Early in 2020 Italian journalist and music critic Gabriele Ansaloni, aka Red Ronnie, invited guitarist Phil Palmer to appear on his online show. Over the course of their conversation he played Palmer a selection of vinyl featuring his contributions – just a small selection from over 500 albums on which he has appeared. Their conversation started with the story of Phil’s work with David Bowie and Iggy Pop on the latter’s album The Idiot, in particular his solos on ‘Nightclubbing’ where he was asked to reproduce the experience of walking by night down Wardour Street in London’s Chinatown and hearing the music tumbling into the streets from the various clubs as he passed.
Twenty minutes into the conversation Red Ronnie turns to Palmer’s work with David Sylvian, reminding him that he played on ‘Orpheus’ and ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’ from Secrets of a Beehive. Phil inspects the sleeve quizzically, ‘Really? I don’t remember!’ His host is incredulous that the guitarist doesn’t own copies of the classic Sylvian albums on which he appears. ‘I started to try to collect all the albums I played on but I gave up. There are too many.’
A sequence follows in which ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’ spins on the turntable as we watch Palmer’s reactions. Whereas Iggy Pop’s ‘Nightclubbing’ was evidently familiar from frequent listening over the years, here Phil instantly recognises his own musical phrases and styling but he doesn’t know the song. Red Ronnie beams with delight at sharing the moment, his eyes fixed on Palmer. I love seeing the surprised expressions as the track is played. ‘That’s me. It’s definitely me! Wow!’ I know this guitar introduction so well from decades of listening since Secrets... was released in 1987. I could close my eyes and hear it in my mind in real time. It’s incomprehensible to me that in that moment the musician who crafted it didn’t know the piece at all!
‘Astounding!’ says Phil as the last note decays into silence. ‘I have no recollection of doing it. But it’s definitely me. I know all the [gestures fretboard positions], all the stuff. Bizarre. You know I haven’t heard that since we did it, I don’t think.’ ‘I suggest you buy this record,’ jokes Ronnie, ‘there is a song in which there is a guitarist called Phil Palmer that plays very well!’
When Sylvian set out on his solo career he needed to forge a new way of working. One thing of which he felt certain was that session musicians were unlikely to produce the outcome for which he was searching. ‘I guess, initially when Japan broke up in ’82, I was a little worried as to how I was going to progress in that sense – working with different musicians. I was very worried about working with studio musicians in that they spend their lives moving from one session to another – being perfectly proficient players, but not having an emotional commitment to the work in some way. And I desperately desired that in the musicians that I worked with…’ (DS, 1999)
It’s interesting then that Phil Palmer was present on his three ’80s solo albums and Rain Tree Crow (1991). Phil’s recently published book, Session Man, self-styles him in the category of performer that Sylvian was not convinced could connect with his material. Palmer was evidently an exception to this rule. Music was in his blood, his parents and grandparents being players and his uncles being Ray and Dave Davies – The Kinks. When the music scene was buzzing in the big-budget days of the ’80s, the guitarist could barely keep up with the demand for his services. ‘I was doing sometimes three different sessions a day, going round the studios of London, for different artists, different types of music. It goes flashing by you as you are going through your career, and it wasn’t until I started to research myself that I found out just how busy I’d been.’
Remarkably for one so prolific, Phil was not proficient at reading music but had developed an approach that bore fruit with those who were enlisting his talents. ‘I felt that I could walk into any studio with confidence and within ten minutes establish an understanding with the artist and the producer, I could easily connect on a personal level to their sense of humour, musical preferences and style,’ he writes in Session Man. ‘Once that kind of connection was made the music would take care of itself. Generally I would be given a brief of the type of guitar part they were looking for and there were two little tricks I used regularly to help with the process. The first was always to write out my own parts even if they had prepared some for me; the primary reason for this was my inability to sight read music…If the producer wanted that they would need to book someone else…So writing out my own part was a way of learning the tune before actually playing anything. I could normally do this in one pass focusing where necessary on any complicated sections.
‘My second trick was to work on finding the sound they were shooting for, whilst not trying to look like I was using the opportunity to better learn the parts. During this process they would often give me some indication of the style they were expecting and it gave me another opportunity to learn the changes, so generally after an hour or so we were making good progress.’
Having watched Phil’s interview with Red Ronnie and devoured his book, I was eager to ask him more about his work with David Sylvian. How did he become involved with the ’80s solo LPs, starting with Brilliant Trees in 1984? ‘Steve Nye was the catalyst on these albums,’ Phil told me. ‘I had worked with him previously on a Murray Head album called Shade recorded on a mobile studio set-up at a villa in the South of France: a joyous and memorable occasion. I’m almost certain that it was Steve’s recommendation that brought me together with David.’
