Brilliant Trees out-take ‘Blue of Noon’. The latter is regarded by many as a neglected jewel from the early years of Sylvian’s solo work, being only available as a now thirty year old vinyl b-side. (Note to anyone who might have the power to influence a release of this track digitally, or maybe as a Record Store Day vinyl with download code – please do.. ..we’ll pay!)
‘That [‘Blue of Noon’] was my stab at jazz at the time. I had a second stab at it on what became ‘Wave’ on Gone to Earth. I have this other session of that track with John Taylor on piano, Steve [Jansen] on drums and Ian Maidman on bass.. ..It is kind of nice and in the same vein as ‘Blue of Noon’.’ (DS, 1994)
Steve Jansen remembers the early incarnation of the song fondly too. ‘I have this track [‘Blue of Noon’] on a cassette tape along with another, possibly jazzier track that had the working title ‘Saints and Sheep’ which again was a live performance with myself, John Taylor (the pianist from Gone to Earth… it was from those sessions, he plays on ‘Laughter and Forgetting’, a brilliant player), and Ian Maidman on bass. I was really pleased with the interplay between us but I guess it didn’t suit the album. I’m not sure if it’s ever been released under another name..’ (2015)
In developing the arrangement Sylvian reached out to Simon Jeffes, leader of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra whose line-up included bassist Maidman. ‘I first met Simon back in ’81,’ Sylvian remembers, ‘when he dropped in to visit us while we were recording Tin Drum. The connection of course being Steve Nye who was an original member of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Simon was developing an increasing interest in synthesisers and was particularly curious about the Prophet 5 which, if I recall correctly, he wanted to compose on. I ended up loaning him my spare P5 for a few months. He played on the ‘Bamboo..’ [Music/Houses] sessions with Ryu and myself, although his contribution didn’t make the final mix. We met up again in Berlin when I was recording Brilliant Trees. While we were down in the dark recesses of the basement struggling with out-dated equipment and poor wiring, he was upstairs working with far more modern technology in very comfortable surroundings. He’d come down to gloat at our predicament. We attempted to collaborate once more on Gone to Earth. He supplied a string arrangement for ‘Wave’ (originally titled ‘Saints and Sheep’ it had an entirely different lyric and vocal melody).’ (2002)
However, something wasn’t working; Sylvian wasn’t achieving what he set out to do. ‘I tried putting an orchestra on it and it just began to sound too grand. And I felt like it needed something living, something improvised, to pick the whole thing up..’ (1986).
Several sources have reported that Sylvian had wished to work with ECM artist Jan Garbarek for this album, and it seems ‘Wave’ was an anticipated contribution. ‘I’d written the piece around the involvement of a particular saxophonist who found himself on the other side of the world when I went into the studio to record the piece, so he wasn’t available. I tried working with a series of other saxophonists, but it just didn’t work out for me. So I had to rethink..’ (DS, 1993)
‘I’d gone through many, many soloists trying to find the right instrument to break up the very structured composition. I wanted somebody who could come along and improvise throughout the piece and break up the form somehow. And I tried these various instruments and I was having no luck at all.’ Time to connect with someone who would become a key collaborator over several projects to come. ‘Late one evening I was just sitting back totally despondent wondering who, what kind of instrument I could use, and Robert’s guitar sound came to mind and I thought that would be wonderful, that would be perfect.’ (DS, 1987)
It was incredibly fortuitous that Fripp was available to take part. ‘Robert was a spur of the moment decision.. ..He was on one of those record shop tours that he does, and he had one evening free and he came in the next evening’ (DS, 1986). An audience recording of his solo performance and Q&A session at Rough Trade Records in London has recently surfaced and been made available through DGM. It’s clear from Robert’s words that whilst he still considered himself a resident of Dorset, UK, his focus was elsewhere. Following a less-than-happy end to work with the latest incarnation of King Crimson the previous year, he describes himself as having moved ‘into retreat’ and was subsequently elected president of the American Society for Continuous Education. Under the auspices of the latter he launched group Guitar Craft classes at Claymont Court, Charles Town, West Virginia, grounded in the use of his New Standard Tuning. Fripp’s disdain for the negativity of the British music press is palpable, in contrast to his enthusiasm for the open culture he found in the States which was far more conducive to his work with students – connecting with music through the heart, mind and body.
