“I watched the sun rising over Nunhead in the distance”: The Beloved’s Jon Marsh on Happiness at 30
The Beloved’s Jon Marsh talks about the background to and influences behind their classic Happiness album, and what the 30th anniversary special edition will feature
Thirty years ago, The Beloved released their go-to album, the house influenced dance-based masterpiece, Happiness. With a Special Edition re-issue to mark the occasion, we caught up with frontman Jon Marsh to gain some insight into the band at the time, moving guitars to the side, trimming down from a quartet to a duo, how they were influenced, and what new goodies we can look forward to in the enhanced release.
Moving from a quartet to a duo after the compilation release Where It Is must have been a bit daunting at first. Were there discussions about jacking it all in, or was it more of a case of you two (Marsh and Steve Waddington) being more aligned to the same music going forward than all four of you, making it an exciting challenge to move on without Guy (Gausden) and Tim (Havard)?
Actually the chronology was pretty straightforward. We began as a duo back in 1982/3 so we reverted back to our beginnings more than made a radical shift. Tim left mid ’87 and Guy in the autumn. The two occasions of basically kicking people out of the band were horrendous and painful, but necessary. Me and Steve worked so well together, instinctually. And the music we wanted to make needed rhythmic discipline that machines could provide. The politics of a well-matched pair also so much easier than the permanent fractiousness of a four-piece. It was liberation.
Coming out of a more guitar-based sound, did you find the transition to being more electronic orientated difficult at first or was it more of a case of feeling yourselves being pulled in that direction by a love of clubs and the dance scene?
Our early demos from 1983/4 The Flame, Privacy, Grin etc., on the Where It Is Special Edition were more electronic. We were still a trio and I was drummer and singer, but to move forward and play gigs we became a four-piece. The drift into a rock dynamic was gradual and inevitable (said with the benefit of hindsight!). Our first (John) Peel session, when Guy had only just joined, was still a softer, dreamier sound. I wish we’d stayed more in that vein…
When we recorded Forever Dancing in 1987, which was a revamp of existing song Forever Laughing, it was an incredible moment. All four of us were in the studio, and contributed, but it was the first time I felt we had made a record that sounded both unique and genuinely forward-thinking. My home demos were always drum machine and synths, even for songs like 100 Words, so to be able to find a way to make music entirely with machines that sounded the way it did in my head was a Damascene moment.
The dynamics within the band must have altered somewhat after the original line-up parted ways but did the driving force come from one of you rather than both, or was it more of an equal share of everything including writing?
As I said before, we had gone full circle back to me & Steve. The fundamental difference being that in 1983 he was the singer and primary songwriter. I was a drummer with a Juno 60 synthesizer! By 1985 I was the singer and main writer, Tim being the other dominant songwriter. Steve happily withdrew from frontman, focussed on his guitar brilliance, and that allowed me to learn to compose. I would write his top line guitar parts, often the bass part too, and then lock them all together, as if in a sequencer. But Steve could flesh out my simple ideas and make them huge and dynamic. He is a trained musician and I’m self-taught and not that proficient so we complemented each other. Tim wrote some great songs and really interesting lyrics so actually his departure had the biggest impact, removing a whole raft of songs from our repertoire.
As we moved forward as a duo again I was now writing nearly everything but the two songs we co-wrote on Happiness are Your Love Takes Me Higher and Sun Rising which were both his ideas initially which we then developed together, with me writing the lyrics and vocal melodies.
Demos are interestingly included on the reissue – what was the demo writing process at the time and how were they put together? Who had the initial ideas, how were they developed and then finalised?
We wanted to find a coherent way of formulating a companion disc for the re-issue. When we went through all the available audio we realised that we had recorded enough music in Wolf, Brixton, over the same period to fill a whole CD. Some are demos, some unreleased songs, three B-sides and one unreleased mix of Sun Rising. Any chance we had to get studio time, especially in 1988, we jumped at.
