Ultravox’s Midge Ure and David Bowie producer Tony Visconti help rediscover ‘lost art of crooning’
What surreal convergence of events could last week lure a clutch of journalists into the basement of Abbey Road studios to hear ’80s pop stars reclaim the “lost art of crooning”?
None other than Midge Ure – of Ultravox and Band Aid fame – Heaven 17 frontman Glenn Gregory and ex-Cure star Michael Dempsey, as well as Liam McKahey from cult millennial band Cousteau, gathered there to celebrate the launch of their new collaborative album, International Blue.
Primarily written and compiled by vivacious Dutch musician Stephen Emmer, the record is heavily influenced by the atmospheric works of artists like Scott Walker and harks back to a time when crooners were still musical royalty.
“This type of crooning started in the ’30s and that influenced the crooners in the ’60s, who then influenced crooners in the ’80s, so there’s a lineage all the way through,” Ure told the Ham&High after the launch.
“All we are is the product of our influences and whether it be jazz or blues or rock, you soak it up like a little sponge. So when this project came along and Stephen asked if I’d like to get involved, I didn’t have to sit down and think about how I’d write a song that would fit that type of genre, because it was already in there. It was just about accessing it and taking it a bit further.”
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The sight of former synth-pop stars awkwardly pulling their best Frank Sinatra impressions live alongside a taped backing track was quite something to behold, but with plans to take International Blue on the road with live orchestration, future shows promise to be a lush and vibrant affair.
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On record particularly, the album has Bond theme-esque levels of glamour and ambition in songs such as Let the Silence Hold You and Taking Back My Time. Also evident is the slick, modern production, which comes as no surprise: much of the music was recorded at Abbey Road studios by legendary producer Tony Visconti.
Famous for his association with David Bowie – producing landmark records like Space Oddity and last year’s The Next Day – Visconti was not able to make the launch because of his next secret “huge, huge project”, but via a video message he spoke of his admiration for Emmer, who he discovered on MySpace.
He added: “These songs are well written; they come from a deep tradition of classic standard song writing and Stephen collaborated with all the singers on this album who contributed the lyrics.
“The subjects are kind of off the beaten path – they’re not straight up love songs, in fact very few of them are – so this was something we could really sink our teeth into which has the undeniable quality and signature of the crooner stamped all over it.”
Emmer himself said of the record’s crooning heritage: “It was probably one of the more adventurous moments in experimental pop productions in the studio pre-Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds.
“It comes back once in a while and it’s down to individual conviction to reintroduce it – like flares on your jeans, they’ve been in and out of fashion about eight times in the last decade.”
But what drew him to this group of musicians? “The ’80s was the time when I listened to music very thoroughly, but I often thought this music was very adventurous, but somehow got lost in its production values.
“The people who I’ve always felt had this idea of how to dramatise a good song – a real thoroughly crafted song – were people like the ones here today. Midge, Glen, Neil (Crossley), Liam: they all knew how to deliver a song with a bit more poignancy.”
“Doing an imitation is easy,” continued Ure, “but taking the essence of something and taking it somewhere else is a creative process. All those influences will never go away but trying to do something new with them is a very difficult task.”
Whether you’re a fan of Sinatra or Spandau Ballet, the latest record from Abbey Road will prove one of this year’s most earnest cult releases and a classy new take on a classic sound.
International Blue is out June 30.