Spoons Play “Smiling In Winter”

Listen to this track by new wave suburbanites and registered Canadian anglophiles Spoons. It’s their 1982 hit single “Smiling In Winter” as taken from their album Arias & Symphonies, the band’s second. The song outlines the impression of a season that their country, and mine (the same one, as it happens) is known, delivered in a style that demonstrates their love of British pop music, specifically new wave, post punk, and New Romantic.

Spoons were formed in 1979 out of high school. They’d put out an indie single in 1980, and later a debut album in Stick Figure Neighbourhood the following year with what would be their classic line-up: Gordon Deppe (lead vocal, guitar), Sandy Horne (vocals, bass), Rob Preuss (keyboards), and Derrick Ross (drums). They would go on to tour with some of the biggest acts of the era in Culture Club, The Police, and Simple Minds.

This song was one of three singles off of what would be their breakthrough on mainstream radio and help to define the era in early ’80s Southern Ontario, especially in the suburbs. The other two would be the title track, “Arias & Symphonies”, and “Nova Heart”. And these were all from a local band from Burlington, Ontario – actually one town over from where I grew up in Oakville – rather than from Sheffield, Liverpool, London, or other British musical mecca of early-’80s post punk and synth-based pop.

But, Spoons were no copycat band. They understood that the core of that new wave sound is about playing shadows against light on all kinds of levels. They knew that taking rock instruments and contrasting it against synths was really just the base ingredient of that dynamic. But, what of this song, and the contrasting forces working within it?
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Japan Featuring David Sylvian Performs ‘Ghosts’

japan-tindrumListen to this track, a mesmorizingly haunting cut from Britain’s Japan, a band formed in the mid-70s, and flourishing in the early 80s.  The song is ‘Ghosts’, an left-of-centre hit featured on the band’s 1981 album Tin Drum,  a record that represents the height of their creativity, and effectively the end of their partnership under the Japan name.

Japan was one of the bands inspired by David Bowie, Marc Bolan, New York Dolls, and of course, Roxy Music to whom this band was compared probably because of singer David Sylvian’s voice which is closely associated with that of Roxy singer Bryan Ferry.  Yet, by the 1980s, they had branched out along stylistic lines of their own, embracing minimalism, world music, and the contrast between electronics and exotic instruments.  At worst, they were described as a sort of cerebral Duran Duran, seeing as both bands were of the ilk that was called the ‘New Romantics’.

Yet, in some ways they paved the way for a band like Talk Talk, who also started off in a traditional rock pop vein only to throw it over for a warmer, and more spacious sound, not afraid of silence, and relying on subtlety more so than on traditional pop hooks.  This song, ‘Ghosts’ encapsulates this approach nicely, juxtaposing electronic sounds against the organic touches of marimba, and with a sort of Chinese feel in the textures underneath Sylvian’s plaintive lead vocal.

Atmosphere is the song’s most powerful element, and the arrangement the band has created is structured so as not to get in the way.  This is notable, seeing as it was created and released in a decade in which production on many contemporary albums  is very, very frequently getting in the way of the songs.  This band knew the value of space, and this song, actually a top 5 single, proves the rule.

Despite the artistic bravery of this single, their biggest hit chartwise, the band suffered internal tensions between principles David Syvian and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Mick Karn.  The group broke up months after the song scored success.  The band would reconvene later in the decade under the name Rain Tree Crow, something of a short-lived project. Sylvian of course would launch a solo career by the mid 80s and into this present decade, collaborating at times with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Marc Ribot, Bill Frissell, and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, among others.

For more information about Japan, check out this Japan fan page.

And for more information about David Sylvian, investigate davidsylvian.com