Crisis? What Crisis?
From humble beginnings CC have grown into a major force in 80s music. Here, they explain their approach to writing and performing, and their rise to chart success.
Of all the many duos that currently inhabit the popular end of electronic music, none have inspired the imagination or varied their output as much as China Crisis. Originally simply the union of two schoolfriends, Garry Daly and Eddie Lundon, the line-up has recently been augmented by oboe and sax player Steve Levy (known as 'Snowy') and drummer Gary O'Toole.
CC's first album, Difficult Shapes And Passive Rhythms — Some People Think It's Fun To Entertain, was released to considerable critical acclaim in November 1982, and a single from it, 'Christian' provided the band with their first taste of chart success. Since then there's been no looking back. The early part of 1983 was taken up with China Crisis' first major tour supporting Simple Minds, and only six months later, a second, more mature album product. Working With Fire And Steel - Possible Pop Songs Volume Two, was released to tie-in with the appearance of the single of the same name.
Dan Goldstein disrupted a Christmas drinking session and managed to get a word in edgeways.
How and when did China Crisis start?
Eddie: It started when Garry and I were still at school in about 1976. We used to play anything: Garry used to play a lot of bass then, and I played guitar. The first synthesiser we got was a Yamaha CS10. At the time I was going through a phase of liking Yamaha gear a lot because I had a Yamaha guitar, too - an SG2000. I had it for ages but unfortunately it was stolen recently, though I was lucky enough to get another one that's almost identical.
I don't really know why we chose the CS10. I think it was just the fact that there was nothing else available that could make those sounds. For instance, Korg stuff nowadays is great but in those days, and at our sort of price-level, they were awful.
A little bit later on, a friend of ours bought a Boss Dr Rhythm, and that was the first time we had access to a drum-machine. At that time the more elaborate machines were just too expensive for us, so we just used to use the Boss in obscure ways, making a lot of use of the rim-shot, which we liked a lot...
So much for then; how about your equipment now?
Garry: After we bought the CS10, we started borrowing a lot of instruments off people we knew, and we didn't buy anything else until we got a Cat mono-synth. After that we had a Roland SH2 and then, when we signed to Virgin, we got our first polysynth, a Korg Polysix. The main reason we chose that was simply the fact that it made the best sounds, plus the fact that it seemed relatively cheap at the time.
More recently we've got a Jupiter 8, which we use a lot, and we're expecting an Oberheim OB8 any day now. I like the split-keyboard facility on the JP8, and also the way you can de-tune the oscillators apart to give things more depth. I don't know all that much about the way the keyboard works as a machine, and in a sense I don't want to know because I'd rather just judge things on the way they sound. I like keyboards that are neatly styled and logically laid-out, because that way you can come to them for the first time and get them to work straight away, rather than having to spend a lot of time finding out what's going on inside.
For effects I tend to use a Roland SDE-2000 or a Space Echo, and they're connected to the Jupiter 8 almost all the time because without a bit of echo it can sound a bit dry.
Snowy: During the sessions for the last album, Mike Howlett, the producer, introduced us to the Emulator, and we liked it a lot. If we had enough money we'd probably buy one! We created our own effects rather than using the factory disks. One of the things we did was sample a guitar to make it sound like a pizzicato violin, putting the microphone right over the bridge of the guitar. The sound was incredibly lifelike, probably better than it would have been if we'd actually sampled a violin! We also used it for vocal sounds, but on balance you've got to admit it is very expensive. There's no way we can justify spending upwards of five grand on a keyboard; in fact we aren't even going to hire an Emulator for live work, because although it would be a very useful effect to have on stage, it just doesn't make economic sense to us at the moment.
Eddie: Unlike a lot of guitarists I don't feel the need to have lots of different guitars for different sorts of songs. I've just got the SG2000 which I'm basically very happy with. I've also got a Roland guitar synth which I used on the first album and the last tour, but I don't use it much now. The sound is just a bit too thin: it doesn't make the guitar stand out enough amongst all the synths. To vary the sounds a bit I use a Roland 555 Chorus Echo and an SDE-2000.
I've not really had much of a chance to use the Fairlight, but it's definitely something I'd like to look into in the future, because it seems to have almost endless possibilities. On the other hand, I wouldn't really like us to get too dependent on computers, because in many ways we're trying to get back to basics now, to get back to a more traditional band format. If you start using computers exclusively you get too inward-looking, too self-indulgent.
How did you get your first break into recording?
