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Tim Bowness: Ghost Lights and Life Sentences

John Kelman By

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"My very early musical interests included John Barry's film music and parts of my parents' very dated record collection," Bowness continues. "Their collection mainly comprised Dionne Warwick singing Bacharach and David, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Andy Williams and so on. My favorites were singles by the Moody Blues and Procol Harum, Simon And Garfunkel's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1972), The Beatles' 'red' and 'blue' albums, Sinatra's Nice 'n' Easy (Capitol, 1960) and a Neil Diamond album called Rainbow (MCA, 1973), which contained songs by Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen (all of whom would become future favourites for me).

"I really didn't like the contemporary pop music that my primary school friends were listening to and it wasn't until I heard the likes of Sparks' 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us' and 10cc's 'I'm Not In Love' that I started to like pop...and not until I heard Kate Bush's debut single in 1977 that I fell in love with it. Around the same time as I discovered Kate Bush (not hard, as she was everywhere in the UK media!) courtesy of a friend's father, I got to hear Led Zeppelin, Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd. The enigmatic artwork in combination with the haunting and atmospheric music of the latter two drove me to seek out other progressive rock artists. Prog certainly wasn't fashionable when I was at school (I left in the early 1980s), but there were still albums such as [Pink Floyd's] The Wall (Harvest, 1979), Peter Gabriel 3 (Charisma, 1980) and Genesis' Duke (Charisma, 1980) that had a big commercial impact.

"As I say in one of my blogs: 'Whether it was the sentimental beauty of a Genesis ballad, the atmospheric explorations of Pink Floyd, the nostalgic eccentricity of the Canterbury scene, the giddy inventiveness of Gentle Giant, or the brute-force of VDGG [Van der Graaf Generator] and King Crimson, progressive rock transported me to a world of creative possibilities and somewhere more interesting than suburban Warrington.'

"Basically, I was excited and moved by albums like [VDGG's] Pawn Hearts (Charisma, 1971), Yes' Close To The Edge (Atlantic, 1972), [Robert Wyatt's] Rock Bottom (Virgin, 1974), [Oldfield's] Incantations (Virgin, 1978), [Genesis'] Foxtrot (Charisma, 1972), [Gentle Giant's] Free Hand (Chrysalis, 1975), [Egg's] The Civil Surface (Caroline, 1974), [Caravan's] In The Land Of Grey And Pink (Deram, 1971), [King Crimson's] Islands (Island, 1971), [Pink Floyd's] Dark Side Of The Moon (Harvest, 1973) and many more. Outside of prog and Kate Bush," Bowness continues, "I loved David Bowie, The Beatles, Roy Harper, The Who, Led Zeppelin and then-contemporary artists such as Associates, XTC, Teardrop Explodes, John Foxx/Ultravox, Magazine, Japan and Joy Division.

"As much as my tastes have evolved over the years and my own music has developed along different paths, the idealism of progressive music remains a touchstone," concludes Bowness. "Prog may have been occasionally ridiculous, pompous, and overreaching, but it was rarely boring. And on a personal level, it also acted as a gateway to classical, folk, jazz, psychedelic and other types of music that have been influential on progressive itself."

Meeting Wilson, Bowness quickly realized that he'd found a common spirit; another aspiring musician with broad but, to a significant degree, similar musical tastes and who viewed music as one huge continuum. "I'd say that Steven and I share around 60% of our tastes (which, given how much we listen to, is a lot)," says Bowness. "We both like soundtracks, classic rock, 1960s psychedelia, progressive rock, singer/songwriters, post-rock, ambient/electronica, jazz, post-punk, soft rock, electro-pop, ECM, trip hop, disco, minimalism, classical chamber music and more. We've also never cared for fashion, so our tastes embrace many supposedly embarrassing musical pariahs.

"In terms of differences, when we met I liked American art punk (Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground/Cale/Nico/Reed, etc.) and Steven didn't; and he liked avant-garde classical (Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez), drone music and metal and I didn't.

"Even though No-Man's early music was often disciplined and very restrained (though some unreleased No-Man music is incredibly aggressive), we always loved the idea of bloody-minded idealistic excess, so albums like Scott 4, (Scott Walker), Tales From Topographic Oceans, Common One (Van Morrison), 666 (Aphrodite's Child), Get Up With It (Miles Davis), Consequences (Godley & Creme), Tusk (Fleetwood Mac), Odyssey (Terje Rypdal), Starsailor (Tim Buckley) and Lizard (King Crimson) appealed to us both equally."

While Bowness considers Abandoned Dancehall Dreams to be his first proper solo album, there was one that came before, at a time when No-Man was still active. "My debut solo album (My Hotel Year, from 2004) always felt like a compromise, as it consisted of pieces from several separate projects I was working on in the early 2000s. It's a solo album in name mainly, though I did define its shape and sound.

