The collection of songs that came together to form disc one of Gone to Earth was created in two distinct phases. David Sylvian first spent time developing a trio of tracks that he anticipated would form part of a release alongside ‘Steel Cathedrals’ or ‘Words with the Shaman’. These were ‘Laughter and Forgetting’, ‘Before the Bullfight’ and the track first known as ‘Saints and Sheep’ which ultimately found life as ‘Wave’.
When it was decided that those particular instrumentals were too disparate from the vocal material to make a cohesive whole, Sylvian composed additional songs to complete a series with more unity of form and purpose.
Jennifer Maidman’s funk bass had formed a distinctive hook on Joan Armatrading’s 1983 single ‘Heaven’, but it was a subsequent project involving producer, pianist and Penguin Cafe Orchestra member Steve Nye that forged connections leading to new musical avenues. ‘I’d been working with Steve for a couple of years,’ Jennifer told me, ‘first on Murray Head’s album Restless, which Steve produced, then I joined the Penguins shortly after. That would have been late 1983 or early 1984, I think. Incidentally, Simon Jeffes [founder and leader of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra] did the strings on Restless; it also features Geoffrey Richardson of PCO and Phil Palmer, who of course also worked with David Sylvian.’ Percussionist Danny Cummings was another name familiar to Sylvian fans amongst the ranks on that Murray Head project.
Having co-produced Japan’s final studio album and Sylvian’s first solo disc, it was Nye who led both Maidman and Jeffes to participate in the Gone to Earth sessions. Jennifer was an admirer of the work of both the band and their front-man, ‘I became aware of him with Japan,’ she remembers, ‘and loved Tin Drum.’ She had even rubbed shoulders with the band during its creation. ‘A bit of synchronicity: when Japan were in studio 2 at Air Studios recording Tin Drum, I was just up the corridor in Studio 1 recording with Bzar, Loz Netto’s band. So occasional snippets of music could be heard drifting up and down the corridors. I think I said “hi” to Mick – we both had Wal basses.
‘Then I thought Brilliant Trees was great, and ground breaking. Really expanding the palette, but still recognisably rooted in pop music.’
Jennifer would contribute to both phases of the recording sessions for Gone to Earth, the early songs being developed at a studio in London’s Finsbury Park. ‘I remember the Jam studio sessions well.. I’m pretty sure it was just David, Steve Jansen, John Taylor and myself, with Steve Nye producing. We definitely recorded a version of ‘Wave’, I remember John’s piano improvisation on that was particularly beautiful. Steve using brushes, me on fretless.’ The track would be radically rearranged and completely re-recorded in the ensuing months, but Sylvian and Jansen have both spoken fondly of this early performance, even if it was decided that the composition demanded a different setting (see ‘Wave‘).
Like PCO colleague Simon Jeffes’ string arrangement for ‘Wave’, Jennifer’s bass lines didn’t make it to the final version. ‘Simon and I always worked separately with David,’ Jennifer remembers, ‘though we were aware of things going on.’
Sessions resumed in Oxfordshire and it was here that Maidman’s lasting contributions to the songs we know so well were honed and expertly recorded. ‘I was at the Manor for several days, I honestly couldn’t say exactly how long. Time gets a bit elastic in the country! We worked on the tracks one at a time, as I remember. David would play the song in a basic form and we went from there.’
‘Taking the Veil’ was the track the fans heard first, being the debut single from the new release. I can remember the excitement of buying it at the local record shop, the matt black of the stylish sleeve contrasting with the gloss relief print of pop-artist Peter Blake’s picture ‘Just at this moment, somehow or other, they began to run’.
Blake is, of course, most famous for the iconic sleeve design for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The image selected for ‘Taking the Veil’ is from his series Illustrations to Through the Looking Glass, depicting scenes from Lewis Carroll’s second volume of Alice adventures – in which she enters fantastical surroundings by climbing into the world she can see beyond a mirror. It captures the moment when Alice is swept off by the Red Queen (who is only partly shown in Blake’s composition) in the garden of talking flowers, running faster and faster but getting precisely nowhere. The picture lends an air of both mystery and innocence to the package. There were no portraits of the singer this time around, but the intimacy created by the hand-written notes on Brilliant Trees is achieved by the singer’s name being shown in his own hand.
There is so much to enjoy in the interplay between the guitars, bass and drums on ‘Taking the Veil’, so I was fascinated to explore with Jennifer the approach taken in the studio to developing the song and its arrangement, the raw material that they were working from and the degree of freedom she was afforded.
