Artists-On-Albums: AOA#10 (Piano Magic’s Glen Johnson on North Marine Drive)

Glen Johnson (Piano Magic, Textile Ranch, Future Conditional) on…

Ben Watt’s North Marine Drive (Cherry Red, 1983)

Ben Watt - North Marine Drive (front cover)

There’s a striking resemblance, at least in the fashion stakes, between me in 1983 and Ben Watt on the reverse of this, his debut (and only) solo album that year. The short-back-and-sides coupled with a Silvikrin hairspray-contained quiff, the knee length ‘old man’s’ raincoat and the charity shop crewneck.

My small pack of college buddies and I were a circus mirror reflection of our allegiance to three things – The Smiths, 4AD and Factory Records. Archetypal sensitive young men; romantic, pale and perpetually miserable about nothing in particular. We spent three years at the Heanor College Of Further Education, avoiding lessons as creatively as we could, though mostly driving around Derbyshire crammed into a battered blue mini, blasting out New Order’s Lowlife, The Wake’s Here Comes Everybody and oddly, The Durutti Column’s pseudo-classical opus, Without Mercy.

Though cursed with one of the worst imaginable band names, Everything But The Girl were already on my radar in 1983, probably thanks to my elder brother’s weekly delivery of NME and Sounds.  I’d already picked up their debut single, a minimal, monochrome cover of Cole Porter’s “Night & Day,” beautifully nestled in dusty hall reverb.  Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn seemed to have slipped in quietly through the same door The Smiths had just busted open and behind them, a flood of young (new) romantics followed.  What I heard in EBTG and what attracted me so closely was the sound of newly-found love at a time when I was starting, rather desperately, to find it.

Though Watt and Thorn were both attending Hull University in the early ’80s, they were brought together by the coincidence of sharing the same record label, Cherry Red – home to Felt, Eyeless In Gaza and that rather legendary compilation, Pillows & Prayers.

And on that label in 1982, Thorn released what I can only describe as the best solo female debut album I’ve ever heard.  A Distant Shore may be only 23 minutes long but it embodies everything I ever wanted from a girl at that time – a lovelorn librarian type in a boy’s cardigan. But she was smitten with Ben Watt, not me.  Playing it now creates a rather uncomfortable nostalgia for the last time I was truly innocent; before love poisoned me.

Ben Watt - North Marine Drive (back cover)

Undoubtedly, A Distant Shore and North Marine Drive are call-and-response albums.  They are love letters.  They are full of the sentiments that new lovers have not yet gathered the courage to speak to each other yet clearly their hearts are bursting.

Though Thorn’s album is centred entirely on pensively picked acoustic and lazy day vocals, North Marine Drive is a slightly richer quilt of ‘jazz guitar’ (though more often than likely dipped in subterranean reverb) and shuffling bossanova rhythms shot through with Watt’s gentle, though often yearning, mournful voice.  At all times, he appears to be singing out to sea, waiting for his ship to come in.

The title track owes much to Nick Drake, as does “Long Time No Sea” but given that I hadn’t yet heard Drake, I would’ve undoubtedly been thoroughly bewitched by this lonely introspection.   All these years on, it’s this track that still has me sighing into my teacup.  You never forget the pains of being separated from your first lover.  It’s ingrained, etched like a heart on a tree.

“You’ve been away for so long.  Must be all of three days now.  And I thought I would be strong but your record’s the only one that plays now.”

It may not the greatest album ever made – not even my favourite of that year perhaps – but for me, it almost perfectly paints a picture of my own youth, a land that sadly, I’m not allowed to ever visit again; that no amount of photographs could ever accurately depict.  Music, however…

EBTG obviously went onto much greater success throughout the ’80s and ’90s but the sensitive young man that still resides somewhere within me became increasingly disparaged the more they polluted their youthful innocence with, god forbid, dance music.  Watt’s recent forays into faceless, identikit hipster house seem a world away from the tender introspection of North Marine Drive.  But we all have to grow up sometime?  Don’t we?

Notes On The Artist:

Glen Johnson (dressed as a shadow)

Since the mid-’90s, Glen Johnson has been perpetually living within a dichotomous bubble of consistency and unpredictably, much to our benefit.  From 1996 to the present day, Johnson has been the only constant member in the forever changing and often spellbinding Piano Magic.  A band whose impossibly rich repertoire has strewn its wares – in long and short forms – across every label from Rocket Girl to 4AD to Make Mine Music over the years.  Besides Piano Magic, Johnson also tinkers with his experimentalist Textile Ranch side-project, embraces his inner-OMD with the electro-pop-noire of Future Conditional and flirts with his acoustic troubadour streak as a solo artist.

When he’s not making his own music, Johnson can also be found musing eloquently on life through his Anything But Silence blog, co-managing the steadily cult-building Second Language label (soon to release Piano Magic’s new and very limited Home Recordings album) and enjoying the solitude of his suburban London retreat.

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