Monday, November 23, 2009

The Lilac Time – Astronauts (1991)



Stephen Duffy looks back at a long, foggy winter and the temporary collapse of the Lilac Time.

By Robin Platts



As 2009 drew to a close, Stephen Duffy once again shared his gifts with an unsuspecting and generally unappreciative record-buying public on the compilation Memory and Desire — 30 Years in the Wilderness with Stephen Duffy and the Lilac Time. The “wilderness” reference is apt. For most of his 30 years in the music biz, Duffy has managed to evade the mainstream, while winning over a cultish legion of devoted fans with his wistful folk-pop. A perfect example is the 1991 album Astronauts, one of Duffy’s many overlooked gems.

In the late ‘70s, Duffy teamed with Nick Rhodes and John Taylor to form a group called Duran Duran, but quit before they landed a record deal.

Stephen-Tintin-Duffy-Kiss-Me-67426 After abandoning his post as Duran Duran’s lead singer, Duffy picked up a guitar, then ditched it in favour of synth-pop for a brief foray into the early ‘80s mainstream, peaking with the hit single Kiss Me.

The synth-pop sound, like the “Tin Tin” stage name he adopted for a time, was an awkward fit. So he picked up his guitar again, and the third Stephen Duffy solo album morphed into the self-titled debut by the Lilac Time, a folk-pop trio that featured Duffy, his brother Nick, and friend Michael Weston.

Lilac-Time-The-Lilac-Time-96043 The first Lilac Time album came out on indie label Swordfish in 1987, before being picked up by Fontana/Polygram, and was a moderate success.


The gentle, tuneful, folky sound of the Lilac Time was well-received, but the group never cracked the mainstream. After two further albums, Nick Duffy quit the Lilac Time, and the group teetered on the brink of collapse.

“After my brother stopped touring, it wasn't the Lilac Time,” Stephen Duffy remembers. “Without my brother, it completely changed the direction. Especially live, and the live gigs were so awful that I just knew that it was best to stop.”

Lilac-Time-Dreaming-77048 On their last legs, the band signed to Alan McGee's Creation Records in 1991. Coming off a disastrous tour, the Lilac Time set to work on the album that essentially finished the band off.

"Alan McGee was managing us and so we swapped over from Polygram to Creation," recalls Duffy. "And we came straight off that tour and started making this record in my spare room in Malvern, in a room that we couldn't even get all of the band in at the same time. Everything was so badly thought-out.

“It was a very long and dark winter, and it was very foggy. We were just sort of sitting on the side of this hill in the fog, and it seemed to get into the music. And then, when we'd finished, I just didn't have the desire to carry on."

Despite the line-up and label changes, Astronauts turned out to be one of the Lilac Time's strongest efforts, a sparse, beautiful album, bookended by the yearning In Iverna Gardens and the snowscape snapshot Madresfield.

There’s something perfect about it – a sad, simple acoustic vibe that encapsulates Duffy’s romanticism. It is, in some respects, the Duffiest of all Stephen Duffy albums. Nevertheless, he maintains the album wasn't really finished, in part because he wanted to make a different kind of record.

"When you're making a little record, you always want to be making the big record,” he explains. “I was reading yesterday about Martin Scorcese making The Last Temptation Of Christ. He only had a little crane, but he really wanted a big crane. Which is why he made Cape Fear, or The Color of Money, because he wanted to use a big crane. And the same thing applied with Astronauts, because I thought, 'I can't make this record with such a small crane - I need to be on Parlophone.' So that's why the next record (a Duffy solo album called Music in Colours) was just so incredibly extravagant. I thought, if I let myself make these little records, I'm just going to wither… So I didn't even finish Astronauts. Alan just put it out as it was. If I'd have finished it, I would've destroyed it.”

Although it wasn't released in North America, Astronauts was moderately successful in Britain, making the Top 20 Indie album charts in both the NME and Melody Maker. (A Japanese reissue several years later expanded the original album with seven extra tracks.)

Shortly after Astronauts was released in Britain, the Lilac Time called it a day, and Stephen Duffy went looking for a bigger crane. He continued to chart his way through the music biz, more or less managing to avoid commercial success at every turn, collaborating with violinist Nigel Kennedy, and then riding the Britpop wave as a solo act before reviving the Lilac Time in 1999 with the excellent Looking For a Day in the Night.

Stephen Duffy is keeping the Lilac Time going with the Memory & Desire compilation and documentary film of the same name, working his own niche in whatever is left of the music industry.

“Our pledge to stay unheard and unsullied by commerce remains eternal,” he quips in a recent blog entry.

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