96. The Funniest Thing by Tom Verlaine

 

 

In the late 1980s the Television guitarist and frontman Tom Verlaine made a couple of albums for Fontana, Flash Light (1987) and The Wonder (released 1990 but allegedly made a couple of years earlier). Neither is considered by fans to be among Verlaine’s best solo work, but they have always meant a lot to me, Flash Light especially, because they were the first Verlaine albums I heard – I’m pretty sure I heard them before even Marquee Moon, which is ludicrous, like hearing Red Rose Speedway before Sergeant Pepper, but there you go.

I came to Verlaine as a Lloyd Cole fan seeking the well of Cole’s inspiration. The scale of Cole’s apparent borrowing from Verlaine shocked me at the time, but my sense now is that Verlaine was aware of Cole, who was on an affiliated label (Polydor) and would end up on Fontana himself a few years later, and that this awareness drove him to amplify mannerisms he noticed Cole emulating. Cole discussed his admiration for (and soul-bruising encounter with) Verlaine in a 2009 post on his website. Asked diplomatically whether there had been ‘controversy about their voices’, ie their similarity, Cole responded:

There wasn’t really any controversy with Tom. He was a huge hero of mine and when we were recording Rattlesnakes (1984) he was working with the same photographer we were, Peter Anderson. I asked Peter to see if Tom might want to visit us in the studio. Well, I won’t do that again. [Verlaine] was an embittered figure when we met him and this experience provided me with the negative role model of the man I hoped never to become. Shortly thereafter our version of Tom’s Glory [from the second Television album, Adventure] was released on the B-side of Forest Fire and for some reason or other, at this time, Tom wasn’t able to benefit financially from this. This misfortune became our fault, apparently. 

Then a year or so later, when Tom was releasing his latest solo album (one of the good ones, I might add – the first one he made for David Bates [head of A&R at Fontana. The album LC means is Flash Light]), some journalist made the hideous error of comparing Tom’s singing to mine. He wasn’t amused. Word got around that Tom thought I had ripped off his style… Well, I let it be known that I’d love to play guitar like Tom, but if I thought I sang like him then I might think of getting another job. Listening to the Television records today, I stand by that – everything is as good as it could possibly be, except for the singing. There you have it.

This is fascinating, if slightly unfair about Verlaine’s voice which, while not as rich or robust as Cole’s, is still distinctive and serves the material well. Would Cole say the same thing about Bob Dylan’s voice? Of course not.

(If you want another story about Verlaine turning up at a studio in a weird mood and freaking people out, read this from Chris O’Leary’s incredible Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame.)

Verlaine’s 1984 album Cover, his last for Virgin, doesn’t sound anything like Lloyd Cole. It’s post-punk angular; like Talking Heads but with fewer hummable tunes and Verlaine’s guitar set throughout to ‘buzz-saw’. (Lots of people think it’s his best solo record. I’m not sure. But then I don’t think Speaking In Tongues is Talking Heads’ best record. If that makes any sense.) Move on a couple of years, though, and it’s hard to hear a song like Flash Light’s The Funniest Thing without thinking of Cole’s delivery on Rattlesnakes’ Down On Mission Street or even Minor Character from the mostly soporific Easy Pieces (1985).

The Funniest Thing’s spring-loaded verse gives way to a jaunty, swaggering chorus that always reminds me of Julie Burchill’s deadly slap-down of Rattlesnakes: ‘I have no need of a Country & Western Velvet Underground.’

Watching you mix up the paint

Brush away the questions now

Ask another favour of whoever

You say it’s failure not contempt

That makes an honest fool of you

I think I’ll use a lighter blue

There’s a reason for that

But I don’t want to talk much about it

Isn’t that the funniest thing

The song seems, fittingly, to be about the tension between pure artistic instinct and commercial compromise. Two artists are painting together, analysing their respective approaches and insecurities. One prefers to explain motivation, the other to keep silent on the grounds that what matters, what needs above all to be captured, is the inarticulate speech of the heart. The lyric then morphs opaquely into a relationship lyric, a Blood On The Tracks-type lyric. (I’d concur absolutely with Matt Cibula’s admission in a piece he wrote on Verlaine for Pop Matters that ‘there are plenty of things on Flash Light that are hard for me to listen to because they are so nakedly emotional and strange’.) It works beautifully, and the clear, chiming guitar solo is like the purest mountain air; yet also keening and unconsoled.

Patti Smith: ‘Tom plays guitar like a thousand bluebirds screaming.’

