With his long-awaited memoir out now, what better time for a look at the life and work of Barry Adamson: Mancunian musical cult icon and collaborator with the likes of Nick Cave and David Lynch. David Nobakht has the goods.
Up Above The City, Down Beneath The Stars is singer-songwriter, composer, instrumentalist, film-maker, actor and photographer Barry Adamson’s long-awaited memoir, and makes for an uncontrived, compelling read. Adamson won an award for Maida Hell, a short story featured in Cathi Unsworth’s 2006 collection London Noir, so little surprise that his memoir ups the ante.
Beyond its appeal to those that have followed Adamson’s journey from Magazine and Buzzcocks to Visage to Pete Shelley to Iggy Pop to the Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds and beyond, Up Above The City… will undoubtably resonate with those who grew up mixed-race in Britain in the 1960s, 70s or 80s.
Born in 1958, Adamson grew up in Manchester; his father had came to the UK from Jamaica during WWII to volunteer for the RAF, meeting Adamson’s English mother at a dance. Skip to the late 70s, and their son – set to become a graphic designer – saw an advert in a record shop window. Howard Devoto, formerly of the Buzzcocks, sought a bass player for his new band Magazine; Adamson spent the night before the audition teaching himself to play bass, and got the job.
Up Above The City… is full of such determination, beautiful and humorous moments sharing space with heartbreak and trauma. “I figured the only way forward was brutal honesty with hopefully a dose of candour and observational detective work to make the ride less painful for the reader,” says Adamson of his memoir today. “I just followed my hunches and kind of watched myself report from my own heart of darkness, something I did intend to explore.”
How, then, did Barry Adamson go from in-demand punk and post-punk bassist to scoring Hollywood films?
In the late 1980s, Mute Records founder Daniel Miller took a strong interest in Adamson’s solo plans: he had recently left his position as bassist in a Mute-signed band, Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, to try and save his soul from a black hole of self-destruction. Miller offered Adamson a publishing deal to get his music heard by relevantly-positioned people in film and advertising – to make him into, as it were, John Barry Adamson.
In 1965, the young Adamson is taken to see the newest James Bond film Goldfinger. “I am already out of my tiny seven-year-old mind and the title sequence is only just about to begin … Goldfinger had transported me out of the ordinary, out of the everyday, into another world I never thought could exist,” he writes in his memoir, knowing at that moment he wanted to be “the man who makes the music, or the film”. Just over two decades later, Adamson is given a mixtape by FM Einheit of industrial experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten, featuring film composers such as John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Quincy Jones and Bernard Herrmann. Adamson gets hooked on the tape, reimagining that “all of this music was made by one person, instead of many.”
His first soundtrack commission was a scene in Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last Of England, starring Tilda Swinton. Included on the OST album, released through Mute, this period also found Adamson also demoing tracks for an album, tentatively titled Moss Side Story. Working in Miller’s King’s Cross recording studio, one night Adamson visited the nearby Scala cinema for a late screening of Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm. Frank Sinatra’s lead character Frankie Machine’s struggles with addiction resonated with the musician, who recorded his own version of Elmer Bernstein’s theme: slower, noisier and more raucous, as “Frankie Machine’s world is on junk time, which moves slow”. On hearing the track, Bernstein gave his approval.
Now officially a composer and solo artist, to celebrate Adamson decided to watch old bandmates the Bad Seeds playing at London’s Limelight club. A bouncer broke Adamson’s jaw, painfully concealed on The Man…’s cover photo. Its video features future Hollywood star Minnie Driver, enlisted when Adamson met her in a bar. As Moss Side Story – referencing a gang-troubled Manchester suburb and Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story – came together, its creator was practically running on empty, battling addiction and fluctuating mental health. It was divided into three acts: the first, The Ring’s The Thing, opens with On The Wrong Side Of Relaxation, and guest vocals from fellow Mute artist Diamanda Galas. Adamson builds on the menacing tension until it reaches a climax with a woman’s scream, with violins and cellos adding to the drama.
