Reissued today is the 1986 debut album from dark indie band Breathless. Called The Glass Bead Game, it saw the band – bassist Ari Neufeld, singer, keyboardist Dominic Appleton (who went on to guest in indie supergroup This Mortal Coil), Guitarist Gary Monday and drummer Tristram Latimer Sayer, go into the Blackwing Studios with John Fryer, and produce a stunning set of songs, akin to Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, even Talk Talk in places. Intense, moody, anxious and deliberately vague, The Glass Bead Game, while not ignored by any means, isn’t spoken of in the revered tones that it undoubtedly deserves. It’s an inventive and brave, romantic and melancholic record that skirts the edges of goth rock, and post-punk and even foretells shoegaze, without ever committing to anything other than their own sound.
Maybe with this reissue it’s time to reassess the album and place it properly with its peers. With that in mind Ari from the band exclusively gave us her memories and thoughts on each track from the album. So sit back, play the album, and read the stories behind it.
Across The Water
This was the first song we recorded at Blackwing Studios, home to early 4AD and Mute recordings. This followed an abortive session in a studio where the outside lavatory and corridor doubled as the live room and all the channels on the mixing desk bled into each other. When we remonstrated with the owner, he told us we had no grounds for complaint as that was our sound!
We all owned those early Cocteau Twins and 4AD Records recorded by John Fryer and going to record at Blackwingwas like a dream come true for us. Even now after all these years and all I have learnt about recording, there are still sounds and textures in Across The Water that are so otherworldly that I have no idea where they came from or how John Fryer created them.
All My Eye And Betty Martin
Gary, our guitarist had just bought a sampling/looping effect pedal, which was cutting edge technology when it came out in 1985, so we were all fascinated by this magic new gadget when he turned up at rehearsal with it the first time.. He strummed a couple of chords, turned a couple of knobs and suddenly there was this beautiful wall of washy sound that we all wanted to be part of, so one by one we joined in, mesmerised by the pulsating swirl and All My Eye And Betty Martin pretty much fell into place there and then.
Count On Angels
A lot of our early songs were written in my bedroom with me playing through my Hi Fi and Dominic and Gary playing through Gary’s tiny amp at parent friendly volume. The basic rhythm was dictated by the guitar and bass and embellished later by our drummer when we got to the rehearsal room. None of us knew how to count our drummer in, or indeed what time signature we were playing in, so we just started and he joined in! As you can hear on the record! And this is still how we play it Live today.
We recorded an earlier version of Monkey Talk with (Drostan) John Madden at Rooster Studios where he worked with The Cocteau Twins when they first came to London. Drostan was originally recommended to us, along with John Fryer, by Ivo Watts Russell, who we had struck up a friendship with after sending him a demo at 4AD.
We were intending to record a whole album, but ended up only releasing 3 of the songs as our first EP and reworking the others, for other records. We were all listening to a lot of Pink Floyd at the time and I think Monkey Talk and Stone Harvest are where this is most obvious.
Monkey Talk was the first bass line I wrote for Breathless. And although I had already started taking bass lessons at this point, my bass lines just repeated the same riff all the way through. I later read somewhere that the reason the early PIL songs sound the way they do is that Jah Wobble couldn’t play along to anyone else when he first picked up the bass, so the others had to play along to what he was doing instead and it was exactly the same for me, with the early Breathless songs. Though by the time we got round to recording this version of Monkey Talk I had got a bit more adventurous and everything winds down and changes for Dominic and Gary’s duet in the end section.
Every Road Leads Home
We have always recorded our albums in two stages. We would write the first 4 songs go and record and mix them, then write the second batch and do the same. And the track listing on this album pretty much reflects that, with this being the first song from the second session.
I’m not sure at what stage in the proceedings Ivo asked Dominic to come and sing with This Mortal Coil. I know John Fryer and Ivo had already embarked on the This Mortal Coil project and released both Song To The Siren and It Will End In Tears and were starting work on the follow up, Filigree And Shadow. Dominic was initially invited just to sing The Jeweller, but Ivo was so pleased with the results that Dominic ended up singing Strength Of Strings and Tarantula on Filigree And Shadow and I am The Cosmos on Blood as well.
Although The Glass Bead Game got some good reviews in England when it first came out, it was Italy that really got what we were doing. So around this time we set off on our first Italian tour. The first show was in a spa town where the only inhabitants looked pretty elderly and infirm. We were worried that something had got lost in translation and that we had turned up in the wrong place. But as we explored we saw more and more Breathless posters on the ancient walls around the town and by nightfall, the previously deserted car park outside the club was rammed full of cars with number plates from far flung corners of Italy. The audience were lovely and even took it in their stride when Gary’s guitar amp blew up in a puff of smoke mid set.
The next day we were waiting to set off for the next show, wondering where on earth our drummer Tristram was. When a Police car turned up with sirens blaring and Tristram, who was wearing eye liner and had a Morticia Adams streak in his long black hair, got out of the back exchanging cordial goodbyes with the local Carabinieri. Apparently he had been drinking the milk he had just bought, in the local square and two old ladies reported an unsavoury character to the Police, who promptly arrested him, only to end up giving him a police escort to the Hotel when they found out he was in the band from England that had played the previous night. And from then on this song has been inexorably linked to that tour.
Sense Of Purpose
Blackwing was housed in the allegedly haunted, now deconsecrated All Hallows Church in Southwark. The original stone work provided a beautiful natural reverb, which was amazing for recording drums, as one can hear on this track. In addition to the natural acoustics John Fryer was a wizard with reverbs and echos and built amazing layers of sound creating a modern day take on the Spector Wall Of Sound. Although we had a very definite idea of how we wanted to sound, it was John Fryer that made this album as sonically magical as it is. I can’t believe that we had the audacity to give ourselves full production credits and John only the engineering credits on the sleeve, after he had contributed so much and that it wasn’t corrected for the reissue!
See How The Land Lies
Although my painting for the album cover is abstract and was created totally randomly, it is undeniably very reminiscent of sky and clouds, and I always see the painting in my mind’s eye when I hear Dominic’s lyrics to this song, particularly the “Overhead the sky’s now clear, down below the weathers bitter” part. It isn’t just the words themselves but something about the whole mood of the song that evoke the image for me.
Dominic, Gary and I had recently gone to see an early Dead Can Dance show in a small club. They were absolutely stunning, like nothing we had heard before and the evening was made complete for us by Elizebeth Fraser standing in front of us dancing throughout their set. The haunting sounds and strange time signatures fascinated us and soon Dominic and I were taking Flute and Dulcimer lessons from an other worldly Chinese man, who insisted on five minutes of meditation before the lesson began. Something I would totally embrace now, but just set me off in floods giggles at the time, especially if Dominic was there to egg me on. Although I loved playing the Dulcimer, we could never mic it up properly and then there was the problem of tuning the numerous strings and trying to find out from my teacher what the notes I was trying to tune to actually were, as his advice of “C, C#, it doesn’t matter, its all OK”, wasn’t really very helpful!
So although I never got to record any Dulcimer, as you can hear at the beginning of Stone Harvest, Dominic got to play his flute and chimes at the beginning of the song.
Stone Harvest wasn’t on the original vinyl release of The Glass Bead Game, but on our long deleted EP ‘Two Days From Eden’, but we thought it fitted in really well with the other tracks, so included it on the CD version.
The Vinyl edition of The Glass Bead Game is reissued by The American label 1972 Records https://1972records.com/Breathless