 

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The way Verlaine tells it, he was actually behind Phonogram’s late-1980s reactivation of Fontana. In a 2006 interview with Pop Culture Press magazine he is quite rude about David Bates, so I’m quoting selectively here for fear of repeating a libel:

I was on Virgin and this guy from Phonogram kept calling me and so I had dinner with him and I made a deal to get off of Virgin and get onto Phonogram, and I said ‘Don’t you own the Fontana name?’ and he said ‘I think we do’ and I said ‘Well, why don’t we start Fontana over because it’s such a cool logo and it’s a neat thing, and [it had] people like Scott Walker and Miles Davis had that soundtrack album on it…’

But predictably, it didn’t work out.

[Fontana] just had crazy ideas about commerciality, which is basically just mixing and mixing and mixing, and this is the horror of the whole modern record business – getting the guy who mixed the latest hits from blah-blah to mix your record and thus ensure it will be played on the radio when the mix will have nothing to do with what you actually want or are doing. Plus, all of these people overcharge like crazy.

One’s instinct is to sympathise with Verlaine. But just to be fair: Fontana had a bracingly eclectic roster in the late 1980s/early 1990s on which The Lilac Time, Cocteau Twins, Pere Ubu, Tom Tom Club and Julian Cope sat alongside James, Robert Plant, Oleta Adams and Tears For Fears. Verlaine was in good, sympathetic company – potentially, at least. From what I can gather, the tipping point in terms of tension was Tears For Fears being reassigned to Fontana from Mercury for Sowing The Seeds Of Love (1989), a bloated mastodon which sucked up all available marketing oxygen and now stands proud as a symbol of the decadence of the recorded music industry in its short-lived imperial phase (approx 1985-1998). Though spare a thought for Tears For Fears themselves, who didn’t enjoy their stint as Biggest Band In The World and were engagingly honest about this whole period when interviewed for Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein’s entertaining new book Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s. Roland Orzabal: ‘I had absolutely no sense – no commercial sense and no business sense – and no-one was really arguing with me.’

But we shall come to Tears For Fears presently.

So how did Fontana’s ‘crazy ideas about commerciality’ impact negatively on Flash Light and The Wonder? In the case of Flash Light, it’s hard to say. The band are familiar faces: Jimmy Ripp on guitar (allegedly – Verlaine has since denied it), Allen Schwartzberg on drums, Fred Smith on bass. The album is nominally produced by Verlaine and Smith. The exception is The Scientist Writes A Letter, which has Andy Newmark on drums and was recorded in London at Sarm West with Tears For Fears’ engineer Dave Bascombe co-producing. It’s an understated but moving song in the form of a scientist’s farewell letter to the lover he has found he cannot share with his work (‘Unless chance finds us face to face again/This is the last you’ll hear from me…’), not dissimilar in tone to My October Symphony from Pet Shop Boys’ Behaviour (1990). The tidal washes of cheap-sounding synth spoil it for me (and I have a high tolerance for cheap-sounding synths), but apart from that, and allowing for the late-1980s weakness for thumping, compressed drums, nothing about the mix for Flash Light by Paul O’Duffy screams ‘offensive’ to me from this distance.

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Verlaine hated it, though; hated it even more than the mix for The Wonder, which to my ears is much more dated and clunky: ‘In terms of a sound thing, maybe half of The Wonder isn’t as bad in terms of a mix as Flash Light is. I still like those songs and he [O’Duffy] couldn’t screw it up too much because what’s on tape is what’s on tape, but certainly putting in all of these drum samples doesn’t help it.’

(O’Duffy has had considerable success as a producer, overseeing albums like Curiosity Killed The Cat’s Keep Your Distance (1987) and Swing Out Sister’s It’s Better To Travel (1987), neither of which I’m guessing Verlaine has on his iPod. More recently, he worked with Amy Winehouse, co-writing Wake Up Alone on Back To Black (2006). It’s probably fair to say that Flash Light wasn’t the kind of album he woke in the middle of the night with a raging desperation to mix.)

Here, for comparison, is August from The Wonder – lugubrious arthouse funk in the style of Duran Duran’s Notorious (1986) which sounded hideously dated in 1990, though a kind of flattening effect pertains with shifts in pop vernacular whereby you notice them a little less with each passing year. Anyway, Fontana packed The Wonder off to Julian Mendelsohn for mixing. You can guess how that must have gone down.

Verlaine: I did the record in the States, turned it in, heard nothing from the label and I figured that they’d thrown me off and I called somebody in England who said ‘You’d better call your label’ and I called the label and they said ‘Oh, your record’s coming out in two weeks. Didn’t someone talk to you about coming over here?’ I said ‘No-one ever told me that the record’s coming out.’ I asked who mixed it and she said, ‘You don’t know anything about it…?’ 

Here, to conclude, is Verlaine playing two songs from Flash Light on The Tube in 1987, backed by another David Bates act, Love And Money. In 1992 Television reformed – an event I will deal with in a later post.

 

 

 

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