Shade was released just as Japan were splitting in 1982. ‘I was aware of Japan but it was David’s voice that stood out – fresh and very interesting,’ Phil remembers. Steve Nye co-produced the album, as he did the follow-up Restless, a record which introduced Jennifer Maidman to Murray Head’s band, and through Steve Nye into Sylvian’s orbit (see ‘Taking the Veil’). Indeed, Maidman and Palmer perform with Murray Head to this day.
Nye played a pivotal role in the evolution of Shade, displaying ‘the ability to unravel ideas from the disorganised chaotic ramblings that Murray presented as songs,’ says Phil. His presence for the Brilliant Trees, Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive sessions was a welcome one for the guitarist.
‘Steve was able to draw on his own substantial musical knowledge and experience while putting guitar parts down. I enjoyed his input, it gave me freedom to develop and perfect ideas. He is a fine musician himself. Steve for me was kind of essential: seemingly the only person around, certainly then, qualified and experimental enough to explore David’s music to its full potential.’
What characteristics set Nye apart as ‘experimental’? ‘To be daring and able to “think outside the normal”, to try things out and recognise when an idea should be developed.’
The introduction to ‘When Poets…’, laid down at Air studios in London, is itself a great example of this approach in action. It’s such an unusual sound palette for an album in the pop genre, equally as striking as the unconventional brass orchestration on ‘Let the Happiness In’. I’ve always wondered to what extent this opening sequence was assembled from a number of performances or rehearsals, and how such a unique arrangement was developed.
‘‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’… it’s an extraordinary piece this. I was definitely left to my own devices in what sounds like two or three random takes expertly edited and nailed together by Steve. It’s possible I was monitoring one take while playing the other as I’m bouncing ideas back and forth.
‘Steve and I were interested in the percussive nature of the acoustic guitar, almost flamenco in style, for ‘…Poets’. To achieve this effect we would often put a piece of foam next to the bridge under the strings as a mute which became known as “lagging”.’
Sylvian hinted that the flamenco style adopted could be considered to be among the ‘references to the passionate temperament’ on the album.
‘The guitar is probably my nylon string Takamine for the solo sections,’ Phil observes, ‘but it sounds like there’s a regular steel string acoustic in there too creating the rhythm track, using the fretting hand to dampen the strings.’
Sylvian has described Secrets of the Beehive as ‘the album on which I gave the musicians involved the most limited amount of freedom…there was less room for interpretation than on other projects I’d been involved with. I demoed most, if not all of the material and created roughs for the orchestral arrangements, etc. I knew what I was looking for and all in all the guidelines were fairly specific. Not that individuals didn’t have room to find their voices within the material, but everyone had been chosen specifically for their contributions to particular compositions.’ (2010)
He continued to find the chemistry with his guest players inspiring. ‘To be able to work with those musicians is a wonderful experience, it just opens up all possibilities. It makes anything possible in the studio to have people that are that technically proficient at their particular instruments.’
Phil’s remembrance is that the ’80s sessions with Nye and Sylvian were mostly undertaken with just the three of them present, rather than routinely recording in the company of other performers. He found Sylvian’s approach as open as Nye’s: ‘David encouraged input. It was always a joy to work with him.’
Indeed, Palmer’s contribution to ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’ changed Sylvian’s original thoughts about how the piece should be presented. ‘The song section of this piece of music was well mapped out in advance, so there wasn’t too much freedom as far as that went,’ he recalled in an interview as the LP was released. ‘The end section when the percussion enters was only meant to last originally for about thirty seconds, it was meant to fade pretty quickly. But the guitar solo was so good that we just couldn’t fade it out. We added more to it, we added more percussion and trumpet to it and kept the whole piece as it stood to the end of the recording.
‘I still think a song should have a beginning and an end,’ Sylvian continues, ‘it was just in this particular instance I thought it was a nice way to end the piece with this short percussion break which would fade out…but the reason I’ve left it as it is, is because it was too good to fade out and it was unnatural to fade it out at that point. The song was still growing, the solo was only just beginning, so it had to end, had to resolve itself.’
