You’ve never heard of them, I can probably guarantee that.
Well good, because you are in for a revelation…
From a standing start in 1978, after a period with Neo (Ian North’s prepunk faux-Ramone trio) alongside his brother Robin, Paul Simon formed The Civilians with bassist Michael French and Mark Scholfield on guitar. They advertised for a singer in Melody Maker and auditioned over a hundred hopefuls before settling on a 20 year old Irishman named Trevor Herion, recently moved to London and living in a squat with members of the Psychedelic Furs. Herion was born in Cork and had left the pub scene and his own band The Puritans (initially known as the B-52s until they realised…) for London, looking for a professional band to establish himself with. Simon had made a similar journey himself three years earlier, with similar purpose:
“When he came along, we knew we’d got the right singer. He had a great image and he could deliver a good vocal. He had a unique, jerky way of dancing when he sang, a little bit like Ian Curtis of Joy Division. He was a bit quirky, but he was really good. A tremendous singer with a lot of style.” (Paul Simon, 2014)
After courting a number of major labels, The Civilians did a showcase at a studio called Suma on Lots Road in Chelsea and were signed by Billy Lawrie at Arista. In his quest for a producer on the band’s first single, Simon invited the now-legendary Trevor Horn for an audition and was greatly encouraged by Horn’s response to the band’s music. He expressed an interest in working with the group, but was unable to do so once his own band, The Buggles, suddenly hit the big time with their new version of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, a song Horn had originally co-written with Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club…
Rather than wait for six months should Horn’s diary become free, Arista suggested they work instead with Andy Arthurs currently producing 999 and Tonight. The Civilians recorded three tracks with Arthurs at Wessex Studio in Highbury and released their debut single ‘Made For Television’ in November 1978, with Hans Zimmer (also of The Buggles) drafted into play keyboards.
Unfortunately it was withdrawn after only two months when Arista ran into the political and personnel difficulties that resulted in not only The Civilians but also Simple Minds and Iggy Pop being dismissed from the label.
Undeterred, and convinced that both the songs and the band had something to give, Paul Simon took The Civilians instead to Tony Mansfield’s studio in Tooting where they recorded enough material for an album. But they were unable to secure a deal with another label and consequently experienced some difficulties of their own, causing Simon to leave the band and return to work with Cowboys International. French and Scholfield determined to carry on without him and signed to Secret Records, but not before sacking Trevor Herion and Michael French taking over on vocals. They recorded only one song, ‘In America’ which was released as a single (SHH103) in September 1980 and used a third song from the Andy Arthurs (In Search Of Pleasure) session as the B-Side, recorded with Herion on vocals before they dismissed him from the band.
That’s the back story…
Thirty five years later, thanks to the tenacity, diligence and mastering skill of the band’s founder Paul Simon, we can now hear that first album, shelved when the band found themselves cut adrift from Arista.
A TASTE OF THE FUTURE opens, appropriately, with that first single Made For Television a fast, catchy song driven by Simon’s drum track, picking up traces of a romanticised 999 with Herion’s voice and passionate style somewhere between Bryan Ferry and ABC’s Martin Fry. It’s immediately clear that this is a class act, the arrangements are clever and the band is tight, professional and promising. Even in the first three minutes, it is apparent that bigger things were in their sights…
On Civilisation, Herion’s range expands to overlap with that of Billy Mackenzie – an equally troubled young man who never lived to fulfill his intense potential. French’s excellent bass is given more air-time on this track, giving it a danceable almost Ska-like backbeat. The Civilians were a band with energy, purpose and just the right amount of tension.
Hard To Cry is slower, introduces Scholfield on guitar behind a soaring vocal Roy Orbison would be proud of and a catchy piano melody that would have made an excellent, accomplished later single showpiecing a surprising maturity in the band.
Heartbeat is among the most experimental tracks on the album, edgier, more chaotic, while Words is more like Made For Television, tying the selections back together, over which Herion’s vocal glides smooth and effortless.
Seats In Heaven is equally frenetic, after which When We Dance calmly brings us back on an even keel. It sounds curiously familiar, confident too and even has the audacity to ask us to consider dancing. This is the one you can imagine Paul’s brother Robin was playing on. He was in America at the time, recovering from the intensity of 18 months with Ultravox. But if you’re going to dance, the next track is for you – tight rhythm sections, catchy lead and Gene Pitney on vocals. In Search Of Pleasure is another ‘pop’ tune that would surely have been lined up as a second single. The Jags and The Vapors both had moderate success with similar songs in the over-crowded ‘melodic, accessible’ market in which The Civilians found themselves. Mansfield’s own band New Muzik fitted that scene too and found their place on the shelf in Our Price – which one feels was there for The Civilians if they had just managed to get that break.
The closing number, To Save Our Hearts, is one of the most mature and accomplished on the album. Herion tries a little less, leads confidently and the track grooves along comfortably in the tyre tracks left by Bowie’s Heroes. It suggests where they might have gone next and one is left feeling that only circumstances held them back, certainly no lack of vision or musical talent.
This is a purposeful, tight and well-constructed album of eleven electronically orientated post-punk-pop songs that deserves a wider audience.
And if you end up seeking out records by Trevor Herion, The Fallout Club and any number of the bands that Paul Simon has subsequently played in, your record collection will thank you for it.