As the sun set on an artistically fruitful 1980s and a new decade dawned, collaborative projects would be the primary outlet for David Sylvian. ‘For the past almost three or four years, I’ve being going through quite a powerful emotional change in my life and it took me a long time to come to terms with what was happening. So I thought, rather than just slogging away without getting to grips with it, I should perhaps collaborate and allow myself to work more on the spur of the moment,’ he explained in 1991, as the eagerly awaited reunion project of the former members of Japan – Rain Tree Crow – was first shared with an intrigued audience.
‘The idea was to have a loose outfit of musicians and just respond to the characters involved,’ said Sylvian, ‘which was actually fun.’ As Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Sylvian entered the studio in France in the September of 1989, there was a firm commitment to a new way of working from all involved: developing material from scratch in the studio environment rather than bringing in compositions written in isolation and further developed in the rehearsal room (see ‘Red Earth (as summertime ends)’). All parties were eager to discover where this new musical path might lead.
‘Previously we all used to rehearse material for weeks on end,’ remembered Barbieri, ‘get it into shape and go into the studio knowing more or less what we were doing. Probably one of the main reasons for going back into the studio was having a challenge – not knowing what was going to happen.’
‘Japan was based around my writing,’ said Sylvian, ‘and we would then arrange my pieces. So this album was obviously dramatically different. We were writing and performing in the studio together. We just set up with no pre-rehearsals and started to play – and after a day or two things began to happen. Actually, on the first day things began to happen – you just play for a few hours and things begin to gel and there would be this eye contact in the room, and you’d know that everybody felt that you were getting somewhere, something was taking place. We would go with it and see where it would lead us – it was very interesting.’
‘Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City’ was, Steve Jansen said, ‘the first track that we did and was pretty much live and improvised.’ A recorded laugh is the tantalising start, with synthesiser atmospherics overtaken as Steve Jansen’s crisp acoustic drums kick in alongside Mick Karn’s thick-as-oil meandering bass. As the piece builds, it can be tricky to distinguish whether what we are hearing is generated by keyboard, acoustic instrument or guitar. The ‘Wah Wah’ sensation is from Karn’s processed saxophone and it is evident that parts were worked up and overlaid through successive jams, with numerous guitar textures in evidence from rasping overdrive to blues-tinged lines. Imagine the eye contact between the musicians as they struck their first gold.
‘By the end of the first block of time,’ Mick Karn recalled, ‘I was surprised and pleased with the overall results. The tracks sounded hard and rough, even downright powerful as in ‘Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City’, and the vocals, the best I’d ever heard David sing, more natural and fearless, and so totally uncontrived.’ (2009)
Other members also emphasised the muscle in the music. ‘There’s quite a lot of aggression on the album,’ said Richard Barbieri. ‘ We haven’t previously gone in for that, all the stuff’s been harmonically pretty, but I like that side of it. I think there is more ‘rock’ than our other albums. There are phrases and sequences that are more blues and sometimes rock. I used to like Led Zeppelin; I think it’s all coming back…’
Steve Jansen agreed: ‘That’s something I’ve always been aware of, we all enjoy listening to quite rough and ready music, and yet we rarely get that quality in our music – although we’ve tried to with this album. We have a tendency to over-polish what we do; with this album we haven’t done that. I hope that’s what will come across.’
Just because ‘Blackcrow…’ was the first piece to emerge did not, however, mean it was the easiest to shape for the ultimate release. In fact, Sylvian admitted, ‘That was one of the most difficult pieces for me. It surfaced, I think, on the second day of recording and it was the only piece where the band were totally confident that a piece would work. On all the other pieces there was somebody who was a little unsure about whether it was working.
‘I worked on this piece obsessively, trying to make some sense of the structure of it, but the band themselves found the piece complete as it was. I was working alone and also against everyone else because they weren’t really in favour of me taking it any further. The vocal went on at the very end because I was trying to avoid putting a vocal on it at all, then I got Bill [Nelson] in to play some guitar. Once I’d got Bill’s guitar on, it began to fall into shape. I could see there was a structure with the right dynamics to make it work for me, but there wasn’t a dynamic peak as such so I had to put the vocal on. I had the idea, but I had to get to that point where I recognised it was absolutely necessary.’
It was a delicate decision for this project as to whether a vocal should be added. Would it change the focus or undermine the objectives that they shared? ‘I guess I was most in favour of doing an instrumental album,’ Sylvian said, ‘but often it would be mentioned that a vocal would suit a piece and we’d try a few ideas out. The problem lies in that there aren’t enough soloists in this particular band, and the vocals are a capable solo instrument as such. Otherwise we’d be constantly resorting to the same instruments over and over again, treating them and so on – which is what we did. We treated the saxophone in various ways, and the bass clarinet makes numerous appearances. We got a few guitarists in to compensate for my lack of ability. Basically we were trying to keep it all in the family rather than get too many people involved.’