The Hammond and piano parts supplied by Seamus Beaghen give Under Wraps a 70s cop drama vibe, as much an earworm as Harry North’s Sweeney theme. Central Control, which follows, fuses a sedate Detroit techno groove with John Barry and what sounds like police radio surveillance dialogue. Though only 46 seconds long, Round Up The Usual Suspects is powerful stuff, starting with a sampled news feature referring to British Yardies as a “cancerous growth” and ending with what sounds like a black man being harassed on the street.
Sounds From The Big House, which opens second act Real Deep Cool, is gloriously dominated by Gary Barnacle’s sax playing – this in spite of Anita Lane, Kid Congo Powers and Mick Harvey, dubbed The Freedom Choir, on backing vocals. Suck On The Honey Of Love and Everything Happens To Me stand in contrast to Act 1, short interludes of sunshine, seduction and courtship, where before all was crime-ridden. Act 2’s closer The Swinging Detective slowly brings back the tension: imagine Courtney Pine collaborating with John Williams to score Jaws’ shark scenes.
As for Autodestruction, which kicks off third and last act The Final Irony, it features amplifier-punishing guitar from Rowland S Howard and sounds like The Birthday Party if they had been produced by Giorgio Moroder in an opium den. Intensive Care offers dreamlike synth clarity after this shock and awe; The Most Beautiful Girl In The World suggests Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry dragging composer Bernard Herrmann to the Black Ark to score Hitchcock’s Psycho. The final track of the final act also has a Herrmann-like quality: Free At Last breezes along nicely until threatening orchestral stabs intrude.
Moss Side Story’s cover image, taken by photographer Lawrence Watson, depicts our hero in an alley behind a former residence of his, holding an umbrella. The rear sleeve features a foreboding photo of Leech’s Funeral Service; inside, a car moves down a street of back to back houses and a building, possibly an abandoned church, is covered in flyposters for Sugar Minott and Burning Spear. With a typographic style equally suggestive of 1960s film ads and Blue Note album covers, Adamson describes the creative process behind Moss Side Story’s art as using “just what was around and taking up space in the surrounding black and white world, and hopefully capturing the mood of the place to enhance the record.” Noirish Melbourne singer Dave Graney, whose EP Adamson had produced, wrote a short story for the liner notes to return the favour. “The ground is hard the walls are hard the sky is hard and tight,” it reads. “I’d be Charlie Parker, staring bug-eyed from the shadows. Or John Coltrane on his knees in the rain.”
With the album in the can, Adamson goes to a pub in Chelsea’s World’s End, meets an old acquaintance and things backslide. Had a caretaker in a nearby community centre not seen an overdosed Adamson’s foot protruding from under a toilet cubicle door, Moss Side Story could have been his epitaph. Thankfully, he survived, the album released in 1989 to acclaim – including from Adamson’s favourite author, hardboiled New York fiction specialist Hubert Selby Jr.
In Remi Adekoya’s book Biracial Britain, many contributors comment on never feeling that they fitted perfectly into either side of their racial heritage – and, consequently, created their own world. With Moss Side Story, Adamson took things a step further, blurring the edges between his own observations and experiences with a fictional one and turning it into art.
Adamson’s next soundtrack request is to score a Hollywood crime thriller movie, Delusion. He of course accepts. David Lynch, Oliver Stone and Danny Boyle all call on his services: Lynch, it’s claimed, binged on Adamson’s music for “10 hours straight”. Adamson would later contribute four tracks to the maverick director’s 1997 psychological noir Lost Highway, including Mr Eddy’s Theme 1, coupled with possibly the greatest road rage scene in movie history, and the sublime, dub-tinged Hollywood Sunset.
“I put all I had at the time into it and it changed my life and got me into a position to work with famous directors, known for doing great work,” is how Adamson feels today about Moss Side Story, which was also followed by an essential stack of solo albums. And what does Barry Adamson plan to do in the future? “I’d like to write a fictional novel and then film it.” Something to watch out for.
words DAVID NOBAKHT