Friday, August 21, 2009

the consequence of sleeping

Recently, EMI released "The Best Of Tasmin Archer" as part of their ongoing efforts to mine the company's extensive catalog.

Way back in 1993, I was a young, ambitious product manager at the last bastion of the English owned, recorded music empire. Back then, your passion and enthusiasm paid off. Not so much these days at a label.

It all started to disintegrate toward the end of the last century. And there certainly were numerous mile markers along the way that I could point to. Many artists signed to EMI were not immune to the obstacles and obstructions put in their path.

I was lucky enough to product manage most of the European acts and artists at EMI. I was responsible for the marketing strategy for Roxette, Pet Shop Boys, Go West, Robert Palmer and many others including Tasmin Archer, a shy singer/songwriter from the UK with a lovely, contralto voice.

She came to my attention when she raced to #1 on the UK singles chart in 1992 with her debut single, "Sleeping Satellite". With such a lofty presence overseas, I was sure the US company would pick up the option for her album, "Great Expectations", which was released across Europe at the back end of 1992. It was, and still is, an enthralling listen.

"Sleeping Satellite" is one of those grand moments in pop music for which many writers and artists would give up an appendage. It's moody, dreamy and affirmative with an instantly memorable chorus. Although Tasmin is mostly remembered for that gem, her debut album was stacked with potential, hit singles, all of which are represented on this retrospective. Listening to the clutch of songs on this collection, it's clear that she possesses the grace of Joni Mitchell, the passion of Joan Armatrading and the pop prowess of Elvis Costello.

I clearly recall seeing the video for "SS" the very first time. Tasmin was an unassuming pop star. One of those people like Rick Astley which, upon first listen, before you see them, conjure up images completely at odds with their true visual identity. This, combined with the kind of songwriting skill and vocal presence she possesses, is part of what makes a great artist.

After the UK success of her debut single, it was time to introduce Tasmin Archer to the American, music buying public. Oh, but there were snags which prevented me from smoothly moving forward immediately after the calendar change into 1993.

Firstly, I was ready to launch with the existing video. But the powers in "upper management" decided a new one should be shot that looked "more American". I never could quite figure out what that meant, exactly. Poor Tasmin was made to look a little spooky and spiky for the US version of the vid and piles of money were plonked down for something that wasn't far from the vision of the original video.

Internally, the folks at the label for most of my tenure there, insisted on messing about with anything that was essentially completed and delivered from the overseas territories. They wanted to piss all over something just to mark their territory. This happened for every international act I worked on with the exception of Pet Shop Boys who, thankfully, stood their ground. They had complete control of the aural and visual presentation of their art. They still do to this day. The other acts had to endure the constant intrusion of unqualified people messing about with their creations which were properly and wholly developed by their local teams.

As "In Your Care", the second single lifted from "Great Expectations", worked its way up to #16 in the UK singles chart at the start of 1993, the US division of EMI was faffing about with how to present Tasmin to US audiences. Feedback from radio programmers was that "Sleeping Satellite" was a superior song to launch with which filled a void in their playlists that wasn't part of the growing, grunge movement or the one-off, lightweight dance ditties that dotted the dial. However, most British acts were not being embraced after the likes of EMF and Jesus Jones tore up the charts even though they, too, emerged from the EMI stable of artists.

The other unfortunate situation which comes up all too often in the US is the issue of race. Some people just couldn't get their heads around the idea of a black, British singer/songwriter. And I fought tooth and nail to get the message out that music knows no color boundaries.

Then the worst almost occurred. I was in a staff meeting to discuss "SS" and it was strongly suggested by the radio promotion staff that we commission a hip-hop remix of the single with a rapper featured in the middle section. Note to folks out there at what's left of the labels. With rare exception, you should NEVER listen to the artistic suggestions of radio promotion people. And certainly NEVER follow through on them.

I clearly remember voicing my opinion on the subject and adamantly suggested that such a move would halt any development for both Tasmin and her debut album as it would skew her sound too far away from the audience that might likely embrace her singer/songwriter roots. Saturated airplay across all formats is not necessarily a good thing. Of course, I'm sure my 42 year old head is expressing this much differently now than my 26 year old mouth did at the time. But EMI was always good at shooting itself in the foot. Thankfully, I stood my ground and they relented.

Back to "The Best Of Tasmin Archer". The collection features all of her singles and a smattering of 12" mixes which appeared across various single formats. And one remix for "When It Comes Down To It", I believe, was previously unreleased. But it's the singles and album tracks that truly give you the best insight into Tasmin's pop vision.