‘I think it was the first track we worked on. As I remember it, David played the song on guitar. There was no demo, at least I never heard one. The song, in terms of the vocal and the basic structure, was pretty much there. But the bass end – riffs and things – was wide open. This was David’s way of working, I think. Also, I’m not a reader of music, so I always came up with my own bass parts on recording sessions.
‘In terms of rhythmic feel, I think Steve Jansen contributed a lot with that drum pattern. It sort of set the framework. Like a lot of Steve’s work it has this fantastic combination of being highly structured and disciplined in terms of the part, but played in a wonderfully relaxed, funky way. That discipline creates a lot of space for the bass to be very creative and stretch out.
‘In fact I’d say a lot of Steve’s work with Mick has that quality too. If Steve was less disciplined and throwing random fills around, it would be very difficult to play the kind of lines I did or Mick did without the track turning into a kind of jazzy fusion thing, which was definitely not what we were aiming for. I adore Steve’s drumming. He’s unique.
‘The bass part was developed and recorded simultaneously with the drums and David’s rhythm guitar. It came together over a day, maybe two, we just kept playing and refining. I came up with the bass riffs. I think I tried a few variations; David or Steve would say, “I like that,” and gradually I whittled it down to something quite structured.
‘I was always very into funk bass players like Bootsy Collins. If you were to analyse it, the first riff has elements of a funk type riff, but the fretless gives it a much more swoopy vibe. The bass part under the vocal is much more of a lyrical thing, to echo the more open mysterious atmosphere, and the to-and-fro between that and the funky part defines the structure.
‘Then there’s the guitar solo section, which is also pretty funky from the bass and drums, but more “dug in” than the front part. I love the gaps towards the end where the rhythm stops for a beat, then the drums and bass hit a big downbeat on the one. Sort of old school, but it works so well. That emerged from just playing the song a lot.’
The approach was typical of the working methods across the sessions. ‘It was usually pretty much like that, fairly loose and improvisational at first, then distilling the elements down to something that felt like a definitive version.’ The only track developed slightly differently was ‘River Man’, of which more another time. ‘It was always David, Steve Jansen and myself. Plus John Taylor on those unreleased things [from the earlier sessions at Jam Studio].’
And what was Steve Nye’s influence as co-producer? ‘I know Steve pretty well. We toured together with PCO and worked on several records. Steve seems quite low profile in the studio but there’s actually a lot going on. He’s an incredible musician himself and has amazing ears, so he’s aware of everything in terms of sound, tone, time, musical structure and technique. He knows when to stay quiet and when to speak, which I think is possibly the number one quality in a producer.
‘So sometimes he’ll say nothing for ages as things develop and evolve, but then he’ll say, “You know that thing you played about twenty minutes ago, that was really good.” And because he’s quiet and not throwing in stuff willy-nilly, everyone listens to what he has to say. Plus if you say, “Sorry, I don’t remember what I played twenty minutes ago!” he’ll go, “That’s ok, I recorded a little bit just in case,” and play it to you. Great producer and artist.’
By the time the final mix was completed, Sylvian’s rhythm part had been supplemented by the work of other guitarists, setting the scene for the instrumentation throughout the album. ‘The overdubbed guitars were the main thing which was unexpected,’ remembers Jennifer of hearing the finished track for the first time, ‘especially Robert Fripp’s stuff.’ The acoustic in the mix was expertly executed by Phil Palmer, veteran of ‘Red Guitar’ and ‘The Ink in the Well’ – as well as Murray Head’s Restless.
The treatment of Fripp’s guitar break also bears witness to the influence of another important collaborator in this period – Holger Czukay – even though Holger does not himself appear on the album. ‘I like the way Holger works with radio,’ Sylvian said, ‘though I don’t use it myself so much. I used a little bit on ‘Taking the Veil’ (the new single) but it’s really mixed in with the guitar.’ When Sylvian and Czukay had worked together previously, short wave radio sounds had brought a degraded but organic reality to the sound environment, a fuzzy sense of place. Sometimes the radio was excised from the final piece having impacted the sounds that did remain. There are many examples of radio-derived atmospheres in Holger’s catalogue and here was an acknowledged nod to his influence.
I wondered whether Jennifer had witnessed or taken part in any of the “in the margins” sessions for the second disc of Gone to Earth. It turns out that the existence of instrumental sketches was a surprise when the final product reached her. ‘I wasn’t involved in it, nor aware of it until it came out.’
