There are some artists who have had a significant presence in pop while staying very much in the shadows. One of these would be Virginia Astley, whose discography is (mostly) unavailable and in any case entirely obscure to most followers of pop.
Born to Edwin (Ted) Astley in 1959, he of "The Saint" and "Danger Man" themes, Virginia found herself in a musical family. Her elder sister Karen married Pete Townshend and her brother Jon was a noted producer and mastering engineer. Taking up piano and then flute, Virginia's initial recorded output was as keyboard player with Victims Of Pleasure, who released three singles between 1980 and 1982. During this same period she accompanied Richard Jobson's poetry on The Ballad Of Etiquette and sang on "La Chanson D'Helene" by The Dream Makers, included on the impressive Le Disque du Crépuscule compilation From Brussels With Love.
There was little here to suggest that Virginia Astley was soon to release some of the loveliest pop of the era. In fact I missed the release of the 10" EP A Bao A Qu in the first month of 1982 and was equally unaware of the single "Love's A Lonely Place To Be" exactly one year later. But, living in Canada, I was lucky enough to latch onto the compilation Promise Nothing when it was issued. The exclusive Canadian version of this lost album used the artwork from "Love's A Lonely Place To Be". Two versions issued in Belgium on Les Disques Du Crépuscule (in 1983 and 1985) have different, and to my mind completely inappropriate, cover art.
What we have here are the four tracks from A Bao A Qu on the first side, and the four from the 12" of "Love's A Lonely Place To Be" on the flip. One track, "Soaring", has been remixed. The last two selections are instrumentals most properly heard on her second album, here used to fill space -- though in the nicest possible way.
The result is an extraordinary melding of Virginia's girl-next-door soprano, chamber orchestra arrangements and bitter-sweet lyrics about the death of love. Her brother Jon's production is exemplary, with arrangements that could not be bettered. But it passed through the listening public like a ghost, some five years before its time (if I compare it to the success of Enya's Watermark).
This debut was followed by From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, a lyric-free recreation of Hertfordshire ambiance, divided suggestively into Morning and Afternoon sides. Released through Rough Trade in July 1983, this is the only Astley album (out of an eventual five) to remain in print. Incidentally, it marks another Skids connection, being produced by Russell Webb. His sensitivity to the delicate and subtly evolving music is evident. The melding of instruments with location recordings creates an evocative aural space. If you like Promise Nothing, you owe it to yourself (and the artist) to buy a copy of this CD!
Virginia was to go on to have a taste of popular success. Signing to Elektra she released Hope In A Darkened Heart in 1986, performing a duet with David Sylvian on the lead-off single "Some Small Hope". This was enough to get the album released throughout Europe and even in the USA. While I dislike Ryuichi Sakamoto's overly slick production and don't think much of the single, the album has much to recommend it.
The Astley catalogue is currently in disarray. Hope In A Darkened Heart has been recently reissued in Japan without permission. Other master tapes are lost. Astley herself is not fond of Promise Nothing. Will we ever see a comprehensive re-issue of her catalogue?
Visit her excellent website for detailed discography information.
-- The Second Chameleon
A1 We Will Meet Them Again (4:00)
A2 Arctic Death (3:02)
A3 Angel Crying (3:46)
A4 Sanctus (2:08)
B1 Love's A Lonely Place To Be (3:27)
B2 Soaring (3:25)
B3 Futility (3:25)
B4 A Summer Long Since Passed (4:40)
B5 It's To Hot To Sleep (5:40)
LP Canada: Why Fi Records / Sire [WYFI 14] 1983 [cover from "Love's A Lonely Place To Be"]
LP Belgium: Les Disques Du Crépuscule [TWI 194] 1983 [cover by Catherine Lazure]
LP Belgium: Les Disques Du Crépuscule [TWI 194] 1985 [cover by Joël Van Audenhaege]
We have done a special mastering job on Promise Nothing, replacing three of the tracks with superior CD rips and using spectral analysis to clean out clicks and pops. Unfortunately there is some distortion that simply could not be removed without significantly damaging the music, but it shouldn't be too noticeable.
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