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.
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‘an explosion of frustration’
‘Red Guitar’ was the first song heard from Brilliant Trees, being the advance single heralding Sylvian’s debut album. But when we carefully removed the vinyl from its designer inner-sleeve for the inaugural play of a Sylvian solo LP, it was ‘Pulling Punches’ that launched our ride into the unknown. And what an explosive, energetic opener it is.
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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.
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I find it amazing how listening to a piece of music can take you back to a specific time and place. I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard ‘Let the Happiness In’. It was my first year in work after university, which involved taking a number of one week courses in Birmingham (UK), staying away from home. September 1987, Sylvian’s new single was coming out and I would be in Birmingham. I had to get my hands on a copy so, when the classes had finished on the day of release, I headed straight for one of the large record stores in town. As I climbed to the first floor, that introduction came over the powerful sound system… It caught my attention although I didn’t know what it was until the vocal started. Realising this was the new song I stood and listened to it for the first time, then grabbed my copy of the 12″ single (still an absolute favourite with the ‘Buoy’ remix and gem ‘Blue of Noon’ on the b-side) and headed out, prize in hand.
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