On the eve of a new documentary celebrating the life of Adrian Borland, Keiron Phelan remembers him as a friend, ex-band mate and as an ‘80s musical icon that was never truly recognised.
Adrian Borland was the songwriter and singer/guitarist of the critically
acclaimed 1980s English post-punk band The Sound, whose glory years on the ultra-happening WEA sub-label Korova, alongside Echo And The Bunnymen , produced their masterwork album, Jeopardy.
Something of a neglected artistic talent since his lamentably early death in 1999, Borland now seems fit for a well justified and certainly overdue rediscovery. The cognoscenti of that musical era have long recognised Borland as, at the very least, an equal with the likes of The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs and early U2. There’s also more than a trace of his lyrical DNA in Radiohead. Indeed, at his shining best, and for sheer emotive power, Adrian was arguably superior to all of them. This restoration looks set to be suitably enhanced by the, currently in production, documentary film of the south Londoner’s life and work, Adrian Borland: Walking In The Opposite Direction. Featuring interviews with Adrian’s family, friends and band mates, and including a wealth of previously unseen performance footage, it’s a film that fully celebrates Borland’s talent but also highlights the mental health difficulties that beset him throughout most of his short life.
My own first meeting with Borland took place in a Victorian pub in Tooting, sometime in early ’95, where I discovered him sitting quietly with a group of (what I then considered) my ‘less cool’ friends. That Borland seemed to find the situation entirely congruous is instructive as to his level of humility and sense of self-possession (clearly greater than mine), and that I was more fortunate in my friends than I knew.
As it turned out, Adrian was a local boy and lacked the customary ‘ex-rock star’s difficulties’ in relating to the ‘normal’ world by dint of never having tried to come to an accommodation with it in the first place. I’ve rarely met anyone so located in a world of his own as Borland. The objective ups and downs of his musical career (and this was very clearly a down) seemed almost irrelevant to him. If he didn’t have a major label behind him, so what? If there was no label at all, he self-released. He knew he had fans and he never doubted his own value as a songwriter. He once wryly commented that, had he been as handsome as the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, things might have taken a different course, and he was aware of the fact that The Sound had not achieved the full commercial success that they deserved. But, in all, he was his own man and simply remained on the course that he’d set for himself in 1979, producing, in his later releases, some of his finest and most liberating songs.
Yet, tragically, one aspect of real-life that Borland couldn’t lock away was his intermittent but ever-returning mental ill health. Although still working creatively, by the year of his death, Adrian had been suffering from depression for 14 years and had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Alcohol had also become a problem. At some point in 1999, Borland seemed to feel that his ability to control this situation was ebbing and in April of that year he committed suicide.
Yet, what he leaves behind is a body of work that, while it at times lives on the dark side just as often offers a rapturous appreciation of life and, either way, is always relentlessly and gloriously honest. It’s a music that endures and is more than welcome back into the spotlight. Good to see you back, Ade.