Why do The Sound remain a lost band when they made some of the best records to from the first wave of post-punk?


In the crisp early morning air of Monday 26th April, 1999, Adrian Borland threw himself under a train at Wimbledon station in front of a platform full of horrified commuters. He was 41 years old. Months later, local newspaper the Wimbledon Guardian would report the verdict of suicide from Westminster Coroner’s Court, detailing at length Borland’s ongoing psychiatric problems and the distressing final hours before he took his own life – including a fateful phone call with an ex-girlfriend.

Perhaps almost as tragic as his passing, though, was that the newspaper story completely omitted to mention Borland’s role as lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for The Sound, the greatest lost British band of the 1980s. In death, Borland was denied the courtesy of even a footnote about his life’s biggest triumph. For anybody lucky enough to be familiar with the Sound, their perennial lack of recognition was and continues to be as galling as it is utterly heart-breaking.

This month marks 35 years since the release of debut album ‘Jeopardy’, a forceful, bumpy, slaloming tour around the darker extremities of the likes of XTC and U2, the strength of its tunes undiminished by the cheap, rough-and-ready production throughout. In a five-star review for Melody Maker, Steve Sutherland said: “[They’ve got] the edge over U2, the Bunnymen or the Teardrops as Britain’s brightest hope.”

Unfortunately, we know now where all of that early promise ultimately lead. For a few short years though, Borland and The Sound would craft some of the most melodic and affecting rock music of their era; Borland’s soaring, tormented vocals invariably counter-balanced with smart pop sensibility. Second LP ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’ was a bona fide masterpiece; arguably one of the best-produced post-punk records ever and easily equal to their peers’ albums – even if The Sound didn’t have the sales to show for it. “Twelve months ago they steamed in with a remarkable debut that knocked spots off those by fellow newcomers like U2, the Comsats and the Bunnymen,” said Mike Nicholls in The Record Mirror in 1981. “Since then, all the aforementioned have put out second albums and once again, the Sound lead the field.”

So why did Adrian Borland die with The Sound all but forgotten whereas U2 ended up on top of the world as global superstars? When a deserving rock group fades away without success, the finger gets pointed at some of the usual suspects: label hassles, bad management, personal circumstances, drug addiction and, of course, material. Perhaps one of these was to blame for stymying The Sound’s success?

In fact, as Borland’s spry 81 year-old father Bob explains to me in a lucid, lengthy conversation at his South West London home, all of these factors and more besides conspired to unjustly fate his son’s band – one of the best of their generation – to obscurity. “A lot of myths have been spread,” says Borland Sr. in reference to the myriad reasons offered up by the Sound’s small and loyal internet following. “Even the band themselves seem not to have understood what the real situation was.”

Adrian Kevin Borland was born 6th December 1957 in Kilburn, London, the only child of Bob, a theoretical physicist at the National Physical Laboratory, and his wife Win, an English teacher. By the time the young Borland was in his teens, the family had moved to Wimbledon and Borland was already in love with the electric guitar. In 1975, he formed proto-punk outfit Syndrome, who would soon rename themselves The Outsiders, after Albert Camus’ philosophical novel The Outsider.

At the height of the punk movement in 1977, The Outsiders released ‘Calling on Youth’, a snarling but ultimately harmless and naïve document of the era (sample lyric: “I’m a rock and roll terminal case!”). Borland Sr. created a label – Raw Edge – to put out the album, thereby giving the Outsiders the distinction of the first-ever self-released punk LP. More records would follow. “Tuneless, gormless, gutless… I like them a lot,” raved Tony Parsons in NME. Others were rather less supportive – in the same magazine, Julie Burchill trashed the first album and took aim at the band’s looks and middle-class roots. “Adrian wasn’t really a punk,” Borland Sr. concedes.

No matter, the Outsiders made steady progress, supporting people like The Jam at London’s famous Roxy club. One night, the band were piling through a Stooges cover only to find Iggy Pop himself had jumped up on stage and was enthusiastically joining in. Eventually, Borland’s childhood friend Graham Bailey would join on bass, thereby beginning The Outsiders’ transformation into an entirely different band, one that would revolve around Borland and stretch well beyond the self-defined punk rock archetype.

To be sure, the progression between The Outsiders’ releases and ‘Jeopardy’ is staggering. Unshackled from punk’s three-chord, guitars-only template, The Sound’s first LP is still full-frontal but layered, nuanced and brimming with ideas. A new drummer was on the scene in the form of Mike Dudley but it was the full-time addition of Benita “Bi” Marshall on keyboards that really broadened the group’s horizons, just as keyboards made their impact on Joy Division around the same time.

‘Jeopardy’ had already been recorded before The Sound signed to Korova Records, an imprint of major label Warner Brothers. Dudley – eight years older than the rest of the band – had wanted The Sound to take a deal offered by EMI and pursue rock stardom but the rest of the band felt Korova would be more focused on promoting independent acts; their only other signees were Echo and the Bunnymen. As it transpired, this was both a blessing and a curse: The Sound got to tour with and support the Bunnymen, but they were also constantly living in another band’s shadow.

“When we signed to Korova, the first thing that happened was that we were each given a copy of ‘Crocodiles’, which was about to come out, and we all thought that because that album sounded so lush and full, that we were going to be taken to a studio and allowed to re-record,” remembered Marshall in another interview. “We were really, really upset [when that didn’t happen]. We knew that comparisons would be drawn with the Bunnymen, who were the only other act on Korova, and who had this fantastic album with phenomenal production.”

