“Still Ahead Of The Field” - A couple of Anthony Phillips’ latest re-issues put under the microscope by Alan Hewitt.

The recent re-issue of most of Ant’s back catalogue has thrown up some more interesting items from the archives. None more so than the elusive “Ahead Of The Field” album. Originally issued in the early 1980’s, this was one of (if not the first) proper library album of Ant’s music that was to be compiled. Setting the trend for the many that have since followed it, this is a fascinating look at the formative stages of Ant’s career as a major composer for TV.

The album opens with the up beat and catchy High Potential, a drum machine and keyboard romp which definitely belongs on some TV show - and probably did at the time too! Stress Factor is much more dramatic and the album’s title track has all those hallmarks of the Eighties - an infectious synth line and the ever present drum machine anchor this one firmly in its time zone. This is a song in the making and I am surprised that Ant never wrote lyrics for this one.

Directions, is a much more left of centre effort. Disjointed drum patterns and an echoey keyboard suggest that this one was written with an eye toward some action drama or feature film. View Points to my ears has echoes of the music which Ant wrote much later for the Lifeboat TV series, it is dramatic and evocative and certainly deserves a wider audience which hopefully this release will guarantee for it.

Activator and Data Express are further typical products of their time with the drum machine taking a leading role in both. The latter hints at the predominance which the Internet will later come to have in all aspects of our lives, not least the creation and marketing of music. Time Runner, well this could have been the theme tune for The Running Man or even Terminator - it has everything going for it; a pacey rhythm and an infectious tune ideal fare for the Eighties.

Metal Man could have been written by so many acts from this period but is still unmistakably Anthony Phillips whilst Knowledge Of Man points the way to the more quirky and individual music which would become the staple of library projects from now on. Forging Ahead, could well have had its place on the much later Sail The World soundtrack, not only in terms of a suitable title, but also the incessant rhythm patterns used.

Databank wouldn’t sound out of place in BBC’s Spooks TV series, a delightfully chilly feel pervades this one. Incentives has all the typically brash feel to it which was very much the trademark of the period making it another period piece and the album’s closer; Touchline, is another up tempo rhythm piece which once again displays Ant’s increasing confidence as a keyboard player.

Sides has long been a favourite of mine among Ant’s back catalogue and so I won’t waste any time regaling (or boring) you with my thoughts on it again. However, this new release, like those that have preceded it, brings much more to the table (pinball or otherwise!) and it is the second disc of the set which merits a closer examination here. Once again the sonic detective, Mr Jonathan Dann has done his homework and brought some real gems to light which might otherwise have remained unheard.

Not keeping strictly to the running order of the album, we open the second disc with the glorious instrumental mix of Um & Aargh which gives us another chance to appreciate the rhythmic talents of Messrs Perry and Giles with a nice twist of having their own interpretation of how the song would end concluding the proceedings instead of the album’s fade out version - wonderful stuff! It is somewhat strange hearing an instrumental mix of a track which you know so well as a song, but nevertheless, I Want Your Love gives us another delightful behind the scenes look at this marvellous performance. At times, Ant’s guitar has echoes of an earlier piece from the Wise After The Event album but when he lets rip accompanied by the superb talents of Giles and Perry the end result is stunning.

Sisters Of Remindum once again returns us to the original 24 track master recording which showcases Ant’s superlative piano playing as well as giving us the bonus of some extra parts which were not used on the finished version - a rare treat indeed! Lucy Will appears here without the additional congas which were added to the album at the behest of Passport Records boss, Marty Scott, apparently. Still a wonderful song and a delight once again. Magdalene too, is a joy to hear taking us back to the 24 track master which once again highlights the sheer genius of Giles and Perry - makes me wonder what things might have been like if Ant could have formed a band using their talents at this time!

Side Door, always one of the more eccentric of Ant’s songs (not as eccentric as an as yet unreleased version containing hilarious lyrics by Peter Cross, though!) gets us back to the original version sans saxophone by Mel Collins which was added to the album version which makes listening to this version quite a strange experience but it does give us a chance to appreciate Dan Owen and Dale Newman’s marvellous vocals just that bit more fully which is no bad thing in my opinion.

Um & Aargh gets a second bite of the cherry here with the 7” single version and appearing here for the first time since it was issued to the singles market here in the UK, Holland and briefly in France too, according to Jon’s exhaustive sleeve notes. The single’s B Side, gets its day in the sun too with an instrumental mix taken from the original 16 track master, another treat for Ant completists.

Bleak House, like Magdalene comprises the real heart of this album. Two beautiful long form songs and here we have a superb recording of the former, comprising only Ant’s piano and the wonderful vocals of Dale Newman. I love the original but I think that I might favour this version over it from now on - simply beautiful!

Nightmare wakes us up from the reverie created by its predecessor and once again showcases the combined talents of Giles and Perry who seem to be having a wonderful time creating this aural fright fest. Taken direct from the 24 track master again, this time we here the raw track without benefit of effects and other overdubs which were added later. Hair raising then, and even more so now!

The disc is closed by a pairing of two tracks which, although in the running for inclusion on the album, never made it for one reason or another. Catch You When You Fall may be familiar to anyone who possesses the first Archive Collection disc, but here the track is taken back to its “roots” if you like in he shape of this mix from the 24 track master. Another look at what might have been had Ant decided to proceed with it, this one is cast in the same jaunty manner as Side Door which is perhaps why it never made the grade the first time but enjoyable enough here this time round. Before The Night rounds off the album with another wonderful slice of acoustic piano from Ant. I can understand why this one didn’t make it to the album, it definitely pales in comparison with Bleak House but nonetheless, deserves a home which it now finally has.

Once again, credit must go to Jonathan for his efforts in putting this material together although both he and Ant did have the advantage of all of the master tapes for this album being accessible in Ant’s own tape archive but even so, the sheer number of hours of listening that must have gone into putting this together deserves applause. The sleeve notes are as detailed as ever and it is nice to see some of the material from the interview I conducted with Ant for The Pavilion Magazine finding a home here too all of which makes the complete package even more enjoyable and one which old and new fans of Ant’s work will really enjoy.

The contrast between this album and Ahead Of The Field couldn’t be more marked. The former has not really survived the ravages of time too well. The use of the dreaded drum machine (the “must have” piece of kit in the Eighties) has condemned much of the music to sounding particularly dated which isn’t Ant’s fault and there is much of real merit therein but it really can’t hold a candle to Sides which has grown immeasurably in this new edition. Maybe that’s why “library” music seldom appears in the public domain but still fascinating stuff all round.

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Anthony Phillips: Sides (2 Disc edition) Voiceprint Records VP534CD.
Anthony Phillips: Music For TV And Film Ahead Of The Field Voiceprint Records VP514CD