Eddie: We recorded a version of 'African and White' as an independent single that never came out. We did a demo of it on a Portastudio that we'd borrowed from a friend (again), and I remember we also used a DOD Analogue Delay for echo and so on. There was a 24-track studio really near to us in Liverpool that had its own record label, Inevitable Records. The people there really liked the demo and offered us some studio time instead of a cash advance. We re-recorded 'African and White' there with Jerry Lewis of Inevitable producing. That was the first time we'd ever been in a recording studio, and of course it was great fun, messing about with all that flashy equipment.
Recording was the first thing we did because in those days we weren't very interested in playing live. We managed to get hold of an old Akai 4000 reel-to-reel, which we actually had for ages simply because it was the only thing we could afford. We had very little in the way of effects, just a Wem Copicat that we used on guitar and keyboards.
I remember we put real drums on the 24-track version of 'African and White', played by a guy called Dave Reilly, who also played on some of the first album. The thing was that we'd already been using drum-machines for perhaps two to three years, and because we'd never had the money to buy a Linn or anything like that, we'd just got bored with what we were using. There was a time when I thought drum-machines could replace drummers totally, because in theory they can do everything drummers can do, but after a while you realise that they can't create feel, though it's also true that a lot of drummers can't do that either.
The first album was recorded very sketchily, because half of it was recorded before we signed the licensing deal with Virgin, when we were still doing a lot of demos. So half the album was recorded in a little eight-track in Liverpool, with just Garry and I producing. That eventually made up one complete side of Difficult Shapes And Passive Rhythms. The other side was produced by all sorts of different people, because it was recorded in lots of little bits over a long period of time. Jerry Lewis did 'African and White', Pete Walsh produced three tracks, and Steve Levine did two tracks.
We learnt a lot from that album. We learnt that we really needed to have one producer all the way along, for a start. Also we decided to get in Gary and Snowy for the second album after we'd toured with them, because that way there'd be no need for Garry and I to struggle to do all the instrumental parts ourselves, overdubbing and so on. There's nothing on the first album that I'm actually unhappy with, because I still think it's a great album, but the second one is definitely superior...
What benefits have the additional members brought with them?
Eddie: Playing in the context of a band, you tend to change things automatically rather than consciously deciding to improvise. In a band you can bounce ideas off other people and draw on their feel, but there's no way you can bounce ideas off a tape-machine.
For the Simple Minds tour we only had about five days' rehearsal with the band. What we did with the new members was just give them a copy of the first album and say 'go and learn it'. Having such a short time in which to rehearse was good in a way because it meant there was quite a lot of spontaneity in the way we played each night of the tour, especially during the first few.
Garry: The Simple Minds tour was really the first time we'd played live without backing-tapes. Before then we'd used tapes for drum-machine patterns and bass lines. The reason we used tapes in the first place was that when we started off, we never used to gig at all, so all our songs were written at home and recorded onto tape. It seemed a natural extension of that process to use tapes live as well, but when we played as a band without tapes we definitely enjoyed playing more, so it was a transition that was worth making. If you use tapes for too long you become dependent on them; they tie you down completely and they stop you from introducing any type of feel. They can't buy you a drink either!
Eddie: I think writing as a group is a very good way of working, though there's nothing essentially wrong with working as a duo. It would have been possible for Garry and I to carry on that way forever if we'd wanted to, because a song's a song and it doesn't really matter how many of you there are involved with it. But I do think that playing as a group is much more satisfying than anything else we've done.
We've now begun to work to a kind of schedule. We're setting aside time to write songs, time to record, time to rehearse, and time to play gigs. The only problem is that whereas we know that, say, recording is only going to take up a small part of the year, it's possible for us to write things at any time, so that if any good ideas come up while we're touring, for example, it's really a case of just trying to remember them before we go back into the studio.
We used to write continuously, almost every day, but nowadays that sort of schedule is impossible because we're so busy. There are so many other things to do. Before we start writing songs as such, we usually do a week of just ambient stuff, just to relax us.
How important is the atmospheric side of your work?
Eddie: Well, in the early days all our pieces were instrumentals: just atmospheres and things we were putting down on tape almost as soon as we'd written them. We still do that sort of thing now, because we like both the pop aspect of music and the atmospheric aspect. Garry does a lot of writing for the ambient stuff, mostly because he composes from the keyboard and most of our atmospheric material is keyboard-based.
Working on those sorts of tracks enables you to relax much more. There's less worry when you're writing and recording. You don't have to worry about reproducing cliches the way you do with pop songs; you can get more involved with the music itself.