As a result of this newly found tape we know exactly when the recording session for ‘Wave’ took place – on 19 July 1985, just days after those Bamboo pictures of David Sylvian were taken. ‘It’s very difficult, I think, for a musician to say no or a performer to say no to being asked to play,’ Fripp explains in response to an audience question, ‘because the life is so hard and so wretched and so difficult. One feels so grateful of the opportunity just to play.. ..so when someone asks, how can you say no? In fact, yesterday I was asked if I would like to go and play on someone’s record, and I said yes. So after the show I’m off to work with David Sylvian. He has a title track for a new album that he says I’m the only guitar player that could play on it.. ..if you say that to someone they are not going to ask about fees, they are going to turn up!’ And turn up he did, for a late evening session, before heading back to the US the next day.
Fripp expanded later: ‘It’s called ‘Wave’. That music has something about it. The song was originally called ‘The Holy Blood of Saints and Sheep.’ Now I don’t know why he changed the lyrics, but I loved the original vocal, which I heard and worked through. The current one is fabulous too. He said, “Go. Here you are. This is what we’ve got. Come up with something. Go.” And I work well like that.’ (1987)
Sylvian was enthusiastic about Fripp’s contribution to the song which had cried out for his voice, his guitar work freeing the arrangement to develop into the album cut we know. John Taylor’s piano and Ian Maidman’s bass are nowhere to be heard on the final release, indeed there is no bass credited on the track in stark contrast to a song such as ‘River Man’ where the bass and drums operate in lock-step.
In late summer 1986, when Gone to Earth surfaced, ‘Wave’ seemed to bathe this listener in a glorious light. I wouldn’t see the one other Sylvian fan that I knew for a few weeks, so it was as if this was treasure reserved just for me. I still adore everything about it.
Richard Barbieri’s opening atmospherics give way to the resounding drums of Steve Jansen, a repetitive yet complex pattern that lends the song a gorgeously languorous feel. Harry Beckett plays flugelhorn in his sole appearance on a Sylvian recording, complementing the synthesiser ambience. Robert Fripp is heard alongside the other guitar voice on the record – that of Bill Nelson – but it is Fripp’s soloing that burns itself on the memory. Hearing his majestic improvised lead is reminiscent of that moment in a King Crimson concert when ‘Starless’ strikes up to a collective intake of breath from the audience.
And then there are the words. Sylvian’s collected works, Hypergraphia, includes the lyric of an unreleased song named ‘Lilith’ (we know it’s a lyric rather than a poem as they are differentiated by two distinct typefaces). This is listed within the Gone to Earth time period and may well have been the original words for ‘Wave’. It’s named after a Jewish mythological figure; Lilith is often portrayed as dangerous female demon of the night, but here the depiction seems something far more attractive:
‘The house is quiet and still
Set in a valley of green
She walks in the shade of the hills
And charms the birds from the trees
Silencing questions in me’
The lyric closes with a reference to Nietzsche’s concept of the driving force of humankind (‘der Wille zur Macht’ – ‘the will to power’) and with the lost words that are by now familiar:
‘See us rise on a will to power
While others still sleep
A forest in full flower
Where every river runs deep
The holy blood of saints and sheep’
‘The piece certainly appears symptomatic of the eclectic nature of the search for truth and meaning,’ Sylvian conceded later. ‘..I’d attempt a definition as “the power of divine energy embodied in human form. The realisation of humanity’s potential and/or destiny.”’ (2003)
The final lyric for ‘Wave’ must be one of Sylvian’s most outstanding and poetic pieces of writing. It’s difficult to pick highlights because every line is so striking and perfectly expressed.
