China Crisis: the Joy and the Spark Reignited

Live review, interview with Gary Daly, and review of “Autumn in the Neighbourhood 

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As much as I enjoy listening to old 80’s bands sometimes and go “oh yeah..that…what the hell were we thinking?!”…most of them sound really period-bound and it’s hard not to think it’s just interesting from a kitschy/retro view-point. I am not likely to go to a “reunion gig” by Spandau Ballet or, lord knows, Simply Red because I am really not interested in them musically and, most of the times, I have nothing in common with the crowd: it feels like I am amongst people who never go to gigs and just go free-rein (how embarrassing) on that one special night where they relive their past. I personally tend to listen to newer bands and I do go to gigs quite often still: gigs with a younger or mixed crowd. There are some exceptions however…. and China Crisis is one of them.

When I saw the tour-dates for China Crisis planned in Holland I didn’t hesitate for one second.  Even if it meant driving across half the country to see them. And I had to, because the gig was booked in a place I never heard of in my life and never desire to visit again. So why China Crisis? Because they are amongst a few bands from that period that stood the test of time and still sound as awesome as they did then. Because I have these ingrained memories of them: stealing “Working with Fire and Steel” from the library ’cause I couldn’t bear to part with it and had no money to buy it; buying “Flaunt the Imperfection” on cassette-tape when I got back home in Amsterdam from a failed adventure in Italy, 1984, where I walked the streets in the crisp winter-air with my walkman stuck on “The Highest High“: “Where is my town, the place I love where I can stay for all time…”  Because there is magic in that combination of Eddie’s dreamiest of dreamy guitar-chords and Gary’s pitch-jumps and dives on the vocal scales…. and because they were in it for the music…and only the music…and above all: they’re lovely people, that never got warped by success.

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Synopsis:

China Crisis formed in 1979 in Kirkby, Liverpool, and were part of a bit of a new wave scene in the 80’s together with other acts from Liverpool like Echo and the Bunnymen, OMD, and A Flock of Seagulls. China Crisis were mostly a duo consisting of Gary Daly (vocals, keyboards) and Eddie Lundon (guitars, vocals). The original line-up of the band was with drummer Kevin Wilkinson and bassist Gazza Johnson. The band was signed to Virgin Records and the first 3 albums (“Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms”, “Working with Fire and Steel” and “Flaunt the Imperfection”) contained the biggest hit-singles, whilst the 2 following ones (“What Price Paradise” and” “Diary of a Hollow Horse”) were less commercially successful. The band’s last studio album, “Warped by Success“, was released in 1994 and producing their last chart single, “Everyday the Same“. Actually one hell of a feat considering, especially compared to fellow peers. Flaunt and Diary were both produced by Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker, resulting in some unforgettable stuff like, for instance “The Highest High” and “Sweet Charity in Adoration” (for some reason I always thought it was Becker doing the solo on that, just read it was Tim Weston). Last year they managed to produce a wonderful new album, funded by entirely by pledges, called “Autumn in the Neighbourhood”.

 

The shows in de Pul, Uden (25-09-2016, Holland ) and Warehouse 23, Wakefield (15-10-2016, UK )

Band:
Gary: vocals, tambourine / Eddie: guitars, vocals / Gazza Johnson : bass / Jack: keyboards / Sian: drums / Stuart: guitars

14650743_10208953332485404_2066285577064198239_nEver since the 90’s, China Crisis have been busy performing all over the place with a varying line-up but never failing to attract a steady fan-base, and to say “it shows” is an understatement. As I said, I go to plenty of gigs but this is different. Different for a few reasons: first of all, the interaction with the audience is great! Gary Daly has a rep of being a bit of a stand-up, so that was somehow to be expected, but by diminishing barriers between crowd and band, a true level of intimacy is being created leading to an overall gratifying and memorable experience, and, most importantly, a desire to do it all again! The other reason why the shows stand out is the effortlessness and pure enjoyment that flow from the stage. These people do not just play songs: they live and breathe music and you can feel it. The show in Uden was relatively quiet, (probably down to the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere) but the line-up was a full band, the set was musically excellent, the sound of the venue great and the playlist (21 songs!) pretty extensive out of an even more impressive back-catalogue of brilliant songs. I was a complete noob to the songs of the new album, but they left enough impression to actually make me urgently get hold of it. I was pleased that they decided on playing “Sweet Charity” which, we were being told by Mr. Daly, was relatively unrehearsed. However, Eddie instantly lead the way by flawlessly generating that beloved riff like a leitmotif to the whole song structure, followed by Gary making a dramatic entrance out of the dark, whilst 2nd guitarist Stuart still scratched his head a bit … (see footage). My rude question at the end: “what happened to the guitar solo?” (which was replaced with a key-solo), was received with some mild confusion and by the time I got to Wakefield they got rid of 2nd guitarist altogether to deal with that question for once and for all. Kidding of course… Stuart was a fine guitarist!