A single release in the mid-’80s wouldn’t be complete without a remix of the track on 12″ vinyl (or even an odd-shaped 7″ picture disc). ‘Taking the Veil’ was no exception, and thankfully the mix was put together with a great deal more skill than many of the butchered extended versions of the time. Julian Mendelsohn was chosen – no doubt by the record company – who around this time was remixing acts such as Go West and the Pet Shop Boys. His reinterpretation of the number was a little less than two minutes longer than the album cut. With the possible exception of an early percussion explosion, Mendelsohn’s treatment is sympathetic to the instrumental feel, and I love the opportunity to hear specific elements of the mix that are brought to the fore at different times. The Czukay-inspired radio is isolated from the guitar, and we can enjoy individual riffs set in a new context against Jennifer Maidman’s diving bass notes. Robert Fripp’s solo is reimagined as a conversation with the guitar refrains of David Sylvian and Phil Palmer. Sylvian was reportedly less than impressed with the whole remix concept; Jennifer is more enthusiastic, ‘I thought it was good,’ she reflected. ‘He made good use of the raw material.’
‘I will always remember working on that song,’ Julian Mendelsohn told me, ‘it was a privilege to do so. I remember the recording was fantastic quality. I think it took a day to do the remix which was done at Sarm West studio 2 with (I think) Steve Fitzmaurice assisting. I don’t remember how the job came about. I didn’t get any feedback from David so assumed it was not to his liking, but other people really liked it.’
The inspiration for the title comes from Max Ernst’s quite shocking collage novel, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. Published in 1930, the dada artist takes hand-etched illustrations from books produced before the advent of photography and manipulates them to illustrate the dream of the protagonist, a young girl who loses her virginity on the day of her first communion and resolves to be a nun. It’s a bizarre and brutal surrealist tale.
Sylvian appears to have been seduced by the language rather than the book’s literal content, in a similar way to his reference to Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting on the following track. I sense none of the grisly darkness of novel’s storyline, but rather a response to the question posed by Ernst, ‘What do little girls dream of who want to take the veil?’ What is it that leads someone so young to yearn for a simple life of devotion? That seems an appropriate place to start for another suite of songs concerned with the search for spiritual truth as well as human fulfilment and love.
The songwriter cited ‘Taking the Veil’ as an example of a song built from a phrase that strongly resonated in his imagination. ‘The voice is there to give out a human emotion and lyrically to give clues to the listener – keys that can spark off a memory. The lyrics come before everything else. The first ideas I have are certain lines, certain trains of thoughts which are summed up in a sentence. From that I create an atmosphere – what those words mean to me. The lyrics are often the last thing to be completed but there are certain lines which run the whole way through.’
Sylvian’s words picture the traditional ornate white dress of a young girl at first communion, setting out on the voyage of life:
‘In dresses white, all set for sail
A little girl dreams of taking the veil’
It’s a portrayal of unblemished beauty and perfection:
‘On beaches clean of sand and shell
A little girl dreams of taking the veil’
And the youngster’s dream of ‘taking the veil’ (or holy orders as a nun) protects her from the storm, where the thunder and lightning might even be signs of a benign rather than a threatening power:
‘All lightning bright and thunder loud
A little girl dreams safe and sound’
The closing line of Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, provides a parallel thought:
‘Life, what is it but a dream?’
‘I’m proud of it; I think it’s a great record,’ is Jennifer’s reflection on Gone to Earth today. ‘I think it remains well loved too. I was involved with quite a few things in the ’80s that were considered a bit left field at the time. The kind of things we were doing weren’t necessarily easy to market from a record company’s point of view, so it’s gratifying that on the whole a lot of stuff has stood the test of time. I wouldn’t change anything. I think Gone to Earth is a very truthful representation of what David and a particular group of loosely affiliated musical artists were doing at that time; how we were thinking, creating, playing, interpreting and relating to each other. And I think that capturing of moments in time, that’s ultimately what recording is all about.’
‘Taking the Veil’
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye, from Gone to Earth, Virgin, 1986
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Recorded in London and Oxfordshire 1985-6
Thank you to Jennifer Maidman for contributing so generously to this article. Full sources and acknowledgments can be found here.
Download links: ‘Taking the Veil’ (iTunes)
‘It’s the title of a book by Max Ernst. It’s a kind of collage of poetry, and the image that it gave me was very strong. So, I just wrote down the lyrics quickly, and the music came immediately afterwards.’ David Sylvian, 1986