Sunday, November 16, 2014

Same songs, different space: Songs From The Big Chair remixed

There was a time when you knew you were getting older when policemen started getting younger. But for the music fan in particular these days, it’s the reissue of a favourite album that provides the starkest of reminders of advancing years.

Every so often, however, a record company will repackage an album of genuine nostalgic value. Some - like this year’s re-release of Led Zeppelin's first four albums, lovingly curated by Jimmy Page and stuffed into sumptuous boxes with a bounty of extras - happily prise open the wallet.

“If you put it together with the right package and the right material, people won’t even look at the price tag,” says Steven Wilson, who when not making records of his own has developed a neat sideline remixing the back catalogues of rock luminaries such as Yes, King Crimson and Jethro Tull.

Now he has turned his attention to a classic album of the 1980s - Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair, which has just been re-released for its 30th anniversary (yes, 30th) in a variety of formats including a six-disc “super deluxe” box set featuring four CDs, two DVDs, tour programme and book - with Wilson supplying stereo and 5.1 surround sound remixes of the original album.

© Steven Wilson
For someone so closely associated with progressive rock - either through his own albums (including Porcupine Tree, which he founded, and Blackfield with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen) and remix projects so far - working on such a quintessential 80s album (both in form and sound) might come as a surprise. When Universal Music offered Wilson to take his pick from a list of 80s ‘catalogue’ albums, Songs From The Big Chair stood out.

"I think people have assumed I'm only interested in working on albums from the 70s progressive rock era,” says Steven, "but nothing could be further from the truth. I like all kinds of music, and grew up with bands like The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division and Tears For Fears. As much as I love [the prog bands], doing this and the XTC catalogue has been a bit of a breakthrough in getting to do the music I enjoyed as a teenager.”

Recorded in 1984, with the first single - Mother’s Talk - released that August, Songs From The Big Chair was Tears For Fears’ second album. But far from being the "difficult" sophomore effort of tradition, the follow-up to The Hurting went on to sell nine million copies, with hits like Everybody Wants To Rule The World and Shout pitching Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith to global heights only U2 could rival them for at the time.

"Songs From The Big Chair and its successor Sowing The Seeds Of Love were - along with the albums Trevor Horn was producing at the time -  the gold standard for anyone of my age aspiring to be a producer,” says Wilson. "I never aspired to be a musician or a guitar player, I aspired to being a writer and producer, someone who made these epic records. Albums like this and Propaganda’s Secret Wish or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasure Dome all conveyed a sense of musical journey. They were clearly made by people who’d grown up listening to the classic albums of the 70s but were bringing the new technology of the 80s into the studio. Pop records that had the same ambition and scope of those great progressive rock albums of the previous decade.”

For the remixes, an album as sonically quintessential 80s as Songs From The Big Chair presented an interesting array of challenges. "There was a massive difference in terms of recording philosophy,” Steven says. "Even though there was only 15 years between an album like [Yes’s] Close To The Edge and Songs From The Big Chair, the philosophy of recording had completely changed.”

Part of that change with the Tears For Fears album was the changing technology used on it: "You have to listen to every sound on the master tapes,” says Steven. "Suddenly I've got this album where some of the sounds are difficult to identify, because this was recorded at the birth of sampling and digital synthesisers like the Emulator and the DX7. Now you’re listening to more impressionistic sounds because of the advent of sampling technology.”

The other big change is the amount of cavernous echo producers were using."Artificial reverb was used very sparingly in the 70s - a little echo on the voice, a little on the guitar, but that's about it,” Steven explains. “Then in the 80s, everything sounded like it was being played at Wembley Arena. Trevor Horn started that massive cinematic sound. The intimacy of 70s recording had gone - the drums sound massive, the keyboards sound massive, the vocals are huge, everything's enormous.”

© Steven Wilson/Facebook
Although Wilson’s stature in rock music has come about from performing with Porcupine Tree, his solo albums and numerous side projects, his focus as a producer and writer informs much of his remixing work.