"Abandoned Dancehall Dreams emerged out of demos I'd written and co-written for a follow-up to No-Man's Schoolyard Ghosts, which also developed from material I initially brought in," Bowness continues. "Steven [Wilson] was too busy with his solo work at the time to commit to making a No-Man album, so he kindly offered to mix whatever I came up with. I took that as an incentive to make my proper debut solo album. I'd written much of the music as well as the lyrics/melodies. That said, to an extent ADD was my idea of what a No-Man album could sound like. The reaction to the album was surprisingly positive, and that inspired me to quickly embark upon making a follow-up that took the sound of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams that bit further. I see ADD and Stupid Things That Mean the World as strongly linked, in that Stupid Things was a direct continuation of ADD, both musically and visually. [Despite all three albums having artwork by Jarrod Gosling, the artwork for ADD and Stupid Things share certain commonalities; Lost in the Ghost Light, with its cover image of a cluttered dressing room counter, and lit mirror reflecting where the album takes place, takes a completely different approach that better fits the album's concept.]

"I constantly work musically, though I don't constantly rate what I'm doing. Creatively, things have seemed good over the last few years and I hope that what I've come up with of late compares well with what I've done with No-Man," Bowness continues.

"Lost In The Ghost Light sprung from the concept and the music was written to enhance the lyrical themes. As I've mentioned elsewhere, in some ways, it's my version of a Moonshot album," Bowness concludes.

But, like its other sources, Bowness manages to subsume that idea into something that sounds like no-one but Bowness. At his blog, timbowness.wordpress.com, Bowness writes about the inspiration for Ghost Light:

"It all started with me seeing a sixty-something jogger in an expensive tracksuit rifling through the vegetable racks at my local Co-Op. His intense glare combined with his thinning long grey hair and Mick Fleetwood beard left me wondering which veteran rock band he'd once played with.

"This got me thinking about the moment when music first came into this person's life and whether it still informed his music making in the present. Other questions followed about the tensions between commerce and art, career and idealism: Could the creative 'spark' be lost then rediscovered?; What were the costs of dedicating a life to music and how much did 'real' life get in the way of the 'magic'?; What was the effect of the changing nature of the industry on music itself as physical objets d'art became unpaid streams?; Were, as Brian Eno suggested, professional musicians like blacksmiths, echoes from another age and, if so, what was the impact of that realization on a performer playing to an aging crowd?"

But there's much more to Bowness' tale of an aging rock star reflecting on his life...and how it has changed. "On one level," Bowness says, "Lost In The Ghost Light is a requiem for a type of music, a type of musician and a particular form of music production: the album. It's an album-length homage to a golden age of classic rock music and to the album as an art form.

"As I say in the Album Notes, I've always been fascinated by the iron grip music holds over fans and musicians alike, and how a supposedly adolescent obsession can become a lifetime's passion (or prison sentence) for some of us."

On the brief title track—which possesses the dark gravitas of classic VDGG but with his more understated delivery a less weighty alternative to the more melodramatic (albeit wonderfully so) vocals of VDGG's Peter Hammill—Bowness writes directly about the "self-imposed prison sentence" that makes music as much an addiction, as much a pathology, for some as it is an art form and irresistible means of expression:

"Is it real?
Has it heart?

When the bluster falls to silence,
Does it gel or fall apart?

Is it pure?
Is it art?

When they gather in the foyer,
Does it linger, does it smart?

Has it heart?

Is it real?

Is there more?

Does your self-imposed life-sentence
Make the grade or hit the floor?

Is there more?"


But Bowness' story also tackles some of the serious issues that began to plague the music industry in the 1990s and have led to the second decade of the new millennium, where artists are working as hard as they ever have at creating the music that, more than entertains, sustains many of its fans.

"I was interested to know how the fact that people don't financially or culturally value music as much as they did in earlier eras impacts on musicians who grew out of the 1960s revolution; a time when music was vitally important on so many levels and in so many sectors of society. I'm also interested to know how playing to an older audience just wanting 'the hits' affects a musician who once believed they could change the world with their music," Bowness explains.

"Another factor was my interest in how the punk era derailed so many great musicians," Bowness continues. "Certain classic rock, folk rock, fusion and progressive rock artists were treated appallingly in the late 1970s, and many careers went into artistic and commercial free-fall. Of course, some 'classic' artists thrived, as Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes went on to greater success in the 1980s and the likes of Peter Gabriel, Peter Hammill, Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson defined the 1980s as much as any of the hip gunslingers (as the [British periodical] New Musical Express might have said!). They were in the minority though. Of course, this sort of thing has happened throughout history: the talkies killed off many silent screen actors; bebop made big band seem excessive; The Beatles made jazz clubs seem passé; etc., etc. But I had a special interest in 'the punk effect,' as it was something I witnessed while it was happening.

"As for the rock opera element," continues Bowness, "in my early teens I was smitten by albums like [The Who's] Quadrophenia (Track, 1973), [Genesis'] The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Charisma, 1974) and The Wall. Consequently, I've always harbored a desire to make 'a story album.' [The Who's] Pete Townshend, in particular, has been a great chronicler of music, musicians, fans and the culture surrounding them.
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