Composer, guitar, piano
British composer Barry Adamson began his musical career as a member of the avant-garde pop band Magazine and honed his skills playing piano and guitar for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds before realizing that his true musical calling stood beyond the rock and roll genre. Drawn to and inspired by the cinema early in life, Adamson left the confines of pop music to pursue a solo career writing evocative, jazzy instrumentals. Composing scores for both real and imaginary film soundtracks, “Adamson’s muse has always revealed a colorful debt to insurgent pulp fiction, smoky film intrigue and other manifestations of high-spy thrillers,” wrote Mitch Myers of Magnet. In addition to writing music for several films, including Gas Food Lodging in 1992 and Lost Highway in 1996, Adamson also penned songs for solo works such as his debut album Moss Side Story. Released in 1989, the autobiographical thriller revealed themes from a film that never existed.
As a solo artist and soundtrack composer, Adamson further enjoyed exploring the dual nature of humanity (goodness versus evil and sin versus salvation) and man’s eternal struggle with himself in his music. “The big question is how the soul can be the house of both incredible joy and such abject misery,” Adamson told Myers, discussing his eclectic 1998 solo release As Above, So Below. “Can one reach a place of acceptance that puts everything in balance? The darkness is there for a reason, and the lightness is there for a reason. We walk through life with both of these things in check, and it’s the very humanness that I’m talking about.”
Born on June 1, 1958, in England, Adamson grew up in Manchester’s Moss Side, where he developed an early fascination with the relationship between film and music. “I guess the influence of film came before I got into music, so a lot of the people were from the late ’;60s”, he revealed to Myers. “Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, Quincy Jones, John Barry—these people were at the height of their powers at that time. It’s different now, but those people were so powerful in the way they talked about the world of a film on a musical and emotional level. It had a profound effect on me then and still does today.”
Despite his later jazz and film-inspired compositions that approached music from a cinematic perspective, Adamson spent most of the 1970s and 1980s playing with rock, punk, and pop bands. In 1977, Adamson joined his first band, an art-punk group that refused to honor musical boundaries, led by singer/lyricist and ex-Buzzcocks member Howard Devoto called Magazine. With Magazine, which became Manchester’s most influential pop group of the time, Adamson learned to play
Born June 1, 1958, in England.
Left Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to pursue solo career, signed with Mute Records, 1987; released debut album Moss Side Story, 1989; penned soundtracks for Delusion, 1991; and Gas Food Lodging, 1992; contributed to soundtrack for the David Lynch film Lost Highway, 1996; released first solo album utilizing his vocals, As Above, So Below, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Mute Records, 140 W. 22nd St., Ste. 10-A, New York City, NY 10011, phone (212) 255-7670, fax (212) 255-6056. Website —Barry Adamson at Mute Records, http://www.mutelibtech.com/mute/adamson/adamson.htm.
bass guitar literally overnight. While the group started out playing harder-edged material, exemplified in Magazine’s 1978 debut entitled Real Life, they eventually gravitated to more melodic, pop tunes by the release of their third album in 1980, The Correct Use of Soap. In 1981, after recording five albums together, the band dissolved, although Adamson, guitarist John McGeoch (who left Magazine in 1980 to join Siouxsie and the Banshees), and keyboardist Dave Formula continued to play in a side project, the synth-pop band Visage, until around 1984. Adamson also worked briefly with Pete Shelley, another former Buzzcocks member, after the disbanding of Magazine.
From 1982 until 1983, Adamson played bass for the Birthday Party, a punk band led by vocalist Nick Cave and guitarist, drummer, and keyboardist Mick Harvey. Despite the group’s festive name, Birthday Party—propelled by Cave’s poetic, yet disturbing lyrics that often centered around love, death, and religion—created some of the darkest and most violent music of the time. The band’s debut and follow-up album, Prayers on Fire released in 1981, and Junkyard released in 1982, earned both popular and critical acclaim. When Birthday Party dissolved in 1983, Adamson joined Cave, Harvey, and Blixa Bargeld to form Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He played both piano and guitar for the Bad Seeds from 1984 until 1986 and recorded three albums with the ensemble before deciding that rock music was too restricting a format for his other musical ideas—specifically, writing songs inspired by classic film music composers like Morricone and Barry.
In 1987, Adamson signed with Mute Records as a solo artist and released his first EP in 1988, The Man With the Golden Arm. In preparation for his debut album, Adamson returned to the streets of Manchester’s worst neighborhoods. The result was the dark, moody autobiographical thriller Moss Side Story, issued in 1989. Nurturing his desire to compose scores similar to his cinematic influences, Adamson’s first effort contained various themes from an essentially non-existent film. According to Adamson’s website at Mute Records, “the album set a precedent for inventive forms and thinking through echoes of cinema past.” Divided into three acts with each act containing four movements, Moss Side Story traveled through a range of musical styles from jazz to neo-classical to industrial, showcasing Adamson’s diversity as a composer. While his debut failed to earn substantial commercial attention, Moss Side Story received critical recognition, and Adamson’s experimental sound techniques influenced a younger generation of British trip-hop acts, especially Portishead and DJ Food.