Interestingly, whilst Bill Nelson’s guitar playing was acknowledged to be the key that unlocked the arrangement, the album credits for the original release don’t include him for this song, indicating that all the guitar parts for ‘…Blackcrow’ are contributed by Sylvian himself. I had assumed for many years that this was an example of an approach that would later be noted on the Sylvian/Fripp project which followed, where parts were added that significantly influenced the evolution of a piece, later to be erased before the final mix was completed having fulfilled their purpose as creative catalyst. However, the 2003 cd re-release of the album does introduce a credit for both Nelson and Michael Brook for this track, for ‘‘Blue’ Guitar’ and ‘Infinite Guitar’ respectively.
In composing the words, Sylvian was keen to respect the nature of the project whilst still being true to himself. ‘I was aware of not putting too much emphasis on the lyrics because it was a group project and the focus shouldn’t be on the singer but, even in trying to simplify the lyrics, certain images crept in that were pertinent to the emotional struggle I was going through.
‘I mean, the image of crow is a symbol that became more and more relevant. I developed this fascination with crows a while back. I somehow felt a sense of being related to this image of the crow whenever I would see them. I bought some crow art-pieces, I bought some books about them and, although I hadn’t worked out why that was, over a period of time, I came to realise that it was this dark emotional experience I was going through personified. In some oblique way, it enabled me to objectify this experience onto this symbolic bird, and then deal with it.’
‘The beat of his wings
As Blackcrow descends
Stealing somebody else’s fire’
Sylvian soon realised that he was adopting imagery laden with mythical significance. ‘Somehow there’s all this historical relevance which I had no idea of before actually dealing with this symbol. It’s having all these fascinating, exciting resonances.’
‘His suffering’s no cause for pity
As Blackcrow hits Shoe Shine city’
‘I’ve been going through quite a negative time, intense… a lot of things came up about my past which I found very difficult to deal with,’ said Sylvian. ‘So I went into analysis for a while and I found it really interesting to get to grips analytically with what was going on, especially as it was totally against my nature. My primary instincts are spiritual but I think it’s a mistake to jump straight into that area because spiritual awareness is such a nebulous thing that if the mind is discoloured by experiences in this life, it’s so powerful it can conjure up anything you think you need to believe in. It’s quite dangerous in that respect.
‘So going into analysis was a kind of clearing out process and it helped me to understand myself a tremendous amount. It’s ongoing, it never ends. It’s never, “Well, I’ve done it now, I understand”. The more you know, the more there is to know.’
Just as professional analysis helped make sense of these troubles, so did his art. ‘I found that the symbol of the crow became very relevant for me and by being able to objectify this emotional experience, with this symbol, with the image of the crow, it became part of the healing process.’
‘The gods burned his wings
Struck dumb for his crimes
Now Blackcrow descends on Shoe Shine’
Sylvian’s lyric embraces core elements of traditional crow mythology. Often portrayed as a bird originally adorned with white feathers, the creature is blackened by fire in retribution, for instance by the god Apollo in Greek myth for bringing the news of the betrayal of his mistress Coronis in marrying a mortal, Ischys. The crow’s hoarse call was as a result of being cursed by Apollo to be eternally thirsty as a result of dishonesty in a quest to collect water from a spring.
Elsewhere, for instance in the myths of indigenous North American people, the crow is seen as Creator, setting in place the sun, moon and stars and bringing water and fire to the world.
There was also inspiration from poetry. ‘I came across Ted Hughes’ Crow and it was very close to what I was dealing with and I found that interesting. And then there was what the crow symbolises generally – the blackness of the crow has been related in history and different cultures as like the light out of chaos, light out of darkness… it’s that state before the light comes through which is quite in keeping with my negative state of mind waiting to be alleviated.’
All of these stimuli seemed to embody the purpose of art itself in a very tangible way. Sylvian: ‘The function of art in society is to create space where consciousness can be reached and you find, within that space, the room to ask questions. Questioning is the road to self-awareness and art can define the parameters within which that question may be asked – the quality of that question, let’s say.’ When so much of human experience is about de-sensitising ourselves as a coping mechanism, for instance through escapist entertainment, the artist provokes precisely the opposite. ‘To me, art in society is humanity’s way of sensitising itself. It’s a sensitising process. It’s ongoing.’