“Firstly, it’s always an honour to remix an album that I genuinely think is a masterpiece, as I do with Songs From The Big Chair,” he says. "Secondly it’s wonderful to be working with the people who created the music, and to be able to learn something about how they made the record.”

"You learn in two ways: firstly, by communication with the artist,” Steven says of Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal who personally oversaw the remixing project. “But you also learn from the act of deconstructing and reconstructing the music, figuring out how they put the tracks together. Being able to get inside the music is such an education. I’m the kind of person who likes to feel that there is something I can learn and bring back into my own music."

When the original album was released in early 1985, Songs From The Big Chair figured heavily in my sixth-form listening, an experience I share with Steven who is eight days my senior. Almost 30 years on, and with modern digital audio replacing the poorly copied cassette tape I listened to while working on A-level homework, there is much to enjoy about listening the album all over again.

"The nice thing about going back to an album like this now is that you hear references that you totally missed at the time you first heard it,” says Steven.

"When I hear I Believe now, it’s completely Robert Wyatt. It was actually written for him to sing [Roland’s favourite album of all time is Rock Bottom]. Clearly I didn’t know that at the time - I just heard it as a classic 80s pop ballad - but now of course I hear Shipbuilding.

"Similarly, when I now hear Listen I hear influences from Pink Floyd or David Bowie’s Low; when I hear things like Working Hour I hear references back to classic rock music filtered through a ‘modern’ sensibility.”

Pop music in the 1980s may get depicted as sugary froth, but Steven notes the darker hues that Tears For Fears - and many others - were painting in the era of Cold War and Thatcherism. "Shout is SO dark, not just lyrically but musically too; not just in its lyrics but in its almost Wagnerian music, too! That was something people seemed to pull off in the 80s, especially with a band like The Cure. Today we don’t hear any of that in the mainstream. Pop is pop, it is happy, jolly. Back in the 80s, some of the mainstream pop music was so dark - Two Tribes for example. A lot of that had to do with Bowie’s Berlin period - Low and Heroes. They had a big influence on many of the bands like Tears For Fears and Gary Numan."

The actual process of creating a surround sound remix of a classic album like Songs From The Big Chair is, says Steven, a careful process. "The hard part is not letting down the people that know the album like the back of their hand. That is where the fans’ perspective is so important. That’s why I won’t work on albums I don’t love. If I’m not a fan, I’m not the right person to do it, because you’re trying to create a new experience from an old record. You don’t want it to be jarring - you don’t want people to say 'that’s wrong' or 'that’s not how I remember it'.

© Steven Wilson/Facebook
"The objective is trying to make it seem like if someone didn’t tell you it was a new mix, you wouldn’t notice the difference. Of course, if you’re intimately familiar with an album, you will pick up on small details, but I wouldn’t want a more casual listener jumping out of their chair screaming 'that sounds different to how I remember it’.

"With surround sound, you can’t please everyone - so the challenge is to create something that feels cohesive, that doesn’t feel like all the glue has been taken out, all the ingredients have been pulled apart and sounds fragmented in surround sound. You have to try and make it feel like it’s coming from the same place sonically, but still get that immersive feeling as well. That’s something which comes from personal preference and personal taste."

There are, of course, music fans who’ll scoff at the idea of turning an album they once listened to in a flat, analogue form into something with a somewhat different soundscape. And there will be those who will be jaded by the battles of the 1990s and early 2000s as consumer electronics empires took each other on with rival formats like Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. But while mainstream entertainment might, today, be more about downloads and streaming, there is still space for high-quality physical formats. "Anyone who says they don’t like multichannel sound should remember that we’ve been listening to multichannel for 50 years,” says Steven. "Stereo is multichannel sound!”

