this weekSaints and Singers

March 18, 2005

Stewart/Gaskin

Serious pop from the other Dave Stewart

In 1985 I was attending college in New York, and in the great tradition of young people wasting the best years of their lives “experimenting,” I developed an addiction—to synthesizers. I bought what was to be the first of many keyboards and spent countless hours tweaking sounds when ordinary people my age were busy getting drunk and forming bad social habits. I wasn’t very interested in writing songs; what fascinated me most was the process of creating interesting timbres.

I subscribed to Keyboard Magazine, which encouraged my habit in two different ways. First, each issue convinced me that I absolutely needed the latest electronic musical gadgets, thus ensuring a state of perpetual credit card debt. But the magazine also taught me a number of practical skills for making music. One of the magazine’s features at that time was called a Soundpage—a tear-out plastic phonograph record. Each month, some well-known keyboard player would put together a special recording, along with an article describing the music and the techniques used to create it.

These Are the Daves I Know
Dave Stewart was the featured artist in the December 1985, issue. The Soundpage article began: “Dave Stewart insists that the other Dave Stewart, co-founding member of the Eurythmics, is not related to him, even though they’re both British, play keyboards, accompany female vocalists, and wear glasses.” (This Dave Stewart had been in the bands Egg, Hatfield & the North, and Bruford; vocalist Barbara Gaskin was once in Spirogyra.) I listened to the recording of “Henry and James” and was instantly hooked. Though the style could be called “synth-pop,” I had never heard music like this. The instrumentation was entirely electronic, but the sounds had been crafted with such skill and care that you could easily forget that fact. In contrast to the prevailing custom, synthesizers were used to maximum musical effect, not to call attention to the fact that the artist was using the latest gear. Meanwhile, Barbara Gaskin’s vocals were hauntingly beautiful, utterly obscuring the song’s rather odd subject matter: two dronelike office workers. I played the single until it was nearly worn out.

Naturally, I had to have more. But their first album, Up From the Dark, was available only on CD. I didn’t have a CD player or even know anyone who did, but I decided I’d buy the CD anyway and figure out how to play it later. I looked in record stores for the next five years and simply couldn’t find it anywhere. Once a store said they’d special-order the CD for me, but it never arrived. I wondered if I would ever hear more of Stewart/Gaskin.

Then, in 1990, I casually mentioned Up From the Dark to a friend of mine in Texas. “Oh yeah, I have that,” he said. “It has the ‘Siamese Cat Song’ on it; I bought it for my kids.” I was flabbergasted: my quest had ended. After listening to a cassette copy for a few months, I finally tracked down the CD in a used record store. Shortly thereafter, Stewart/Gaskin released another album, The Big Idea, followed by Spin in 1991.

Extended Coverage
The music on those three albums (along with several singles) is very diverse. Many of the songs are extremely inventive covers—including such strange bedfellows as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Bob Dylan), “Amelia” (Joni Mitchell), and “Leipzig” (Thomas Dolby). It was also on Stewart/Gaskin CDs that I first heard “8 Miles High,” “Walking the Dog,” and “It’s My Party,” their version of which became a #1 hit in the U.K. But Stewart’s original compositions, like “Henry and James,” “The Cloths of Heaven” (based on a poem by Yeats), and “Golden Rain,” are my favorites. Although the styles of music vary, the masterful orchestrations, clever interpretations, and luscious vocals give it all a distinctive coherence.

Stewart and Gaskin refer to their work as “pop music for grown-ups.” That’s a terrifically apt description. The songs’ subject matter is sometimes serious and sometimes silly, but it never degenerates into the meaninglessness of most commercial pop music. Stewart/Gaskin’s unique mixture of intelligent lyrics and interesting music results in a distinctive style. I think of it as the musical equivalent of gourmet macaroni and cheese: familiar and comforting, yet rich and sophisticated—skillfully made with quality ingredients and adorned with subtle garnishes. The songs tend to have the overall structure, rhythm, and length of pop songs, but an entirely different texture, if you will—one that especially appeals to people who appreciate technical excellence in musical composition, performance, and yes, synthesizer programming.

After the major labels dismissed Stewart/Gaskin’s music as “too uncommercial,” they started their own label, Broken Records. The lack of commercial pressure allows them an unusual level of artistic integrity and creative freedom. Unfortunately, they’ve released no new music as a duo since 1991, despite assurances on their Web site for the last seven years or so that a new album is in the works. But along with the many fans who keep their site’s Visitors’ Book busy, I remain hopeful that I haven’t heard the last of Stewart/Gaskin yet. Godspeed, guys: my MP3s are wearing out. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Stewart/Gaskin…

The first place to go for information about Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin is their official Web site. There’s also a nice bio of Dave on ArtistDirect.com and another one on the Calyx Web site.

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Their three full CDs released in the US—Up From the Dark, The Big Idea, and Spin, are usually available used on Amazon.com. Alternatively, you can often find used (or even new) Stewart/Gaskin CDs and vinyl singles on eBay.

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In the 1980s and 1990s Dave Stewart wrote an outstanding monthly column for Keyboard Magazine. He has also written two books: The Musician’s Guide To Reading & Writing Music and Inside The Music.