I was incredibly prolific around then and was writing all the time – triggered by exposure to amazing music on pirates, in clubs, everywhere in fact. For instance, Time After Time & Wake Up Soon arrived in my head, fully-formed, and we just went in and I taught them to Steve as we recorded them. Your Love Takes Me Higher – Steve had made a basic demo on four-track cassette and then I wrote the vocal and we went in and recorded it as soon as possible. We actually did three mixes – of a demo! That was obviously a blueprint for how we would work in the future. Love You More we had played live a few times so was a bit more developed. That was January 1988 just before we became obsessed with house rhythms.
Were there any particular artists that were a direct influence on any of the tracks on Happiness and what kind of music were you listening to at the time – or did this basically just boil down to music you were hearing in clubs and being caught up in the club culture, raves etc?
The list would be endless! It’s a distillation of our pasts and futures…obviously going out and hearing music was part of it but it was mainly immersion in a mindset and emotional engagement. I wanted it to reflect the atmosphere and feeling of being in those clubs, not just the ‘sound’ of certain records. That’s why the non-club tracks are every bit as important. It’s a whole. Up Up & Away and Scarlet Beautiful are the 2am dance floor. Sun Rising is the 5am dance floor.
But I lived and breathed that world in those years and the music inevitably reflects it. Steve loved the music every bit as much but had a young child at home and didn’t venture out as much. But I took him to Shoom and he loved it and understood exactly where I was coming from but was definitely less wiped out every Monday in the studio. I had to force myself to ration my clubbing while we were recording, which was no mean feat in itself. But I’m so pleased I did because that opportunity to translate the experience into fully-formed music was what I had waited my whole life for (at the tender age of 24!).
From the Special Edition, the unreleased quartet of Jackie, Sally, Jennifer Smiles and My Heart’s Desire – there’s an awful lot of girls’ names and perhaps even love references in there (!) – are these specific people? What kept these tracks from seeing the light of day earlier and how was the original tracklist for Happiness finally settled upon?
These songs are all demos as well, in as much as they were recorded alongside the four songs on CD2 that are also on Happiness. Same studio, same amount of time per track. But they are songs we never went back to, for stylistic reasons or because we wrote better alternatives or whatever. I like them all but they would not have fitted on the finished album. We did re-record Heart’s Desire with Paul O’Duffy but he sterilised the fuck out of it. Terrible waste of time and money – he literally added nothing to the arrangement or instrumentation. So that died on the cross. On Sally we started re-working with Martyn Phillips, as it was probably my favourite of the four, but, incredibly, it mutated into Hello! Jackie was another song that started with Steve. I think the snare sample was the backbone of all of it – decades ahead of Mark Ronson’s productions with Amy Winehouse!
Jennifer Smiles was me trying to write a Lloyd Cole type song but the lyric is probably the most direct ecstasy-inspired of everything. A strange collision of styles but I remember it was written and recorded in about 48 hours all told. That’s how quickly we created back then. None of the songs are about particular people – I just went through a phase of using names as starting points.
What can you remember about the recording sessions themselves and what excited you about the direction Happiness was taking? Did you feel that you had something more special on your hands and did it actually feel this was going to be as appealing to others as it was to you? Did you feel in control of what you were putting together or did you feel under any pressure from the label? How free were you to do whatever you wanted?
When we signed to WEA we were really manipulated and placed with a producer (Paul O’Duffy) who we had no real choice in using. He did very little in the studio and I felt he was incredibly unsympathetic to our needs/feelings and basically in the ‘pocket’ of the label. So we made two singles with him, Loving Feeling & Your Love Takes Me Higher, which cost a lot, had videos made, and failed to chart. We were in grave danger of being dropped and the label, having tried to mould us into teenage poster-fodder, were already over it.
But… Paul’s programmer was a guy called Martyn Phillips. He was the source of all the good bits on Your Love Takes Me Higher and we really liked him. It was instantly obvious to us that this was going to work out brilliantly.
Within a few weeks we had the essence of Hello, Sun Rising, and Time After Time all existent and really strong but hugely varied. This meant we had a very wide spectrum of styles on the go and opened up an ‘anything’s possible’ mentality.
How do you think the album managed to bridge the gap between UK acid house and US club beat influences to more mainstream music, reaching people that maybe wouldn’t have been into this kind of music otherwise? Do you think the success of the videos (one being nominated for a Brit) coupled with MTV coverage assisted in broadening your audience? And as for Hello, which was, well, kinda fun…what on earth led to Zippy and Bungle getting a mention? And why not Jeffrey and George?