The extended arrangement affords us the pleasure of enjoying a variety of percussion which enters the mix as the closing line is sung, and some understated, atmospheric trumpet from Mark Isham, extended single notes that are the equivalent of a synthesiser wash in Sylvian’s acoustic setting for Secrets…
Interviewed for Anthony Reynolds’ book Cries and Whispers, percussionist Danny Cummings recalled his experience in the studio with Sylvian and Nye as this closing section was developed. ‘There was a real rapport between us and I remember feeling terrifically excited as these incredible songs towered above me, but somehow I felt comfortable and very much at home. Once the thing was set in motion it flowed and I felt uninhibited. Neither David nor Steve tried to “programme” me, as some would. So it was spontaneous, in a way that it is very rarely.
‘As things began to fall into place then further direction was given as to where things might be best placed, like the castanets on ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’ and the main wood block part in that song that David had already heard in his head, so I worked around that, doing my thing. That song in particular was great fun to do percussion-wise. It was carefully constructed but not at all laborious, and there were lots of nodding of heads and smiles through the glass. The “door slamming” sound was actually a drum, a surdo.’ (2018)
The song’s lyric was startling. After Palmer’s intricate guitar-work introduction we are plunged into a shocking scene of domestic violence.
‘She rises early from bed
Runs to the mirror
The bruises inflicted in moments of fury
He kneels beside her once more
Whispers a promise
“Next time I’ll break every bone in your body”’
The beauty of the music belies the violence in the storyline. Were the two elements at odds? ‘Aggression can surface in other ways,’ Sylvian said. ‘Just the opening line to ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’ has an aggressive feel to it. And the fact that it’s sung in a very laid-back way I find more threatening than if it was screamed out or if it was accompanied by very loud aggressive music. It’s just a matter of taste. I find other ways of expressing that kind of frustration and aggression – and violence.’
The lines that follow describe the victim caught in a situation where reality is concealed deep beneath the surface for the sake of appearances, where evident truth can be dismissed as fiction.
‘And the well-wishers let the devil in
And if the river ran dry they’d deny it happening’
From the situation in a specific relationship the song shifts wider to a societal context, the implication being that similar abuses of power can be exercised by those who hold sway over the masses.
‘As the cardplayers deal their hands
From the bottom of the deck
Row upon row of feudal houses blow away
Medicine for the popular complaint’
There’s a casual flippancy in the image of the card dealer’s sleight of hand but the implications of their actions are far-ranging. The string accompaniment for this section heightens the tension, a moment of Sakamoto magic.
‘Ryu is an extraordinarily generous musician and doesn’t feel the need to place his stamp on a performance or to interpret one’s ideas so as to give them a personal spin, although his playing remains unmistakably recognisable regardless. Whether it was the piano lines or the orchestral, he was generally working from my crude ideas and arrangements and reference points. The exception would be his wonderful arrangement for ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’, which I gave him no notes for, and his contributions on the Hammond organ [elsewhere on the album].’ (DS, 2010)
Whilst most of his work with Sylvian was in concentrated sessions with artist and producer, Phil Palmer did have the opportunity to witness Sylvian and Sakamoto at work together during his ’80s sessions. ‘I remember meeting Ryuichi at the studio. I was very impressed…he had a kind of superhero persona and the interaction between him and David was almost paranormal.’
‘When the poets dreamed of angels
What did they see?
The bishops and knights well placed to attack’
This song is set in an attractive world of artists and angels, contrasted against the sinister undertones of under-hand card trickery, subdued threat in the stately reference to chess-playing, and bitter reality of life in a violent relationship. So, where does Sylvian place the track in the overall context of Secrets of a Beehive? ‘The thing that runs throughout is – light within the darkness. So even in the darkest moments you can rise above circumstance. In ‘When Poets Dream…’ each couple of lines deals with an isolated act of violence or an unwillingness to recognise evil in the world. But at the same time it’s showing there’s always a way out. Living in the city isn’t easy, but you can find yourself within yourself, and cope. Start in a subdued way and finally rise.’
Having worked with so many artists, Phil Palmer has a unique perspective to reflect on the experience of collaborating with Sylvian. It was, he says, ‘joyous, experimental, rewarding! David was and probably still is an incredibly gifted writer and performer; often daring and always inventive. The world is missing albums of this quality, albums crafted with pure genius and freedom. Brilliant!’
‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’
String 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
The featured image of David Sylvian is by Nigel Grierson and features on the inner sleeve of the 2019 vinyl re-release of Secrets of a Beehive.
Thank you to Phil Palmer for his generous contribution to this article. All David Sylvian quotes are from interviews in 1987 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
Details of Phil Palmer’s book Session Man can be found here.
Download links: ‘When Poets Dreamed of Angels’ (iTunes)
‘David was a very interesting man, a very talented man too. I enjoyed working with him a lot.’ Phil Palmer, 2020