PORCUPINE TREE-STUPID DREAM.
Porcupine Tree-Stupid Dream.
When Steven Wilson founded Porcupine Tree in 1987, the nascent progressive rock group was essentially a solo project for the twenty year old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He had no idea that the group would eventually release ten studio and twelve live albums. The story begins in 1988.
In 1988, recording of Porcupine Tree’s debut album began at No Man’s Studio in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. Some of the tracks featured lyrics by Alan Duffy who was a school friend of Steven Wilson. He wrote the rest of the songs and played most of the instruments. On The Sunday Of Life…was a labour of love and took four years to complete. However, it wasn’t the first released by Porcupine Tree.
Up until 1989, Steven Wilson was concentrating on his No-Man project with Tim Bowness. Porcupine Tree he initially regarded as little more than a joke and the music he made was for his own amusement. Then he realised that the music had commercial potential and released two cassette-only albums.
The first was Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm an eighty minute album which was a mixture of progressive rock and psychedelic rock was released in 1989. Despite the music being created by Steven Wilson, he included a lineup that featured fictitious band members. Similarly, the history of the group that was included was equally fictitious and was Steven Wilson’s idea of a joke.
Two years later, in 1991, The Nostalgia Factory was released on Delerium Records. It was another album that featured progressive rock and psychedelic rock. Already, the Porcupine Tree sound was taking shape.
On The Sunday of Life…
In early 1992, On The Sunday of Life…which was produced by Steven Wilson was released on Delerium Records. It’s regarded as Porcupine Tree’s debut album and featured progressive rock, psychedelic rock and space rock. The album was well received by critics upon its rebased and was a popular album. Initially, only 1,000 copies of the CD were pressed but it’s now sold over 20,000 units.
By 1993, Steven Wilson had decided that he wanted to work with a band and recruited drummer Chris Maitland, bassist Colin Edwin and keyboardist Richard Barbieri. This was the first permanent lineup of Porcupine Tree and they were together until 2002.
Up The Downstair.
The first album that the new lineup of Porcupine Tree recorded was Up The Downstair which was originally intended to be a double album. Recording began in February 1992 and the album finished eleven months later in January 1993. By, then, it was decided that it would be a single album.
When Up The Downstair was released on the ‘7th’ June 1993, it was to plaudits and praise. The album sounded as if it had been influenced by Pink Floyd, Ozric Tentacles and The Orb as Porcupine Tree continued to combine progressive rock, psychedelic rock and space rock on their sophomore album and their first to feature the new lineup of the band.
The Sky Moves Sideways.
When Porcupine Tree returned with The Sky Moves Sideways in January 1995 it was the finest album of their career. They began recording the album in June 1993 straight after the release of When Up The Downstair. The album was finished thirteen months later in July 1994. Six months later the album was released, and it was well worth the wait.
The Sky Moves Sideways was released to critical acclaim and just like pervious albums featured progressive rock, psychedelic rock and space rock. Some critics drew comparison to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. This was high praise indeed. Porcupine Tree were making progress and would soon begin work on their fourth studio album.
This was Signify which was recorded during 1995 and the first half of 1996. It was the first album that was recorded by Porcupine Tree as a full band unit. For previous albums Steven Wilson had brought onboard musicians when they were needed. However, this was no longer the case and Porcupine Tree was operating like a traditional band, and from 1995 divided their time between recording and touring. For the group, this was the start of a new chapter in their career.
When Signify was released on the ‘30th’ September 1996 most of the reviews of Signify were positive. It found Porcupine Tree combining progressive rock, psychedelic rock and space rock with Krautrock and even elements of ambient and new age music. Some of the music on the album was experimental, while the title-track was inspired in part to Krautrock pioneers Neu! Other tracks had more structured, radio-friendly and commercial sound. This would continue on Porcupine Tree’s next album Stupid Dream.
In January 1999, Porcupine Tree returned to No Man’s Land studio where most of the album was recorded. Other sessions took place at Foel Studio, Llanfair Caerinon, in Wales. A total of twelve tracks which marked a transition from “abstract instrumentality” to more “natural songwriting.” The songs were inspired by Brian Wilson, CSNY,Jeff Buckley, Soundgarden and Todd Rundgren who’s music Steven Wilson had been listening to since the release of Signify. This resulted in much more complex songs than on previous albums.
The songs were also much more tightly structured and featured layers of instruments. This included the strings arranged by Chris Thorpe and Steven Wilson which performed by the East of England Orchestra. By the time Stupid Dream was finished Porcupine Tree had spent their £15,000 budget and had an album that had a much more commercially accessible pop-rock sound but still retained its progressive rock influences.
Richard Barbieri said that Stupid Dream had: “A much more sophisticated sound and meticulous attention to detail defines my approach on this album. Steven came up with a strong selection of songs and a long process followed during which we attempted to condense as many ideas, flavours and colours into the arrangements as possible. Orchestra, flute and saxophone added further to the eclectic mix and I also feel that we started to focus more of what each other was contributing.”
Stupid Dream was also an album that much more personal for Steven Wilson. The lyrics dealt with: his own personal: “insecurities and feelings” and what he called: “the usual singer-songwriter stuff.” Just like many songwriters the songs he wrote were inspired by his own life and he felt other people would be able to relate to them. Other personal lyrics dealt with his relationship and views on the music industry. He said:
“When I was writing some of the songs of the album I was very much aware of this contradiction between being an artist, being a musician, trying to be creative and write songs and, then, at the point you finish an album, the music is finished, the creative side is finished, you then have to go out and sell and market and promote. And that’s like a completely different experience. It’s not a very creative process. It’s quite-in some ways-a cynical process going on having to sell your music. But you have to do it. I mean, if a modern musician is going to survive as a musician, you have to-in a sense-‘prostitute yourself’ to try and sell your music and your art. And I was very much aware of that contradiction. If you think about that too much, it can drive you crazy, you know. It’s an absurd thing to be doing. That kind of led me thinking about when I was a teenager, when I was just starting out and I was interested in being a musician. And I think a lot of teenage kids have this dream of being pop stars, of being a professional musician. This ‘stupid dream’ of being famous and ‘life is a ball and everything is wonderful’. And, of course, actually the reality is that being a professional musician is a very hard work. It can be very heartbreaking, there’s a lot of disappointment, there’s a lot of hard work, there’s a lot of travelling.”