Ted Hughes explained how his work Crow – From the Life and Songs of the Crow, came into being. ‘Crow grew out of an invitation by Leonard Baskin to make a book with him simply about crows. He wanted an occasion to add more crows to all the crows that flock through his sculpture, drawings, and engravings in their various transformations. As the protagonist of a book, a crow would become symbolic in any author’s hands. And a symbolic crow lives a legendary life. That is how Crow took off.’ (1985)
The legend of Hughes’ making came from the trickster tradition of crow folklore. A character who enjoys secret insight and uses it to disrupt established rules and to challenge conventional behaviour.
‘When Crow was white he decided the sun was too white.
He decided it glared much too whitely.
He decided to attack it and defeat it.
He got his strength flush and in full glitter.
He clawed and fluffed his rage up.
He aimed his beak direct at the sun’s centre.’
‘But the sun brightened –
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.
He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.
“Up there”, he managed,
“Where white is black and black is white, I won.”‘
excerpts from ‘Crow’s Fall’ by Ted Hughes
Sylvian’s brief lyrical sketch of his own Blackcrow seems to embody the same spirit as the crow of Hughes’ imagination. In his descent on ‘Shoe Shine city’ we see the untamed primeval forces of nature pitted directly against the gloss veneer of human society. The poet Stephen Spender’s description of Hughes’ work springs to mind. ‘Some of the most terrifying (and terrifyingly funny) passages in Crow give one the sense that this is the nightmare reality behind the American or world dream of salesman-ship and television.’ (1971)
The symbol was also present in the title of both band and album, and in the visuals of the promotional video for the single ‘Blackwater’. ‘It’s something I could only touch on with this album, but at the moment I have the idea to continue the story of crow for a while and see where it leads me,’ said Sylvian. And as for his personal experience: ‘I’m still going through that. I’m still dealing with it. I’m still writing material where the imagery is crow-based…It’s becoming more and more fascinating.’
In 2016 some outtakes from the Jansen/Barbieri/Karn sessions for their 1999 album _ism were released on a 10″ vinyl and in digital format. As mentioned elsewhere (see ‘Red Earth (as summertime ends)’) the instrumentals on _ism often put me in mind of the Rain Tree Crow vibe and these additional recordings are a great addition to the previously available work by JBK. ‘Outtake-2’ is an instrumental alternative recording of the vocal track ‘To the Core’ from the original album, but in this manifestation provides a companion to ‘Blackcrow…’, the distorted guitar parts here provided by long-time collaborator, Masami Tsuchiya.
‘Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City’
Richard Barbieri – synthesisers; Michael Brook – infinite guitar; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion; Mick Karn – bass, ‘Wah Wah’ saxophone; Bill Nelson – ‘blue’ guitar; David Sylvian – electric organ, electric piano, treatments, guitars, synthesisers, vocals.
Music by Rain Tree Crow. Words by David Sylvian.
Produced by Rain Tree Crow. From Rain Tree Crow by Rain Tree Crow, Virgin, 1991.
Engineered by Pat McCarthy. Mixed by David Sylvian and Steve Nye at Olympic Studios, London.
Computer programming by Steve Jansen. Keyboard programming by Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian.
Recorded between September 1989 and April 1990 at Miraval Studios, Le Val, France; Condulmer Studio, Zerman di Mogliano, Italy; Marcus Studios, London; Air Studios, London; The Wool Hall, Bath; Ropewalk Studio, Dublin; Mega Studios, Paris, France; Eel Pie Studios, London.
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
All artist quotes in this article are from interviews in 1991 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements can be found here.
Download link: ‘Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City’ (Apple); ‘Outtake-2’ (bandcamp)
Physical media: Rain Tree Crow (Amazon); Breakable Moons (10″ vinyl – bandcamp)
Ted Hughes’ Crow can be purchased here (Amazon)
‘Some of the images are of a personal symbolic nature – such as the crow for example, which has become an important symbol for me in a way, to somehow indirectly deal with a rather complex emotional relationship that I’m going through at the moment.’ David Sylvian, 1991
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One thought on “Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City”
This is (for me) the first day of the new (mature) academic year (level 3 study), but I felt compelled to read this first, I loved everything about the piece, VB, thank you. The Bill Nelson (I first bought a little of his pop work in 1976) connection, the emotion, the ‘aggression’, the spiritual, the reality. The beginning of change within the world of popular music and the much wider, deeper changes, that the online world, was bringing. The intelligence of the crow. Corvids are wonderful survivors, adapters, I have my own lockdown experiences of a certain jackdaw (2020)… Also, one of my favourite assemblages of musicians, something of a dream team of a creative unit, in a similar manner of gelling as, Ziggy & the Spiders or, The (original) Who…We’re just getting over Covid (after avoiding it totally for three years), following our first proper holiday in nine years. Many thanks to the NHS et al, especially the vaccine originators, developers and deliverers…
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