After recording a four-song EP entitled Taming of the Shrewd (also released in 1989), which included the epic song “Diamonds” and illustrated Adamson’s solid grasp of the jazz style, he received his first opportunity to write music for actual films. His first cinematic soundtrack was for Carl Colpaert’s witty, neo-noir independent film Delusion in 1991. Here, Adamson put seriousness aside and revealed a playfulness usually lacking in his solo work. For the composer’s work on Delusion, as noted by Doug Broad and Ira A. Robbins in the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, “Adamson drenches the grooves with menacing organ, flamenco guitar and spaghetti western sass that perfectly evokes the film’s double dealings.” Next, Adamson shared scoring duties with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis for the acclaimed Alison Anders film Gas Food Lodging in 1992. Along with Adamson’s work, the sound track featured a diverse collection of instrumental and vocal pieces from various Mute recording artists.
Returning to solo aspirations and film scores of the imagination, Adamson released the album Soul Murder in 1992. Another eclectic blend of musical styles, the work contained hints of jazz, ska, electronica, and orchestral wanderings punctuated by samples (including one from the television prison documentary Scared Straight ) and spoken-word narratives. One track, for instance, offered the Fall’s Marcia Schofield telling the gruesome story “A Gentle Man of Colour,” a tale of a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Another highlight included Adamson’s reinterpretation of the James Bond film series theme entitled “007, A Fantasy Bond Theme,” on which the composer alternated between rock/ska and big band music. Adamson’s next release, 1992’s Cinema Is King, presented one track from each of his prior solo collections, minus his first EP, and film music.
The following year saw the release of the six-track, album-length The Negro Inside Me, a blend of hip-hop, French pop, jazz, and funk. It is considered one of Adamson’s most accessible recordings. The ideas for the album resulted after Adamson traveled to Los Angeles to produce for the band Ethyl Meatplow. Again, Adamson took samples from innovative sources, such as from a message left on an answering machine from his publicist in “The Snowball Effect.”
Desiring to learn more about the cinema, Adamson spent the next few years studying film in New York and recovering from reconstructive hip surgery. He returned in 1996 with the release of Oedipus Schmoedipus, which Adamson named “the third part in a personal trilogy,” according to his website. With this album, Adamson revisited the darkness ofMoss Side Story and enlisted appearances by Cave, Billy MacKenzie (former frontman of the Associates), and Jarvis Cocker (of the band Pulp). Oedipus Schmoedipus brought Adamson wide spread acclaim for his vision, insight, and musical innovation. The release also caught the attention of renowned filmmaker David Lynch, who asked Adamson to contribute to the soundtrack of his forthcoming film, 1996’s Lost Highway.
Adamson would later consider the Lost Highway soundtrack (produced by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor) his most satisfying and appropriate cinematic project. He ended up penning four songs for the film. “It all made sense when Lynch and I started talking about Lost Highway,” Adamson proudly revealed to Myers. “I realized that I’d been connecting with a similar kind of scene in my own work, and Lynch noted that as well. We connected artistically with where he wanted to go with the film, so I was really pleased by that.” And when asked how it felt to finally be viewed as a bona fide film scorer, Adamson replied, “It’s a nice little story, you know. You get a push to do something and you think everything’s against you. Then you decide, ‘Well, what the hell—I’ll do it anyway.’ And some force outside of your awareness is assembling itself because you’ve taken the risk against the odds. There’s a payoff there, and it gives me a nice warm feeling in my belly.”
In 1998, Adamson released his sixth solo album, As Above So Below, which extensively featured his vocal ability for the first time. “I think [singing] was where I personally needed to go,” he explained, as quoted by Myers. “I had laid enough ground, and it was to the point where I lost interest in the ambiguity of what I was trying to say. I think ambiguity is very powerful in asense of suspense, but to make suggestions with words, the palette was broadened.” Aimed to broaden his fan base in the United States from a cult following as well, the album proved another critical favorite and provided noteworthy tracks such as the danceable “Can’t Get Loose,” the abstract “Jesus Wept,” and the hip-hop tune “Still I Rise.” Also that year, Adamson performed live with a full band for the first time in over ten years and found time to score the music for the BBC television drama series City Central.
In 1999, Adamson released a collection of previously released songs representative of his solo career entitled The Murky World of Barry Adamson. The album also included three new songs: “Walk the Last Mile,” “Mitch and Andy,” and “Saturn in the Summertime.”
The Man With the Golden Arm, (EP), Mute, 1988.
Moss Side Story, Mute/Restless, 1989.
The Taming of the Shrewd, (EP), Mute, 1989.
Delusion, (soundtrack), Mute, 1991.
Cinema Is King, (EP), Mute 1992.
(With others) Gas Food Lodging (soundtrack), Mute, 1992.
Soul Murder, Mute, 1992.
The Negro Inside Me, Mute, 1993.
(With others) Lost Highway (soundtrack; produced by Trent Reznor), nothing, 1996.
Oedipus Schmoedipus, Mute, 1996.
As Above, So Below, Mute, 1998.
The Murky World of Barry Adamson, Mute, 1999.
MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Arizona Republic, July 23, 1998, p. 30.
Daily Telegraph, May 30, 1998; May 8, 1999, p. 12.
Independent, March 7, 1997, p. 14; May 29, 1998, p. 11.
Independent on Sunday, August 11, 1996, p. 16.
Magnet, November/December 1998, p. 25.
Barry Adamson at Mute Records, http://www.mutelibtech.com/mute/adamson/adamson.htm (December 15, 1999).
RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (December 15, 1999).
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