Most of the acid house being played in clubs was from the US, specifically Chicago. Some of us took that energy/sound and inadvertently created a UK version of it, but anyone here making any variant of house was almost entirely influenced by US records first and foremost. Maybe what we did was filter it through a different prism and create something more accessible/pop but then there isn’t a single track on Happiness that is an acid house track. We remixed a few in that vein, and made a couple of B-sides (on the CD2 – Acid Love & Paradise) that are more directly acid, but we took a sensibility and sense of adventure more than trying to directly copy sounds or beats. Obviously our videos were a big help because MTV was a massive deal at the time and we weren’t touring (just the occasional 1am club gig) so they helped with exposure and projection of what we were about.
Hello isn’t really a club track either. It was a statement of intent that worked incredibly well as an album opener. Obviously it became a hit single which was amazing – actually our first Top Of The Pops appearance, but it’s a 180º turn from The Sun Rising to that…the chorus lyrics are, as stated, Saints & Sinners. Jeffrey is in there… Zippy, Bungle, Jeffrey (Archer)… just not George. Archer was, still is, the epitome of slime ball Tory liar. Self-aggrandising and bastion of white privilege. Rhyming him with Jean Paul Sartre was to ridicule him, by placing him in the company of puppets. In the video he gets his own ‘wanker’ gesture when I sing his name, just to make it absolutely clear.
You mention some great memories in the press release, joyous occasions like the Berlin Wall being taken down and the release of Mandela – how do you think your worldly perceptions were shaping up coming into this period and did the theme of freedom form a part of the writing of Happiness? Bearing in mind Thatcher was still PM, although not for much longer…
I turned 18 in 1983. Voted for Michael Foot’s pacifist, humanitarian brand of Labour and watched him be destroyed by the press, and public opinion. Beloved mark 1, the four-piece version, was a political beast. Scarred by Thatcherism and the miners’ strike. The righteous anger and despair of that era fed into our music but in the end it was self-defeating. Acid house and the scene around it were the first indicators that perhaps change was coming.
So in those times, the joy of seeing other countries become transformed, that fundamental previously unimaginable changes could happen was an incredible thing. It made me/us more globally aware, outward-looking, seeking positivity from other people’s societal events because we were still struggling to break out of the grip of monetarist Conservatism. It fed into our ethos for sure – and it felt like maybe the human race was moving in a better universal direction. What the fuck happened?
Do you have a particular favourite track on Happiness?
In preparing this re-issue I’ve had to revisit and listen to the album a fair bit and I’m still really happy with all of it. It is the sound of me and Steve, and Martyn Phillips, having fun both writing and recording it and really pushing ourselves to make something unique. I genuinely like them all but perhaps I’ve enjoyed Up Up & Away the most because it genuinely sounds like all the fun of that 1988 clubbing experience distilled into a six-minute adventure. The switch at about four minutes in is that moment when your whole body goes Woosh! (or Shoom!)
Are there any specific memories you can recall regarding individual tracks? Are there any legendary tales you want to share that are etched into your memory forever, or was it all too much of a blur back then?
I’ve spoken before about Sun Rising but there was a perfection about the recording process that lives and breathes inside the track. Steve had recorded a very rudimentary instrumental demo version that flawed me because it was just rolling along then the Euchari sample came in and it just felt special and important. So we began to develop it with Martyn – he had a Mini Moog and got this incredible bass sound and I did the beats and every new sound we added just worked until there was this huge sounding instrumental.
Then one Saturday I went to a one-off party the Ramplings did called Joy at the Samurai Centre in Southwark Street, which was particularly amazing. And afterwards back at my flat in Camberwell, at about 6am, put the tape on and the whole vocal idea just arrived fully-formed as I watched the sun rising over Nunhead in the distance. We recorded it the next week over two nights (we had night sessions to save money!) so I even got to sing it at the exact time of day. Perfect synchronicity.
The Beloved’s Happiness (Special Edition) is out now through New State. Further information can be found here.
Source : Graeme Marsh Link