Critics loved ‘Jeopardy’ – bargain-basement production values and all – but with limited promotion and distribution, it bombed. Fans at gigs outside of London frequently complained about being unable to find the album, which infuriated Borland and the group. “It was about that time that things started to go wrong for us,” Marshall said last year. “[Adrian] started to feel the pressure delivering ‘the next product’ as he called it, and almost overnight The Sound ceased to be fun.”

Borland Sr. thinks that, privately at least, around this time his son was also beginning to wrestle with the schizoaffective disorder that would haunt him the rest of his life, his mental anguish already hidden in plain sight within his lyrics. “When he says, for example, in the song ‘I Can’t Escape Myself’: ‘Left alone I’m with the one I most fear,’ he is referring to this other person in his head with whom he can communicate. [He’s having] a two-way conversation. He wasn’t really talking about another side of himself, he was talking about another person, and I don’t think people understand that. It was a different person, inside his brain.”

After the first record, Borland fired Marshall – a casualty of the band leader’s nascent paranoia – and brought in replacement Colvin ‘Max’ Mayers, before setting to work on completing album number two: ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’. Produced by Hugh Jones, who was also responsible for records by the Teardrop Explodes, the Bunnymen and Simple Minds, ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’ is the Sound’s high watermark and the album that should have made them famous. Each lugubrious track is astonishing for its prescience, pointing the way for modern disciples like Interpol and Editors with a snappy, prominent bass line, punchy drums, soaring treated guitar lines and a welcome lack of the tinny production that plagued other deserving albums of the era.

Again, ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’ received rapturous reviews from the critics but was summarily ignored by most of the record-buying public. Borland Sr. puts this down to a lack of touring in the UK and a misguided focus on the continent instead. “They had an agent working for [talent agency] Asgard and he always told them it was very difficult to get gigs in the UK, which was a load of rubbish,” he says. “The truth was of course that there were two people working for Asgard; The Sound’s agent and somebody else. The Sound’s man was responsible for European gigs and the other one was responsible for UK gigs. In reality, of course, The Sound’s agent could have got the other one to arrange UK gigs but he didn’t, he kept them in Europe.”

The result was that in those crucial early years, the band never built up a head of steam on their home turf (though they did build a sizeable fan base in the Netherlands, just as the Comsat Angels did). All the more’s the pity, because the band were a seriously formidable live proposition – legendary live document ‘In the Hothouse’ is testament to that much. After their second LP failed to shift enough units, Korova first asked the group to produce a single for the next album, then made the decision to drop them entirely, only to be rebuked by the European Warner Brothers branches. “Everybody said, ‘You can’t drop the Sound!’” Borland Sr. laughs. “I think they were taken aback by that – [Warners] realised the strength of feeling was so strong, so they decided to continue.”

Improbably in fact, Charles Leveson, the head of Warners in the UK at the time, somehow brokered a deal for the band to be managed by the prestigious E.G. Management, who at one point or another had looked after people like T. Rex, King Crimson and Roxy Music. As luck would have it, Ferry was leaving the E.G. roster and a vacant slot awaited The Sound – E.G. would only ever manage three acts at a time. “What they lacked really was good management,” insists Borland Sr. Here was a golden opportunity to rectify that.

Yet far from seizing it with both hands, Borland snubbed the offer, declining to even meet E.G. face-to-face. “Typical Adrian,” says Borland’s father. “He seemed to always reject these opportunities for making a lot of money and being more successful and I don’t know why… I think he was afraid of the pressures of commercialisation; of what stardom might mean.” Having managed the band himself up until this point, Borland Sr. felt unable to continue in the face of such obvious spurned chances for success. Instead of looking elsewhere, Borland Jr. took on managing The Sound himself – an unnecessary exacerbation of his increasingly troubled mental state.

Korova did go on to release The Sound’s third LP in 1983 – the oppressively bleak and almost comically uncommercial ‘All Fall Down’ – if only to fulfil contractual obligations, with no promotion whatsoever. The Sound were immediately dropped thereafter, signing with independent label Statik the following year. An EP (‘Shock of Daylight’) and LP (‘Heads and Hearts’) would follow, both of which were excellent and offered a brighter take on the template established by ‘From the Lion’s Mouth’ – even if their songs often retold Borland’s disturbing self-conflict. In any case, few were left paying attention and to add insult to injury, Statik went bust in 1986 – by which point Bailey and Mayers were also using heroin, while Borland was drinking very heavily. One last album, ‘Thunder Up’, came out on Belgian label Play It Again Sam in 1987, before the Sound finished for good the following year.

Truthfully though, in the band’s final years Borland’s psychological problems had progressively become more pronounced until the situation was simply untenable. “It was December 1986,” Borland Sr. confirms. “Until that time he seemed to me perfectly normal.” Borland suffered a complete breakdown and was sectioned in Springfield Hospital. He attempted to commit suicide by smashing a window in his room and lacerating his throat with the glass. Two further such attempts would follow over the years as Borland moved between hospital, his parents’ house and renting elsewhere, until he eventually succeeded on his fourth attempt that sad day in 1999.

Borland was of course deeply troubled, but to characterise his life after The Sound as exclusively revolving around mental anguish and repeated suicide attempts would be to do a grave disservice to what became a long and fulfilling solo career, with several collaborations (including a record with punk legend Jello Biafra for starters). Borland also had multiple relationships after the band had parted ways. Independent film makers Jean-Paul van Mierlo and Marc Waltman are producing a documentary celebrating Borland’s time not just with the Sound but right up until the end. Walking in the Opposite Direction is set to be released next year and the project is still accepting donations here.