‘It seems that I remember I dreamed a thousand dreams
We’d face the days together no matter what they’d bring
A strength inside like I’d never known
Opened the door to life and let it go’
It’s a most evocative love song, with the images of nature somehow providing an epic backdrop for a connection between two people, between two souls.
‘Another world just made for two
I’ll swim the seas inside with you
And like the waves without a sound
I’ll never let you down
Upon a wave of summer
A hilltop paved with gold
We shut our eyes and made the promises we hold
A will to guide and see us through
I’d do it all again because of you’
Swimming ‘the seas inside with you’ hints at the reason the track was listed as ‘Dive’ on Virgin’s draft track-listing; a mastering cassette from Town House studios subsequently named it as ‘The Great Sea’ until an apparent late change to the now familiar title.
And then there is the existential pain of the final line, which nevertheless conveys the ecstasy of a love so perfect:
‘I’d tear my very soul to make you mine’
Of course, the track works as an exuberant expression of human love. But just as Sylvian plays interchangeably with expressions of human and divine devotion many years later on Dead Bees on a Cake, so here perhaps are echoes of the earlier ‘Lilith’ suggesting this may be a re-working of the same themes: ‘my brightest of dreams’/‘I dreamed a thousand dreams’; ‘rise on a will to power’/‘a will to guide and see us through’; ‘she walks in the shade of the hills’/‘a hilltop paved with gold’..
‘For me it was a spiritual romance. I thought, “Maybe this doesn’t really have a home in popular music, how do you deal with this?” But you can talk about it in the same terms as a physical romance – so that’s what I tried to do. I tried to open it up to be interpreted in different ways. Obviously most people saw it as a love song, to someone, and they used it in that capacity in their own lives, and that’s terrific. But the grandiosity of the romance of a piece like ‘Wave’, existed because it was about a divine love, a universal love.’ (DS, 2005)
It was a shock when Sylvian later declared, “Wave’ was a great disappointment to me on record’, figuring that it ‘failed in the rhythm section’ and embracing the opportunity to ‘have another bash at it’ when he toured with Fripp after the release of The First Day. ‘We started to play with different rhythms and settled on the one you hear but it never satisfied me, it was too rigid and very hard to work with’ (1994). Maybe the difficulty of fashioning a satisfactory arrangement, and the fact that it ended so far from the early jazz setting, precluded the artist from an appreciation of the final piece free from its complicated history.
For me the track is one of the pinnacles of his catalogue, and I incline much more towards Robert Fripp’s assessment when he paid it perhaps the highest accolade. “Wave’ from Gone to Earth remains one of my all-time “listeners” from anyone, and pieces I’ve played on. I’d put ‘Wave’ with ‘Heroes’ even. It’s not so anthemic and outward going, but it carries me away each time.’ (2013)
Included on Sylvian’s compilation Camphor (2002) there is an instrumental version of the track which strips it back to the essentials, restores Simon Jeffes’ orchestration and includes credits for bass parts and Hammond organ from Sylvian that don’t appear on the original album. It’s an elegant reminder of the track’s heritage, and allows us to luxuriate in one of Fripp’s finest solos.
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye, from Gone to Earth, Virgin, 1986
Recorded in London and Oxfordshire 1985-6
Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Music by David Sylvian.
Remixed by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye, from Camphor, Virgin, 2002
Robert Fripp’s performance and Q&A at Rough Trade Records, London can be downloaded from DGM Live here.
The featured image is a detail from the inner sleeve of the Gone to Earth vinyl re-issue (2019), photography by Yuka Fujii.
Sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
‘It started off with a completely different arrangement. Quite jazz orientated. It was with John Taylor playing piano, Steve with brushes and everything, and it just didn’t work. It felt too ballad like, it felt too obvious for the composition.’ David Sylvian, 1986