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Music

The story of The Sound, the tragically overlooked 1980s post-punk band

Post-punk, the more artful and erudite offspring of punk, was born in the late 1970s not long after punk had been popularised. It is unclear where punk originated, given that it was a gradual tangent from traditional rock and roll, turning to a more simplified, brutal, and often macabre sound. What is not in doubt, however, is that punk matured in a torrent of ‘anarchy in the UK’ reaching its summit with the Sex Pistols.

The Pistols demanded attention with their middle finger to the status quo and ultimately inspired an unsettled youth. Many of the popular post-punk bands of the late 1970s and early ’80s have cited the Sex Pistols as their core inspiration – where it all started.

For me, post-punk has its spiritual home in Manchester with iconic bands synonymous with the genre such as Joy Division, The Chameleons, The Fall, and, of course, Magazine – the group that symbolised the migration from punk to post-punk most, as lead singer and creative force, Howard Devoto departed from The Buzzcocks in pursuit of a more abstract sound. That said, there was much to be admired in London during this exciting moment in music too, with popular bands like Wire, The Psychedelic Furs, and Siouxie and the Banshees making their notches on the bed-post of punk history. 

My question today is: have you ever heard The Sound? “What sound?” you might ask. If so, you may have missed out on one of the 1980s hidden gems. Formed in 1979, south London band The Sound set out to continue the work of their beloved aforementioned contemporaries. Lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Adrian Borland had his hand firmly on the creative rudder, steering them to their debut album Jeopardy in 1980. The album was, like much of the band’s subsequent work, very well received by the critics with five-star reviews from NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds. Jeopardy has all the genetics of a successful punk album with energetic and emotive hits like ‘I Can’t Escape Myself’ and ‘Heartland’, as well as some poignant political statements (‘Missiles’). However, it struggled to gain much attention from the public with very little air time on the radio, despite some attention from celebrated DJ, John Peel.

Undeterred by this lack of commercial success, and boosted by a healthy cult following of devoted fans, The Sound began work on their second album, From the Lion’s Mouth, in 1981. From the Lion’s Mouth displayed notable growth from Jeopardy with a more refined sound, poetic lyrics, and superior production; many fans would describe it as their best work and a staple album in the post-punk arena. ‘Sense of Purpose’ was the only single released on the album, however, there are many tracks on the album just as worthy of release as a single such as ‘Winning’, ‘Contact the Fact’ and ‘New Dark Age’.

The album presents introspective and often dark themes that reflect the mental state of Borland during this period. Throughout the ten tracks, there are some great tempo changes with atmospheric sections laden with reverb-heavy guitar solos and head-bopping drum beats; all the while complimented beautifully by Borland’s vocals that have always reminded me of Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr. The Sound have long been compared to Joy Division with their similar style and subject matter. The parallels do not stop here though; the album artwork, taken from Briton Rivière’s 1872 painting Daniel in the Lion’s Den, shows significant similarities to the scene depicted on the cover of Joy Division’s 1980 album Closer. 

The Sound continued throughout the 1980s, maintaining only a cult following with a number of successful tours across Europe alongside Sheffield’s post-punk contemporaries, Comsat Angels. Over these years of touring across Europe, they enjoyed unexpected success in the Netherlands and released a further three albums that, unfortunately, suffered due to record label disputes and Borland’s deteriorating mental health. 

The band ultimately broke up in 1988 after a run of tour cancellations caused by a complete breakdown of Borland’s mental state, likely catalysed by his frustrating career progress. In the 1990s the members went their separate ways, mostly pursuing careers outside of music. Sadly, keyboard player Colvin ‘Max’ Mayers died in 1993 due to complications with AIDS. 

Borland continued to release music in a solo career over the course of the ’90s with limited success, all the while battling with his depression, on a number of occasions being hospitalised for psychiatric care. In 1999, unable to overcome his mental condition, Borland committed suicide by jumping in front of a moving express train near Wimbledon station in London. One can’t help but draw a final parallel between Adrian Borland and Ian Curtis of Joy Division who more famously met an end by his own hand in 1980. Borland’s death has added to the haunting intensity of some of his music and I can’t help but feel very moved when listening to songs like ‘Sense of Purpose’ and ‘I Can’t Escape Myself’ and wonder if he would have fared much better if The Sound had been more of a commercial success. 

Music is certainly not always fun and games, indeed for many, it is a serious business. As the past has told us, often the most creative minds among us are also the most troubled. The art of many of these troubled minds will naturally connect most with those who have struggled with similar internal battles. Borland used his creativity and music as an outlet that served as therapy not only for himself but also for his fans. Whether successful or not, many artists (and of course anyone at all) can suffer from mental health issues. What is most important is to appreciate the art and achievements of those who we have sadly lost, but to also try to understand these illnesses and support those who still suffer with them today so the past can serve as a lesson.

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