The big hits were saved for last. I met some lovely people before the gig but couldn’t stay because we still had an hourlong drive back home and a wakeup scheduled at 5! Hence the plan to do it again! In Wakefield….  another place I had never heard of. A gig in the UK is always different of course: more people turn up and the atmosphere is better. I get the feeling a lot of people here go to nearly all of the shows. Although I am not overly keen on standing on my feet all night, it strikes me a bit odd to see families at tables at the venue…. It doesn’t seem very rock ’n’ roll does it? The shows starts a bit uneasily but quite quickly things loosen up and there is no stopping Gary after that. The band is smaller and the set shorter but the mood amiable, the drink plenty and we all have fun. Although temperatures are tropical in this place, and Gary remarks that he is about to combust in his obviously “faux-silk” suit. He also recognises me and my friend mid-show, thinking we were actually UK based and travelled all the way to Uden to see them the other time! Whichever way around we travelled: it was worth it! This time I don’t leave without a chat, a CD dedicated-partly-to-me-that-isn’t-mine (lol), a hug and oh yeah, the compulsory picture which, in the end, I am pretty chuffed with. See ya next time guys, you hooked me as well.

Short Interview with Gary Daly:

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What do you think of the changes in the music industry due to the internet? e.g the disappearance of the manager or the major label?

The internet is an amazing tool for all concerned with music…..it’s absolutely a great tool…for sure….i think for the artist…..being able to connect with an audience in such a direct way….it’s very empowering ……the downside …..i would have to say a loss of control….everything from people being able to post filming / visuals and audio…..can be quite detrimental….usually because of the poor quality……but for sure…on the whole ..it’s a great tool…..

What was your experience with the creation of a Pledge Album?
I enjoyed very much being involved with the pledge experience…..we basically had the knowledge of how to write and record an album……and then sort of learnt along the way how best to raise awareness / funding for the project……it was very enjoyable being able to create pledges that would engage and interest the fans…….everything from days in the studio with the band….listening back to old demos and hearing all the stories connected with the songs….and being able to answer people’s questions……also other pledges…such as VIP concert experiences….coming along to sound checks …introducing the band live on stage…..yes..all in all we enjoyed pledge a lot…..

847947_0_china-crisis_400What is the big secret/chemistry between you and Eddie that made you last nearly 40 years? You two seem opposites ….

There’s no big secret……we became friends first…….and yes….we are completely opposites…..but we both have an enduring love / passion for our music and our concert performances….absolutely …

What do you think of the (especially live) reception of the new songs ( Autumn in the Neighbourhood) so far?
I think mostly very lovely….but I do realise most people at our concerts will be unaware we actually have a new record … . .it’s completely unavailable other than at our concerts…or perhaps on e-bay……we are endeavouring to make it available to download and / or buy cd online….

Why the choice for much younger band members like Sian (drums) and Jack (keyboards)? are they Eddie’s students?

Yes..both Sian and Jack have been students of Eddies…..and both are incredibly gifted young musicians……we have never sort out younger / older musicians…..it’s always been a matter of people being recommended . . . .and we follow up the recommendation with auditions..and then people are chosen for a number of reasons…..age is simply a number….as the old saying goes….

Bonus question : What happened to Stuart? (guitarist)
Stuart has worked with the band on and off for nearly 30 years…..we just wanted to try going back to the fire and steel line up of sax / keys / drums / bass / guitar / vocals……and basically could not afford the luxury of two guitarists on the road…….

Estella Rosa

 Review of Autumn in the Neighbourhood by Francis Sinnott

 

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When the nucleus of China Crisis, song-writing duo Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon got together with long-time collaborators, bass player Gary (Gazza) Johnson and drummer Kevin Wilkinson 1996 to make what would have been the seventh album from the band they would have had no idea that the songs would not see the light of day for almost another 20 years. With only five songs half completed and despite encouragement from OMD’s Andy McCuskey on whose label the aborted album was mooted to be launched, the project was shelved. When these five tracks were dusted down and reworked some twenty years later the music landscape had altered to such an extent that the traditional channels for delivering music had crumbled and it was with a little help from the group’s small but devoted fan base that allowed the record to be made. Jetting off to the Hawaiian island of Maui and the home studio of Walter Becker at Virgin Records expense, where the Chinas found time to indulge in a spot of scuba diving seemed like a long time ago indeed.

The concept of utilising the power of the net to connect artists and fans in a direct-to-fan music platform was one already tried by many new and established groups as a means of getting new music recorded and released without the need for record company backing. The China Crisis campaign was launched on 16 December 2013 with ‘Everyone You Know’ as a free download to all Pledgers. Pleasingly, it was classic China Crisis; a little bit synthy and a little bit guitary, but with lots of melody and a subtle rhythmic backbone. Why it never made the final cut remains something of a mystery.

Excitement had reached fever pitch on social media fan sites but when the album failed to appear in 2014 rumours began to circulate that the pledge target had not been reached. However, almost 300% of the pledge target had being achieved within a few months and after such a long gap, the group were going to take their time in getting the final production and mix exactly right. “Autumn in the Neighbourhood” was eventually released on 3 June 2015 with a characteristic low-key announcement from Gary on the Pledge website; Remember upon listening, you made this China Crisis record happen, we are so very very proud of you and also of us. . .  . Pledgers and loyal fans were about to discover if the long wait was worth it.