Steven Wilson said that Slave Called Shiver and Don’t Hate Me were songs about feelings of “unreturned love.” He explained: “A Slave Called Shiver’s a very perverse love song, yeah. I mean, it’s an unrequited love song. It’s a love song with somebody who’s obsessed with someone else, but none of that affection is returned. It relates very closely to Don’t Hate Me, which is a song again about someone who’s obsessed with someone from afar. Don’t Hate Me is an even more extreme version, because here this person actually begins to follow and make phone calls and, you know, it becomes very unhealthy. Slave Called Shiver is slightly less extreme. It’s about someone who’s very much in love and obsessed with somebody else. That love is not returned and so there’s a slightly violent perverse undercurrent. Pure Narcotic’ also is very much the same subject.”
Then there’s Baby Dream in Cellophane which is a short psychedelic track. Steven Wilson explains the backstory to the song: “The baby in the song is basically singing the song: ‘I am in my pram’. And it’s quite a cynical song because he’s basically saying that the boy’s life is almost mapped out already as the child is born, it’s already predetermined by society and the baby’s kind of singing from the pram if you like, saying ‘well, actually no, I’m not going to go down this path that’s been laid out for me. I’m gonna break out.’ It’s almost like a very surreal teen rebellion song.”
Very different is the instrumental Tinto Brass. It features a spoken word part. Steven Wilson tells the story behind it: “Oh, yes, it’s spoken in Japanese! It’s my girlfriend who’s Japanese and she’s got a film book. I tell you it’s so difficult to find anything on Tinto Brass in England. He’s completely unknown… And then my girlfriend… found this little biography: where he was born, the films he made. So she said, ‘well, should I translate that for you?’ (because I wanted it to be spoken in the track) and I said ‘No, it’s great’—I thought—’I’ll have it in Japanese’. So she just read it in Japanese. But it’s just a list of his films and where he’s from… It’s nothing interesting”
Closing the album was Stop Swimming which is one of the songs which deals with Steven Wilson’s relationship with the music industry. “I found that when I was writing the music for this album a lot of the songs were about me and my relationship with the music industry and how I felt about where I was going in the music business and all that. Things like ‘Stop Swimming’… maybe it’s time to stop swimming…and this kind of whole impulse to just give up and go with the flow can be very strong sometimes. I mean I’ve never given into it. I never will.”
Stupid Dream was released on the ’22nd’ March in the UK and on the ‘6th’ of April 1999 worldwide, and the majority of the reviews were positive. A number of critics said that they felt that the lyrics on the album were some of the best of Steven Wilson’s career. It was a coming of age for the thirty-one year old songwriter. Meanwhile, some critics even compared Porcupine Tree’s performance on Stupid Dream to Radiohead as they combined alt-rock, pop and progressive rock on what was the commercial sounding album of the band’s career. It also signalled a move away from the concept of extended composition that was based largely on jamming, drones and the space rock sound that was a feature of previous albums.
The three singles Porcupine Tree released from Stupid Dream were Piano Lessons, Stranger By The Minute and Pure Narcotic and they all enjoyed mainstream exposure. Especially in the US and Europe where the group toured extensively. They knew it was a case of putting in the hard yards like so many other bands before them.
Porcupine Tree also toured the UK in support of Stupid Dream and watched the three singles charted in the independent charts during 1999. Piano Lesson reached thirty-four, Stranger By The Minute thirteen and Pure Narcotic forty-six. Each of the singles found their way onto radio station playlists and it looked like Porcupine Tree were about to make a commercial breakthrough after five albums and twelve years of trying.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be and Stupid Dream failed to trouble the UK albums charts. This was hugely disappointing given the success of the singles.
Stupid Dream with its more commercial sound was the start of a new chapter in the Porcupine Tree story. I also resulted in three hit singles for the band. It had taken five albums and twelve years but Porcupine Tree’s music was starting to find a wider audience. The decision to change direction musically had paid off.
When Porcupine Tree returned Lightbulb Sun in 2000 the album reached the lower reaches of the UK album charts. This was the first album that had charted and was progress for the group. That came as no surprise as Lightbulb Sun like Stupid Dream is a carefully crafted and sophisticated sound album that is accessible and has a commercial sound that should’ve introduced the band to a much wider audience.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Despite that, Stupid Dream was the best album of Porcupine Tree’s five album career. Stupid Dream also marked the start of a new chapter in the Porcupine Tree story and this continued with Lightbulb Sun. They’re both accessible albums, and for newcomers to Porcupine Tree, are the perfect introduction to this talented, versatile and chameleon-like group.
Porcupine Tree-Stupid Dream.
- Posted in: Experimental ♦ Pop ♦ Prog Rock ♦ Psychedelia ♦ Rock ♦ Space Rock
- Tagged: Chris Maitland, Colin Edwin, Lightbulb Sun, On The Sunday of Life…, Porcupine Tree, Richard Barbieri, Signify, Steven Wilson, Stupid Dream, Tarquin's Seaweed Farm, The Nostalgia Factory, The Sky Moves Sideways, Up The Downstair