On the 26th of April 1999, Adrian Borland, a man who had spent a significant part of his adult life dealing with manic depression, took the decision to end his own life.
The signs had been there for the best part of two decades, be they behavioural or lyrical. The lyrics Adrian Borland composed for his bands The Outsiders, Second Layer, or with his greatest artistic achievement, the South London 80’s post-punk pop outfit The Sound, were a glimpse into a troubled mind set to music. One of the first lines to “I Can’t Escape Myself”, the opening track on their debut LP Jeopardy, lays it out there for all to see: “Left all alone, I'm with the one I most fear / I'm sick and tired of reasoning / Just want to break out, shake off this skin”.
The Sound have achieved 'lost band' status. It’s almost a cliché to describe them as such, but it’s a status that was affixed to them while active, and one that fits even more so now. They lurked in the shadows of Joy Division initially, then as their grind through the 80s began, their status remained the same - just the band names of those who stole their thunder changed; whether it be U2, The Smiths, The Teardrop Explodes, or one time label mates Echo and The Bunnymen. It’s inexplicable for fans of these bands to not know of them, but the question “Do you know The Sound?”, is normally followed by a negative answer.
Critically acclaimed throughout their existence, they were continually ignored by record buyers. Their main issue was that they were releasing music that was staunchly indie in sound, but released on major labels, the expectation of whom was too much for a band big in sound, but low in world beating potential. The hang over of punk ideals – never sign to a major - was still prevalent at this time and proved to be a massive stumbling block, something the band failed to recover from even when they did eventually sign to an indie toward the end of their existence. This was a time when the word 'indie' actually had some kind of meaning; let’s face the facts, the world was hardly crying out for another anguished, blustery rock band in the early to mid 80s, but the fact fly by night rock acts such as The Alarm and Big Country enjoyed major crossover success must have hung heavy over an artist with such weary shoulders to handle such a burden.
Most of their albums spent decades out of print, with Discogs and eBay being the only place to find vinyl copies of the vinyl, and as for CDs, one lone repress in 2002 has long since been deleted. That's what makes the two recently issued box sets which contain their entire ouput so essential. These are records that you had to seek out and pay major money for, but for now at least, they're all back on the shelves, re-mastered, with additional tracks. Alas, the fact these re-issues have trickled out with a frustratingly typical lack of fanfare is probably something the two living members of the band must have come to expect by now.
It's a body of work way too impressive to just dip into half-heartedly. All five albums and one EP provide essential listening. 1981’s From The Lion's Mouth and the following year’s fuck you to their record label, All Fall Down, a kind of Kid A of the early 80s, are their absolute best, but all six of them are beautiful pieces of work, devoid of deserving attention, but totally essential.
There's a lot of music here. You should go and listen to it yourself, but as a pointer, here are some key tracks to each of their long players.
Originally recorded by Borland’s previous group The Outsiders and included on The Sound’s debut album Jeopardy, this dramatic highlight was also the showpiece of their live set. The version included on their live album In The Hot House shows off what an incendiary live act The Sound were. Borland’s protest about missiles "Who the hell makes those missiles / when you know what they can do?" is accompanied by slashes of post punk guitar doom and a bullet sharp rhythm section. Live, they extended to the track to around the ten minute mark allowing Borland’s impassioned protests against the weapons of destruction to spiral thrillingly out of control.
"Sense of Purpse" (1981)
This should've been the crossover hit. Urgent, slightly threatening and with the right amount of bombast, U2 - arguably listening pretty closely at the time - should have been sued for their blatant pilferage of it on their 1983 album War. Their track “Two Hearts Beat As One” in particular is the work of Borland in all but name, but it's without the emotional lyrical poetry of this number - could Bono ever come up with something as hopelessly desolate as "I'll take my life into my own hands / I'm the one that I will blame / I'm the one who understands" and make it as catchy as this?
"All Fall Down" (1982)
The title track to their third album. After flirting with the mainstream with From The Lions Mouth, the inevitable major label interference (they were signed to Warners subsidiary Korova at the time) began. They insisted on a catchy album of pop hits to recoup the cash spent so far, but the band went the other way and recorded an album where the title track doesn't even have a chorus. There’s no sign of a hook, just the sound of internal fear accompanied by electronic beats, shouted lyrics and ugly synthesized cacophony.
"New Wave Of Life" (1984)
Perhaps their best track, and certainly their funkiest. Released on the EP Shock of Daylight, it contains some of Borland’s bleakest lyrics, cleverly masked behind a firey punk-pop tune, the kind absent mindedly hummed by the masses without knowing the kind of artistic despair that gave birth to it (“Looks like an open road / what’s up ahead / with opened arms, I’m frightened too / looks like a new way of life, takes me away from you”). The surging synths and transcendent guitar solo that follows evokes images of a lost soul trying desperately to find a glimmer of light within the oppressive darkness of reality, but ultimately failing.
"World As It Is" (1985)
Probably the most anxious thing they recorded with Borland at his most tormented: “I’ve arrived at the point somewhere in between / the person that I wanted to be and the person I’ve been”. It's backed with one of the best performances of the band as a whole. The furious pianos and chiming guitars which predate the shoegaze sound by at least five years, are underpinned by some of the greatest rock drumming of all time (Listen to the clanking percussion of Radiohead’s “Reckoner”, then head to this track - there’s severe lineage).
Back in the 80s, tiny indie rock acts having one off Top 20 hits were a regular occurrence. The likes of The Railway Children, Lotus Eaters, Brilliant and Dream Academy all managed to have genuine crossover hits, only to disappear as quickly as they appeared. These were bands who were quietly going about their business, but once success struck, they were all derailed by record label demand. “Kinetic” of course wasn't a hit, but if it was released as a single, then maybe the subsequent future of the band after the failure of the parent album of this track may have panned out differently. It’s shiny, bright and almost optimistic.
Massively under-rated but totally essential, The Sound are one of the most important UK rock bands of the 1980s with an almost perfect back catalogue waiting to tell you its story. There’s also a documentary on Borland’s life currently in pre-production. But for now, these hugely welcome box-sets will tell you all you need to know. Please, don’t miss out for a third time.