BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Chris de Burgh was 27 years old and something of a British cult favourite when I spoke to him about his music. A single from his first album, Far Beyond These Castle Walls, had spent 17 weeks at #1 in Brazil of all places, and an English music magazine had described him as “the most talented undiscovered solo artist in Britain.” Another publication had called him “the most revelatory supporting act since Leo Sayer toured with Procol Harum.” (Sayer was a British singer-songwriter who had scored big with such songs as You Make Me Feeling Like Dancing and When I Need You. Procol Harum was a one-hit wonder band that charted internationally with A Whiter Shade of Pale.)
So de Burgh had the critical acclaim, but what about mainstream success? Aye, there’s the rub. Like many other singer-songwriters, de Burgh had talent, original songs and an individual style to offer. But success in the music business is not always necessarily related to those attributes.
Part of the problem, de Burgh told me, was the absence in Britain of album-oriented FM radio stations that would have played the narrative-driven folk-pop ballads that were his specialty. AM radio was all about Top Forty hits and de Burgh didn’t write that kind of music. In North America, his music was being played regularly on FM stations, but at that point FM was synonymous with alternative programming and commanded only a small share of the listening audience.
I asked de Burgh about Flying, the single that had failed to make an impression in the UK or North America yet scored big in Brazil. “It took me a long time to figure that out,” he said. “It only goes to show there’s no point in trying to anticipate what people will like. I think the song may have been successful in Brazil because it was a big, dramatic ballad, and they like those kinds of songs down there.”
He told me that when he first started songwriting, after graduating from Dublin’s Trinity College with an English degree, he was impressed by the originality of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. “They reflected in their songs much of what they believed in, and I’ve tried to do the same.” De Burgh wrote songs with universal themes such as love and death as if he were looking through a window “but steaming up the glass to create effects that I think are interesting.”
His songwriting had been likened to the mystical poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and the dramatic monologues of Bertolt Brecht. But de Burgh found these comparisons mystifying because he had never heard of Rilke and read only one play by Brecht “that I thought was dreadfully boring.” He would have preferred being likened to Yeats or perhaps Browning, “who is one of the most brilliant I’ve read.”
De Burgh had written one song, Spanish Train, that owed its epic story-telling style to Browning, and he told me he hoped to use more of the poet’s techniques in his songs as time went on. Spanish Train was a ballad about the devil and God playing poker for human souls, and it ran close to seven minutes in performance. That made it unsuitable for AM radio play, which didn’t bother de Burgh’s coterie of fans but did cause his record company, A&M, to suggest he focus more on writing songs with best-selling chart potential. This meant cramping his artistic style, he said, but de Burgh knew he had to pay the piper at some point. “I have to be aware that there’s a lot of money involved in making records,” he said. “If this money is to become an investment, I have to write with commercial considerations in mind.”
As much as he enjoyed the writing, the real pleasure for de Burgh was in the performing and recording of his songs. “The writing just involves a moment of inspiration followed by a lot of hard work – like finding one piece of a jigsaw puzzle and then trying to develop the whole puzzle. The performing and the recording is where the song really comes together. I try to shape the music so that it becomes part of my personality. The songs are personal efforts that can only be mine and nobody else’s.”
He said his next album would include two or three commercial songs aimed at the AM radio market, which then provided the outlet for most of the hit songs heard by pop record buyers. “Hopefully, success will follow,” he said. “Hopefully, when this record comes out, some people will remember my name and I’ll no longer be an unknown artist.”
As it turned out, de Burgh eventually recorded the elusive pop hit, but it took six more albums to get there. In 1986, at age 38, he released The Lady in Red, a romantic ballad that at wedding receptions is now the song of choice for the first dance by the bride and groom. The song reached #1 in 25 countries including the UK, went to #2 in the United States and, by 2014, had sold more than eight million copies worldwide. “To this day, it remains one of the most played songs on the planet,” says de Burgh’s website (cdeb.com).
The success of The Lady in Red also meant that de Burgh was no longer opening for such now passé acts as Supertramp and Gallagher & Lyle, but was headlining his own concerts. He never made the American charts again, but that didn’t matter because de Burgh was now getting steadily booked for concert performances from North America to Europe and beyond. In December 2007, The New York Times reported that de Burgh was scheduled to do a show in Tehran. It was to be the first appearance by a major Western pop star in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which denounced popular music as decadent. But the show never went ahead because the Iranian authorities didn’t grant the necessary permission. It wasn’t until February 2015 that Iran finally relented and allowed a Western band – not de Burgh’s group but a New York jazz quintet called Animation – to enter the country and perform. “Iran wants to show there are no issues here for foreigners, and we welcome culture and arts,” an official with the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance told The New York Times.
De Burgh, meanwhile continues to tour and play concerts – primarily in Europe – at age 66.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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