While the consumer masses are quite willing to go out and buy the latest high-definition TV and buy Blu-ray Disc box sets, high-definition audio still feels like a minority interest. "It’s probably down to the marketing people for not pushing audio excellence in the way they’ve pushed video excellence,” Steven feels. "Early on a lot of record companies rushed to release albums in surround sound, and a lot were done quite badly. When this began there were plenty of movies that could be easily released on DVD or Blu-ray Disc in surround sound, but to do music and rebuild the music from scratch, there were a lot that were just rushed."

"It feels like it’s taken ten years for the concept to catch up with itself,” he adds. "Now you’re seeing Blu-ray releases loaded with value. Of course there are examples of people looking to issue ‘yardage’ rather than quality, but if you look at the XTC reissues that I’m involved with, Andy Partridge is putting an extraordinary amount of extras on them. The Drums & Wires album that has just come out as a Blu-ray Disc and a CD package, it’s got something like 120 tracks on it. Demos, instrumentals, sessions, alternate versions, B-sides, outtakes, video material it’s like a box set on a single disc.

"With the first generation of SACD releases record companies seemed to rely on just putting out the album with perhaps a bit of tweaking to the mastering, and that was going to justify people spending £15 on an album they’d already bought 12 times before. You’ve got to offer something new, some extra value too. That’s why these deluxe edition box sets have done so well. If you put it together with the right package and the right material, people won’t even look at the price tag. The Led Zeppelin albums are the epitome of this concept - if you love those albums, it will be something you will treasure."

Steven says that, despite the perceived decline in sales of physical music formats, high definition audio is actually growing, along with the hipster trend of vinyl ownership. "I recognise that a lot of the audiophile audience are getting on a bit,” he says, "but they’ve got the time, the money and the inclination to rebuy the albums they used to listen to 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They want something new from it and they want some sort of enhanced sonic experience. That’s probably who I’m working on these records for. I also know that these projects can be the catalyst for people going out and buying surround systems, just so they can hear all these great records in a new way."

Wilson's enthusiasm for bringing back to new life old albums comes, he says, from what he gets out of the projects: "Working on these remixes is an education. But they also give me a sense of completing a circle with albums that I grew up being influenced by, that you could say are in my musical DNA. I’ve always used the analogy that it’s like cleaning the Sistine Chapel - you don’t want to change what is there, you just want to make it ‘shine’ brighter, to give something back."

Having just completed recording work on his fourth solo album, due to be released next February, there are still plenty of albums Steven would love to have a crack at remixing in surround sound. "When you think of albums that would sound great in surround sound, shined up and remixed, it’s an endless list!” he says.

"At the top would be Kate Bush’s records, but also Michael Jackson’s classic albums - they would sound phenomenal in surround sound! I’m amazed they’ve never been done, to my knowledge. The classic Bowie albums - the Berlin trilogy for example - as well. These are just some of things I’d love to do. There’s always the possibility, as more of my work gets out there. The Tears For Fears project is in that category - if you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing something like this album I would have said it was extremely unlikely, and yet here it is!"


  1. why isn't DSD included in these plethora of versions that Steve Wilson releases? It should be IMHO, as the definite audiophile format...

  2. DSD is the worst possible way to release these incredible mixes. Read up on DSD and its heritage. A nightmare.

  3. These remixes are done in PCM, putting them out in DSD would just add one conversion step.

  4. I admit that DSD wouldn't add much to a high resolution PCM mix, but calling it a "nightmare" and the "worst possible way" to release music is just silly and embarassing. SACD sounds just fine, but it doesn't sound noticeably better than a high quality CD mix. As far as saying that a DSD release would add one more "conversion step," that just isn't true unless the master tapes themselves are solely digital. I see no evidence, at least from this article, to suggest that SFTBC has no analog master tape. If that's correct, a DSD master would add no "steps" whatsoever.

  5. Nach dem Interview wundere ich mich etwas über den Mix. Der Gesang kommt im Mix sehr stark über den mittleren Lautsprecher. Das finde ich immer sehr gewöhnungsbedürftig. Wenn er den Stereo-Mix als Basis sieht, müsste der Gesang auch von Links und Rechts kommen.