In a sense all our music starts off as instrumental because we always do the lyrics and vocals last of all. We've always liked to put that sort of material out as B-sides to singles, though obviously you can't do much more with them because of commercial considerations.
One thing that did happen was that two of our early instrumentals got played as part of a television programme. Nobody had told us anything about it. We were sitting in Garry's living-room watching TV, and suddenly I thought to myself: 'Hey! That music sounds familiar.'
It was great, seeing what was really another side to our music - seeing it through the eyes of a television director. It was something that didn't require any effort on our part, unlike, say, Top Of The Pops. It was just there, and it felt good knowing that whoever had produced the programme had decided to use our music as opposed to anyone else's.
The only problem is that you can't really play ambient music live. Of course it can create atmosphere just as well as any other form of music, but as far as I'm concerned it's the wrong atmosphere, because when I go to a concert, I don't want to sit there gawping, I want to dance, feel some excitement.
I suppose eventually we might end up doing a whole album of ambient stuff; just a collection of various bits and pieces all together in one package, instead of putting it all out as B-sides to singles.
What sort of things have influenced your atmospheric material, and your music as a whole?
Eddie: The first atmospheric thing we heard was side two of David Bowie's Low, plus just after that, there was Eno's Before And After Science, which also had a big effect on us.
Garry: I like almost all of the Obscure series. People like Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd. In fact, we took the title Possible Pop Songs from Possible Musics, which is the subtitle to Jon Hassel's first collaboration with Brian Eno.
As far as the poppier stuff goes, it's difficult to say exactly what has much of an effect, because the mere fact that I like something doesn't necessarily mean that it'll influence what I'm writing. I suppose I'm influenced a lot by beats and rhythms: drum-machine patterns in disco records and so on. I know none of our stuff really sounds much like disco material, but we still pick up on the way certain sorts of rhythm are used.
It seems to me that quite a lot of China Crisis material has almost a classical structure to it. Have any of you received any format classical training?
Garry: I haven't had any formal training at all, and certainly not on piano. Popular music allows you to create sounds without any particular virtuoso skill, which is one of the things I like about it. It makes no difference whether you've had four years studying music theory at Manchester University or whether you've never played keyboards before in your life. The only thing that matters is that you can create an interesting sound.
Snowy: I went through the usual classical training in brass and woodwind. It's a different situation for me because I play a much more passive role within the band, at least for the time being. If Garry and Eddie say 'play this' I have to be able to learn it off very quickly. I've only recently joined the band as a full-time member, so I've only really just started writing songs and making a positive contribution in that way. What I'm doing now is a very big transition from the classical recitals and so on I was doing before...
Eddie: The thing about Snowy is that he's a very quick learner, and what's more he doesn't complain about being things not being technically right. We've worked with other classically-trained musicians in the past who've taken one look at what we'd asked them to do and said, 'you can't do that. It's all in the wrong bar. It goes against all the rules.' But Snowy isn't bothered at all.
How did your approach to the new album differ from the last?
Eddie: The big difference between this one and the last is that we recorded this one as an album as opposed to doing it in lots of different bits. We used two studios: Amazon in Liverpool for the backing-tracks and The Manor for overdubs and mixing. I definitely preferred working that way, because working over a short space of time gives you more of a chance to get involved with what you're doing. If you record things bit by bit, you end up having to listen to tracks that you recorded months ago, which can be distracting because you start listening more to the way you've progressed since then rather than to the songs themselves.
As far as recording equipment goes, this album was the first time we'd used the AMS digital delay. Echo really is the most important effect because it's such a natural sound: it's something that's all around you. You can't ignore it. You can also do lots of interesting things echoing different instruments in drum-machine patterns...
Snowy: It is possible to go overboard on that, though. It's good to record some things completely dry. We always have our bass and acoustic drums fairly dry. You can never get away with using too much echo, because if you do that everything ends up in a great big acoustic wash. We put quite a bit of artificial echo on sax, for example, but for oboe we tend to just use the natural acoustics of the room.
Finally, do you have any ambitions that have yet to be fulfilled?
Eddie: Well, in the early days we never really wanted a lot of success. I suppose it's one of those things. You never really want it until you've got it, and once you've got it, it's not enough.
Initially the only ambition we had was to get some sort of record out, and it was only after we'd achieved that that we began to want more success. Now our only ambition is to get an audience who'll stick by us no matter what we do, rather than just like our music for a short while and then forget us.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!