Recorded 1987 and 1993
Released 27 September 2019
When working on a project like this, there’s always the inevitability that some old unknown rarity or something might reappear, long after the blog has passed when the old thing was actually recorded. My gut instinct is usually to splice it in somewhere on the next post that goes online, like, “oh hey, before we start, here’s something we missed but is now available, let’s talk about it now.” This, though, requires a bit more than just an offhand comment in a post that’s about something else.
On 14 August 2019, the Steve vault coughed up one heckuva juvenilium: God. Not, in fact, Kevin Martin’s industrial ensemble active at around the same time; but instead one of those little on-off side projects that never went anywhere, just Steven Wilson and some dude stage name Ford last name Leggott farting around in the studio in their off time. This would have been in the late 80s and early 90s, when No-Man and Porcupine Tree were both ramping up, and if I may lean into trite conventional narratives for a second, when you’re juggling so many projects it’s inevitable one will fall by the wayside. That it was this one became all the more attractive upon realizing that this Ford fella was focusing on acting at the same time, with all the associated scheduling issues. They never toured or had any official releases, but before Wilson and Ford went their separate ways, they still left behind a small corpus of material recorded in 1987 and 1993, from which was culled the three tracks that appear on Panic Underneath the Arches.
God claims inspiration mostly from new wave pop such as Talking Heads, Japan, and Magazine. Naturally, then, City and Bad Dreams, the songs from the ‘93 session, both sound a lot like if early No-Man was a bit noisier. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Tim Bowness blowing out his voice trying to howl “WELCOMMME TO GROOVYTOWN” during City’s chorus. Ford’s delivery, though, is very different from Bowness’, dripping with cocky, swaggering, almost Gallagher-esque arrogance that serves him well here. He’s a jerk, and he knows it, and he wants you to know it, and we believe him.
This can be problematic when the song calls for not being a jerk. Love, the sole offering from the ‘87 session, is clearly the product of an earlier age. The production is rough in the way a lot of Wilson’s 80s work is rough, sounding more obviously like a cleaned-up demo, and the way the reverb is slathered across the guitar and Ford’s vox gives it a very…of its time atmosphere. This is also the one place where Ford’s delivery falters, as this is a slow story-of-misfortune song of the sort Tim Bowness would fine-tune a decade later, the sort of thing that needs the tenderness and empathy that he can deliver in spades. Ford, meanwhile, tries his best to present himself as that sort of person in this song, but his chronic lack of vocal range betrays the facade for what it is. He’s much more at home with the funky, fast-paced, city-timelapse-in-long-exposure material from the ‘93 session.
I’m not quite sure where God falls in the pantheon of old Wilson oddities. I like what I’m hearing well enough, but at the same time I’m not exactly itching to hear more from this project, especially when Loveblows and Lovecries exists and does much of what God sets out to do, but better. Ultimately, what makes God worthwhile is not what it represents in and of itself but what it says about what animates one of the people who recorded it.
Some pertinent chunks of Wilson’s history. Much of No-Man’s output in the 90s is a tug-of-war between writing accessible pop music (Loveblows and Lovecries) and artier niche music (Flowermouth). Consider that Wilson and Bowness felt it was worth spending three years paying attention to music industry trends and demands at all. God’s music is partially inspired by Japan, and here at the same time City and Bad Dreams were recorded Wilson was in the formative stages of a working relationship with someone who was actually in the band. The touring band Wilson formed after Porcupine Tree dissolved prominently features a guy who scored a #1 new wave hit in 1983. Wilson’s password to Livingston Studios during the making of Deadwing was “international pop star.” He’s collaborated with not one but two big names in the Israeli pop music world. Stupid Dream and To the Bone exist. And now here we are, looking at newly-unearthed pop music, some of which was recorded the same year that No-Man and Porcupine Tree first became something recognizable as themselves.
For as much as Wilson has animosity toward the mainstream music industry, as much as he despairs at the state of contemporary pop music, as much as he talks a good game about doing what he wants and not caring what other people think, and as much as the King Crimson T-shirt portion of his fanbase may want that to be true (because that obviously means more dense 70s prog, right?), there’s clearly still a part of him that really, really wants to be a pop superstar. There is a tension between the part of him that wants to make pop music accessible to everyone and the part of him that wants to make weird, bizarre music that maybe only two people would “get.” What we learn with the release of Panic Underneath the Arches is that this tension goes all the way back to when music first became a serious concern for him, and is, in fact, foundational to our understanding of Steven Wilson as a musician. This is going to come up again.