Staccato trumpets record reminiscent of a light chamber recital announce the return of China Crisis to record on the opener “Smile”. An insanely fuzzy bass synth reassure the listener that the trademark catchy sound is still intact with Daly in fine voice. While he had lost some of the quirky vocal mannerisms that tended to divide critics, his voice had mellowed and matured but retained an emotional quality that pulls the listener in. “Down Here On Earth” is a reworking of an old Gary Daly song entitled “They Conspire”. It is transformed here, into a thing of beauty, flourishes of meaty percussion and brass complimenting a gorgeous piano driven melody. The lyrics are contemplative suggesting perhaps that maturity doesn’t provide the answer to all of life’s mysteries. “All things must pass, come to an end, completely, disappear. Time passes by, it always has and always so suddenly – I don’t know how it works down here on earth”. Perfect.

      Down Here On Earth - China Crisis

Gary Daly’s enduring love for Americana is showcased in “Because my Heart” an elegant piano and acoustic guitar led gem. A writing collaboration between Daly and bassist Gazza Johnson it reveals a distinct country-like flavour, owing to the incorporation of a pedal steel guitar and an accordion. The new sound reveals a group, who while playing to their strengths, are not afraid to try something new. The themes on the album of life, loss and love are universal and life-affirming. The lyrics, previously criticized for being vague and obtuse, are now direct and to the point. “Bernard” is heartfelt ballad on the bittersweet final parting of a loved one.  ‘We are all here by your side / Surrender to the blinding light.’ In a less gifted songwriter’s hands this personal and tricky subject could come off as morose or lachrymose, but Daly’s delicate vocal and the understated production are a perfect combination

The Joy and the Spark” reveals that China Crisis have lost none of the pop sensibilities revealing a wistfulness and introspection that is a trademark of their sound. Featuring the late Kevin Wilkinson on drums, the listener finds China Crisis once again in its shimmering, soul-infused sophistipop disposition, where Daly’s distinct silky voice subtly soars. ‘Being in Love’ moves things along in a similar vein with a Philly sounding guitar solo recalling vintage Hall and Oates.

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The tempo is ratcheted up a notch on ‘Fool,’ the sole Eddie Lundon composition which could have easily fallen off one of Becker’s earlier Steely Dan project. This is easily the most radio-friendly song on offer with Lundon’s sweet voice complimenting the non-intrusive horn work and biting electric guitar parts. The guitar solo is reminiscent of the expertly executed solo courtesy of Tim Renwick on “You Did Cut Me” from “Flaunt the Imperfection”, in fact more than any other track, this sounds like it could have come from the “Flaunt the Imperfection” sessions. The minimalist “My Sweet Delight” on the other hand is a pretty ballad, given a deceptively subtle treatment here that is unobtrusive and allows the song to shine through.

The almost instrumental “Tell Tale Signs” breaks new ground for the group. Slide guitar and piano combine to create an aural soundscape that calls to mind  Fleetwod Mac’s ‘Albatross’ and Steely Dan’s “Aja” easily matching the majesty of both these classics. This track would have made a perfect album closer. In the event, the final song on the album continues the minimalist theme with the poignant “Wonderful New World”. Here Daly’s plaintive voice is accompanied by a pleading pedal steel, played by Stuart Nisbet, with Lundon’s acoustic guitar ever present. It’s a brave way to end the record and one that leaves the listener crying out for more.

They say the past is a foreign country to which we should never return, but “Autumn in the Neighbourhood” is no mere nostalgia trip. Fans of the band received the album very enthusiastically and even for listeners not familiar with the early work of China Crisis, there is much to like here. For Daly and Lundon it was always about the music and the song and even in the years when they had no recorded output, they continued to work on their craft. The hard work has certainly paid off.

What China Crisis have achieved is remarkable. They have produced an album after a 20 year hiatus that easily matches their best work and can sit proudly amongst an already glittering back-catalogue. None of their more lauded contemporaries have managed this feat.  This is an album that exceeded even the highest expectations, one in many ways we are already joyously familiar with, and can come back to time and time again. Welcome back boys…….

Francis Sinnott is a 46 year old electronic technician from Kildare, Ireland former disc-jockey and lover of Sophistipop.

6 Comments

  1. P

    Easily the best and well-written article I’ve read in a long while about this amazing band. Not just suffused with justifiably generous praise but an understanding of how the Chinas ‘click and tick’…and superbly articulated

  2. Bart (Belgium)

    great peace … the album sounds really great … sadly, there is no way at the moment for me to get a copy… hope someday it gets a real release … oh, and while we are at it, someone should release the really early stuff and Peel Sessions too… China Crisis really deserve to be regarded as more than just an eighties band … their melodies are timeless … and if you can produce an album which is as great as what I have heard of the new one after all those years, you are a very special band indeed

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