As stated above, "In Your Care" was released as the second single from her debut and all proceeds were donated to the charity Child Line. And for good cause since the song dealt with the grim topic of child abuse which Tasmin feels very strongly about as revealed in interviews given at the time. This prompted many to compare Tasmin to Suzanne Vega who had a career defining hit a few years earlier with "Luka" which tackled the same subject matter. All female singer/songwriters obviously sound the same. Right? Oh, we love it when the press find a hook on which to hang their collective hats.

The law of diminishing returns started to come into effect as "Lords Of The New Church", the album's third single, peaked at #26 shortly after it hit the shops that May. It beautifully showcased Tasmin's broad range of influences with the single sounding like a blend of Texas and Elvis Costello with The Mamas And The Papas chiming in on backing vocals.

With summer in full flight, "Arienne" was lifted as the fourth and final single from "Great Expectations" and peaked at #30. It's my favorite song from the album and, unfortunately, it vanished as quickly as it appeared. The chorus of the song always reminds me of "Carrie Anne", a hit for The Hollies in 1967 which reached #3 and #9 on the UK and US singles chart, respectively. And that seems to further drive home Tasmin's deep love for the long lineage of great British songwriting.

It's no wonder that "Somebody's Daughter", a single that, for some unexplained reason was only issued in Germany, channels classic Fleetwood Mac. Most certainly, it would've continued Tasmin's top 40 string of singles in her homeland.

To this day, "GE" sounds fresh and has stood the test of time. Quality songwriting usually does.

Before we get to "Bloom", Tasmin Archer's sophomore longplayer, she paid homage to her roots and inspiration by releasing "Shipbuilding", an EP of Elvis Costello covers in 1994 which was intended as a stop gap between albums.

It scraped to #40 in the UK singles chart and included the title track (originally recorded by Robert Wyatt in 1982, "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror", "All Grown Up" and "New Amsterdam". Unfortunately, only "Shipbuilding" makes the cut on "The Best Of Tasmin Archer". She turned in a wondrous performance of the song, especially during those fleeting moments where she eerily channels the voice of Karen Carpenter. The goosebumps from that alone make it a fine addition to her body of work represented here.

Then a bit of silence. It wasn't until 1996, nearly a full four years since her debut album, that Tasmin and her songwriting partner, John Hughes, summoned up some new material for,"Bloom", the follow up to "Great Expectations". Britpop was in full swing and, in truth, Tasmin didn't zig when she might have zagged. Singles with a fresh swagger and a touch of psychedelia like the George Harrison-esque "Sweet Truth" and the thumping battle cry of "One More Goodnight With The Boys" fit in nicely with the sonic vibe of the times but didn't have the laddish charm that was so prevalent in the charts or across the airwaves. Also, the EMI machine was far too busy with the likes of Blur and Supergrass as they continued their rocket ride into the superstar stratosphere.

As a result, they didn't give much attention to the rest of their artist roster and Tasmin's album sank without a trace with only "One More Good Night With The Boys" being her final entry on the UK singles chart at a lowly #45.

However, "Bloom" shows tremendous growth and a more confident stride. Thankfully, four tracks are included, the aforementioned singles accompanied by "I Would Love To Be Right", which wears its Costello leanings to the fore and features some jazzy, Steely Dan inspired guitar figures and "You Made A Fool Of Me" with Tasmin's vocal taking on hints of Chrissie Hynde throughout and, once again, incorporates shades of Texas.

"The Best Of Tasmin Archer" is a must have if you want timeless, evocative storytelling wrapped in warm, earnest vocals and trimmed with all the classic hallmarks of the best, guitar driven pop that has come out out the UK. If you're discovering Tasmin Archer for the first time, this collection is the best place to begin.

Now, if I had the opportunity to wrap my hands around the tender throat of Tasmin Archer's EMI owned repertoire, I would have simply reissued deluxe editions of both longplayers featuring all the non-album b-sides, acoustic performances, remixes and, perhaps, a smattering of demos. Sadly, I no longer run that company's catalog department. Won't someone pick up the phone and let them know they are missing out? Have them call me. They won't regret it.


  1. A timely recognition. I also love Arienne, as well as Steel Town and Lords of the New Church.

  2. Such a good look at how the industry operated then (and now I assume?). Would it not have been cheaper to just use the UK videos etc?

    I have never heard Lords - I have the original CD though! - and it's great. I am going back to this stuff now.

  3. Your insight and depth of knowledge is very enlightening. I always loved Satellites and the album was good, but you are correct in saying that EMI seemed to lose their promotion mojo where Archer was concerned. I was working in the shops and watched her career sink like a stone--a real pity. Will Corinne Bailey Rae meet the same fate? Is she meeting it already?