Various Artists – Pillows And Prayers (Cherry Red Records 1981-1984): Album Review

Pillows And Prayers thrillingly documents a time when bands and artists, set free by the punk and post punk revolution, set about creating authentic and passionate music. Music that embraced independence, both in how it was produced, and how it was made available.

Release date: 18th November 2022

Label: Cherry Red Records

Format: 3 CD/ LP

Pillows And Prayers is one of those iconic compilations that defines an era of music when anything felt possible, and artists reached for the stars. Punk and Post Punk had opened up and significantly democratised the music scene, providing routes in for new artists and musicians, and an atmosphere of experimentation. The societal backdrop was a time of developing protest, and alternative narratives, that stressed equality, justice, and peace, in opposition to oppression, and what seemed an all-pervasive emphasis on profits and wealth. 

Pillows And Prayers was first released on Christmas Day 1982, with a declaration of “Pay no more than 99p”. It symbolized a move towards independence, both in how music was produced, and how it was made available. Cherry Red Records, the label that created the compilation championed experimentation and diversity across its artists. It was one of those records that pointed you in the direction of artists creating authentic, passionate music, that you may not have previously come across. Music that wasn’t afraid to embrace and work with a wide range of influences.

This 40th anniversary reissue is an expanded three-disc set. It includes the original Pillows And Prayers release with bonus tracks, and Volume Two, which was only released in Japan, again with bonus tracks. A third disc brings together rare, live, unreleased and John Peel session material. It is all presented in a very winning hardback book-type format, with words from the people who made it all happen, together with words and archive photos from a number of the artists.

Here is a whistle-stop tour of just some of the highlights to be found across this great set. Disc 1 is Pillows And Prayers Plus (the original 1982 release with bonus tracks). It begins with Portrait by Five Or Six, with its jangly guitars and joyful pop-influenced rush of sound. Put together with the poetic imagery of the lyrics and the Kevin Ayers-like lead vocal, this is quite simply a fabulous piece of music. It is surprising, then, to discover that both of the band’s albums didn’t find a release in the UK at the time. The Monochrome Set offer Eine Symphonie Des Grauens. It is a track that has a very angular sound, and some edgy percussion, that is eminently danceable. There are also some very impressive bass lines that add to the dynamic sound of this track.

Plain Sailing by Tracey Thorn seems to offer a subtly different version of the song, which can be found on her excellent 1982 solo album, A Distant Shore. It is a masterpiece of songwriting which is beautifully sung and played. The final line in this affecting love song creates a real feeling of poignancy, as Tracey sings, “Tempting to think now it will all be plain sailing. Old enough now to know there’s no such thing.” Ben Watt’s, Some Things Don’t Matter, which follows on, is a similarly wonderfully crafted song. Taken from his 1983 album, North Marine Drive, it has the gentlest of jazz-infused guitar refrains, and a very touching lyric describing the yearning for love. Peter King’s effusive saxophone solo further enhances the delicate and appealing nature of this lovely song. I was lucky enough to see Ben perform a spine-tingling version of this song, accompanied by double bass player Rex Horan, at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh back in 2017. Interviewing Ben before the show I was struck by his empathic reflections on his early songs of which this is a superb example.

Included a few tracks later is the musical project Tracey and Ben formed together, Everything But The Girl. Their recording of the Marine Girls On My Mind, has a remarkable conversational feel, underpinned by some glistening melodic guitar. Recently Everything But The Girl have announced that they will be releasing in the spring of next year their first album in two decades. Something to really look forward too.  

We now need to spool back a few tracks to Kevin Coyne’s Love In Your Heart. Kevin Coyne first came to the attention of the music world in the 1970s, with his striking songwriting and impassioned live performances, and by the early 1980s was recording for Cherry Red. Love In Your Heart has a great instrumental swing and a stunning blues-based vocal. A standout track.           

Felt, led by songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Lawrence Hayward, provide the song My Face is on Fire. It effortlessly combines guitar-led indie pop with Post Punk influences, which creates both a quirky and beguiling sound. The superb track, Xoyo by The Passage, is another stunning highlight. It has a brilliant anthemic and infectious chorus, and a musical drive, where Post Punk now intriguingly meets synth-pop.

So, we move onto Disc 2, which contains Pillows And Prayers Volume II Plus (again with bonus tracks). The disc begins with the Marine Girls quite excellent lo-fi masterpiece, A Place in the Sun. The recent Cherry Red reissue of the two Marine Girls albums was recently reviewed for At the Barrier, here is the link Lazy Ways and Beach Party.

We should make a further link here to Grab Grab The Haddock, represented on this disc with the song I’m Used Now. The band included Jane Fox and Alice Fox from the Marine Girls, and musically has a real flair, in the way the jangly guitars, percussion, and voices create a multi-layered musical experience. Swallow Tongue follow on with Animation, which with its jazz and funk swing, seems like a precursor to the soul and jazz sound that artists like Working Week, Everything But The Girl, and the Style Council, developed from the mid-1980s onwards. It is an irresistible indie call to the dance floor.

One more shining gem from Volume Two to draw your attention to is The Nightingales Paraffin Brain. It is imbued with a wonderful scratchy guitar, bubbling bass, and Robert Lloyd’s poetical vocal, ardently declaiming the lyrics, which have the quality of a stream of consciousness.  

Disc 3 contains Rare, Live, Unreleased and Peel Sessions. Where we are treated to an always interesting selection of demos, John Peel session material, and concert recordings. 

The Monochrome Set’s live tracks from a gig in Oslo in 1982, Ten Don’ts for Honeymooners and Cast A Long Shadow, are engagingly quirky, and have a driven joyful swing, punctuated by some dazzling psychedelic-styled organ playing. The Passage delight with a clutch of songs from John Peel sessions in 1981 and 1982. The melodic twists and turns, and strident appearances of various keyboards and percussion instruments, conjures up a mesmerising edgy pop ambience.

Also, very much worth searching out are The Nightingales tracks recorded for John Peel in 1982. The songs and performances are just fantastic. The Nightingales are still very active, with this year alone, a new album, further releases in a programme of unreleased material and reissues, a documentary feature film and soundtrack, and live gigs. Next year they will be on tour with The Damned.

To conclude, this is an incredible collection that constantly delights, with a wonderful array of artists and performances. It thrillingly documents a time when bands and artists, set free by the Punk and Post Punk revolution, and in opposition to the prevailing materialist orthodoxy, made some great music. Cherry Red Records at the time brilliantly captured and harnessed that musical energy and experimentation on the Pillows and Prayers album. Jump into this set and go on a musical journey with some great and inspired artists. 

Here is the 1983 official video for Everything But the Girl’s On My Mind, from Pillows And Prayers.

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