New Wave and Beyond Issue #13 1999

Lilac Time

By David Richards

One of the true hidden gems of the late 1980s was the quirky English band, Lilac Time. An oasis in the desert of loudly overproduced electrobeat pop, Lilac Time presented a mostly acoustic, melody-rich kind of music that harkened back to American groups like Crosby Stills Nash and Young or Simon and Garfunkel.

    Of course it was doomed to failure, sales-wise, at least. No one in the "industry" knew quite what to do with this band. Try to get college radio on board at the same time Nirvana was breaking there? Foist them on adult radio, when the bluesy Bonnie Raitt ruled the roost? Even in theirhomeland, where the band was quickly lumped, improbably, with the Madchester sound, music buyers found the distinct lack of a thumping four-four beat just too much.

    Stephen Duffy, who started the band with his brother Nick and Michael Giri and others, remembers that those were some fairly dark days for the band. "It was a very confusing time, when we were signed to Mercury. Music itself was in a period of confusion. They kept wanting us to sound like the rest of the bands in that "Madchester" scene; they neverheard any singles." Duffy laughs.

    The band's brilliant 1991 album, And Love For All, was seen by Mercury as a chance to cash in on that scene. It had, after all, Jonathan Leckie as a producer, the man behind the phenomenal success of the Stone Rose album. And it also had Andy Partridge of XTC, then experiencing a career highlight with Oranges and Lemons. "We were managed by the same manager. Andy had heard ourstuff and liked it. He offered to help out, and I thought it would be a good idea. He was able to armor-plate the acoustics, and he was good about finishing things. 'Honest To God' (from And Love For All) was kind of a Beach Boys tribute. I was in the car with Andy and we heard the Swingle Singers, and thought it would be great to do a song like that. Andy was very patient and inspiring." But despite such high powered help, And Love For All fell between the cracks.

    "What Lilac Time was, really, was that lull between the Smiths and the Stone Roses. It was us along with the Las, fey English rock." This kind of confusion might have humbled a lesser man, but by this time Duffy was already a veteran. Whether or not people knew it, many were already fans of Duffy before the Lilac Time, thanks to a little single named "Kiss Me."

    "Blessing, curse, all rolled into one. I was in the studio with some guys from Dexy's, Fashion, some other bands, and we recorded 'Kiss Me' The guy who paid for the studio time was livid: we had spent 500 pounds worth of studio time. So he took it around, seeing if he could get a deal and get back some of his money. Sire/Wea picked it up. But since the other guys were in bands and were contractually obligated, I became 'Tin Tin'"

    Despite appearances to the contrary, Duffy was himself, not Tin Tin. "I still get people, reporters, who come up and start out, 'Okay, Mr. Tin Tin, tell us about the new album,'" Duffy relates without the hint of a laugh. "Then the Smiths came out and I was stuck doing this dance stuff I was not comfortable with. Don't get me wrong, though, I was desperate to do a record. I would have recorded with the Salvation Army Band if I had to."

    Part of that desperation may have come from his infamous "just missed the boat" experience with Duran Duran. The myth has become that Duffy bailed out minutes before "Girls on Film" became a huge hit for the band, making him some sort of new wave Pete Best. "Nothing further from the truth. I had left a couple of years before they had a hit. I met Nick (Rhodes) and John (Taylor) in art school and we had formed a band. We were one of those "art bands." Believe me, if I had stayed in the band they would never have gone anywhere!" He has not really kept in touch with any of his former Duranies, but did run into Nick Rhodes last year. "We talked for a while, I think we were both drunk."

    So by the time Mercury let the band go in the early '90s, Duffy was not fazed. "I just had to carry on. I had, long ago, pledged allegiance to music. I was not going to go be a plumber or something. I had really decided that when Virgin dropped me (as Tin Tin) before the Lilac Time."

    Creation records then picked up the band for their fourth album, Astronauts. "It was a bad time, for me personally. The album was impossible to finish. It would take five years to record one drum part. Here we were, with no money, holed up in a barn in the middle of the countryside, trying to record that album. No support from Creation. It was just like when we made And Love For All. Mercury at that point was spending millions of dollars on Seeds of Love. This time Creation was spending, what, a quarter million pounds, on the My Bloody Valentine record. Record company politics drive me crazy. But Creation at least keeps that album in print."

    The fate of the first three Lilac Time albums is a sore point for Duffy. "I don't see why Mercury doesn't keep them in print. I know we have fans, and I hate to see them spending $30-$40 on a Japanese import or something. That's what's nice about our current (UK) label Cooking Vinyl: they keep stuff in print." In the end the band broke up before Creation could even release the last album. Duffy went back to a solo career, releasing two solo album on BMG. "Well, that did not go well either. Too many unrealistic expectations, too many people changing jobs at these majors. I did the first solo album with Nigel (Kennedy) and people at BMG kept saying, 'This is going to be huge.' You begin to believe them, and then when it isn't, and it never was going to be, everyone is disappointed." So disappointed, in fact, that Duffy was again let go by BMG after the second album. For the record, Duffy has been let go by every major label in the Western World now: Sire/Wea (Warner Brothers), Virgin (EMI), Fontana (Polygram/ Universal), BMG, and, technically at least, Sony (they own Creation now).

    "It was the best thing ever, to get away from the majors. It gave me a chance to dismantle the trappings of the pop world. Time to downsize, as it were.

    But why return to Lilac Time? Why not just another solo album? "Well, solo albums are rarely really just that. They always involve so many people. And, we had talked about doing another Lilac Time album. It just felt like it was time.

    Looking for a Day in the Night marks a brilliant comeback for the band. Much more acoustic and mellow than previous efforts, the album is also bereft of any obvious singles. "Cooking Vinyl was good that way, probably the only place we could have recorded this record. We got to be the band we always were. With Mercury, they always wanted abrasive bits that would stand out, singles. This time around we wanted to smooth out those bits. The album is about sleep and dreams, after all."

    And so we say not good night, but good morning to a brand new day, featuring plenty more Lilac Time.

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