"1984 and other prophetic tales" - The recent re-issue of Anthony Phillips' 1984 album. Review by Alan Hewitt.

Strange to think that back in 1981 when this album was initially released, there was much fearful anticipation of the then dreaded year so bleakly forecast in George Orwell’s dystopian fable back in 1948. Ant was not the only musician to try his hand at a musical adaptation of the story. Rick Wakeman’s full scale musical adaptation was also released (ironically by Charisma Records), that year too, and immediately fell foul of the Orwell estate.

Ant’s version encountered no such problems however, mainly because of the fact that, being a totally music driven album, it did not tell the story in a way which could be deemed to be damaging to the reputation of Mr Orwell. In fact, the album itself owes more to the work of James Bellini whose seminal TV series Rule Britannia was the initial source of inspiration for what subsequently became the 1984 album. Examining English society at what was one of the most pivotal moments in the country’s history was a brave step and the music which emanated from it was to prove to be every bit as brave as we shall see.

The Anthony Phillips of 1981 (confusing this year melarkey, innit?) had been neatly (but incorrectly) pigeonholed by fans an critics alike, as a proponent of acoustic guitar music. And this despite three incredibly worthy and varied vocal albums: 1977’s The Geese & The Ghost, 1978’s Wise After The Event and 1979’s Sides all of which have been given the Esoteric treatment. Ant was beginning to wonder where his career path in music may lie and so to take the decision to produce the album we now know as 1984 was an astonishing one which took fans such as myself completely by surprise upon its release.

Essentially what we have here is a synthesiser symphony, divided neatly into four movements evoking a whole range of moods, atmospheres and emotions. There is no direct programme for the music and apart from a repeated vocoder phrase “1984” towards the end, there is no direct reference to the book either. Maybe this is why it escaped the wrath of the Orwell estate?

What the album proved beyond doubt then, and does again now, in this marvellous reissue is that Mr Phillips was, and is, a superbly talented producer of keyboard music. At times darkly sinister, and at others majestically soaring, this album deserves its place as one of the great keyboard albums of the 20th century to rank alongside the very best of Wakeman, Oldfield et al.

Once again, the new mix of the album brings greater clarity of detail to the fore right from the beginning of Prelude ‘84 where the first thing you notice is the enormous depth of the bass in comparison to the original version, this one really does rattle the bass cabs and sounds truly menacing.

1984 Part One also sounds radically different to the original version. I say “different” only in so far as that on this new mix you can hear even more of the keyboards which Ant used throughout. In fact, the same can be said for all four of the movements which comprise the album. I don’t say this often, but listening to this new mix takes me back to 1981 when I was a mere strip of a lad with a full heard of hair! To put it in a nutshell, and here is another word I don’t use often, this is the definitive version of this classic album and it is a delight at every turn.

As usual with Esoteric’s reissues programme though, there is much more to this than the album itself although that would justify the admission price alone. We also have the 5.1 mix which is even more breathtaking than the stereo one - hard to credit but true nonetheless, but we also have a selection of music associated with the album, including the wonderful Rule Britannia Suite comprising music from the TV series of that name. Now I can vouch for the fact that the series was a brilliantly observed examination of the class system within this country and as such, should be screened again and for once in such things, the music was used to very good effect and hearing it now in its fuller extent, only reiterates just how good Ant is at working to image. Something he has based a large part of his subsequent career on through library music.

Jonathan Dann has done his usual consummate best in terms of sourcing much of this material from Ant’s own extensive archive of recordings which has proven to be a blessing. His informed and informative sleeve notes (once again containing extracts from some of our own Pavilion interviews) fill in the history of the album as well as some amusing insights into the shenanigans necessary to complete it!

Rounding it all off, is the miniature advertising poster, another nice touch. Once again, when like me, you have come to take music like this for granted through the sheer familiarity of listening to it so often, it is a genuinely exciting feeling when you are given the chance to experience that initial thrill all over again, and such is the case with 1984 - a timeless album of superb instrumental music from one of this country’s truly great modern composers.

Click to enlarge

Anthony Phillips - 1984. Esoteric Recordings ECLEC 32550