Terence Trent D’Arby: Reintroducing The Hardline
He arrived as a perfect pop star with a multi-platinum debut album, so what happened? Shaun Ponsonby looks at the rise and fall of the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby.
By 1987, we were in the throes of the era of the blockbuster album.
Madonna had unleashed Like a Virgin and True Blue, Springsteen had given us Born In The USA, Janet had taken Control, and in that very year her brother Michael followed up Thriller with Bad and Prince ditched The Revolution and released his most celebrated work, Sign “O” The Times.
In the middle of all this, a new artist emerged that possessed elements of each of these superstars; Terence Trent D’Arby.
His debut album, the Martyn Ware-produced Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby, seemed to come out of nowhere. He moved like James Brown, was as musical as Prince, was as polished as Michael, was as socially conscious as Janet and could get as real as Springsteen. It made an immediate impression.
You would think that a Grammy winning album that sold over ten million copies (one million of those within the first three days of release) would be ripe for all the usual deluxe editions and Classic Albums documentaries on BBC Four. And yet Introducing The Hardline’s 30th anniversary passed us by last year with barely a whimper.
There are a handful of reasons why, not least the refusal of the artist himself. But it remains a great injustice that this album, both hailed critically and a commercial blockbuster, isn’t as celebrated as it should be.
D’Arby made headlines as soon as he was unleashed. In early interviews he made bold claims about his talent and abilities to an absurdist, Kanye West degree.
“I am a genius,” he told the press. “No-one can touch me, except for Prince. And that’s close. I will re-write the music books and break all barriers. I will be black and white and purple and green and every colour you can think of. I will be so famous they will know me on the far side of the world.”
He also famously claimed that Introducing The Hardline was the most important LP since Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Undoubtedly, D’Arby was more charming than West, so initially he was able to get away with it without a significant backlash.
For what it is worth, he later explained his attitude at this time; “I had taken a page from one of my great heroes, Muhammed Ali…I used to be an avid reader of Melody Maker, NME, Face, Record Mirror and if there was one thing that stuck out consistently it was the general mark of respect for American musicians, but the mockery that they never said anything remotely dangerous or controversial. It was a simple conscious decision to adopt a persona that I felt journalists had been waiting for. It worked, but I was too young at the time to realise that, particularly for the English, that it is a sport to turn on things that they helped create.”
Importantly, though, such claims wouldn’t have worked if D’Arby didn’t have the chops to back them up. It was clear from his debut single, the perfected sonic ear worm pop of If You Let Me Stay, that he did.
With this song, he appeared perfectly formed on Top of the Pops. He looked like a model, sang like an angel and the screams from the crowd as he moved – jumping David Lee Roth style and landing in splits – proved he had the mystical magnetism required to be a superstar.
The mysticism was often seen as being a little too rehearsed, but having watched many interviews with the man, that seems unlikely. If anything, it probably came from D’Arby’s unusual background.
Born Terence Trent Howard in Manhattan in 1962 to mother Frances Howard, a gospel singer, teacher and counsellor, his biological father was a married man of British ancestry. Following his mother’s marriage to a bishop named James Benjamin Darby, his family moved successively; New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Daytona Beach, eventually settling just north of Orlando.
A successful amateur boxer, he was offered the opportunity to attend boxing school in the United States Army, but chose to attend college instead. His academic career didn’t last, however, and he enlisted in the army after a year of University life.
He was posted to Frankfurt, Germany. But this too didn’t last long – having gone AWOL he was formally court martialled and dishonourably discharged by April 1983.
He decided to stay in Germany, where he acted as band leader with a band called The Touch, with whom he released the album Love On Time in 1984. The album was produced by Frank Farian, the brains behind Boney M and later Milli Vanilli, but didn’t make any kind of impression.
Undeterred, D’Arby left Germany for London where he played with The Bojangles, the band who would ultimately back him when he was signed to Columbia as a solo artist.
By the age of 25, when Introducing The Hardline was released, he was more well-travelled than most men his age. Yet the vigour of youth remained. He was young enough to be the teen pin-up, yet had lived enough to reach for something deeper.
Accessible pop songs enraptured the teen audience, from the aforementioned If You Let Me Stay, to the funk of Dance Little Sister and the balladeering on Let’s Go Forward.
Arguably the song that best sums up the album is Wishing Well, a sparse mesh of funk, pop, rock and soul that topped the US charts in the summer of 1988. It has been argued that with that hit, D’Arby brought soul music into the 80s. It has its foundation in the gritty soul of the 60s, but is unmistakably of its time. It hasn’t dated. It utilises the technology of the day in the right way.
On the other hand, he was able to craft songs for a more advanced audience. One executive supposedly told him that opener If You All Get To Heaven was “too mature” for a debut album. Probably album’s biggest hit in the UK was Sign Your Name – a soul ballad which certainly won over the older audiences.
He proved his vocal prowess towards the end of the record with the acapella As Yet Untitled, which led into the closer; a cover of The Miracles’ Who’s Lovin’ You.
This latter decision could be interpreted as a deliberate statement. Much of D’Arby’s work is rooted in classic soul, of which Smokey Robinson & The Miracles are a part of. This is the fabric of not only soul music, but soul as pop. After all, it was Motown that forced soul music onto the pop charts alongside Elvis and The Beatles.
But, on inspection, it could also be seen as D’Arby placing himself next to his soon-to-be chart rivals. After all, the most famous version of Who’s Lovin’ You wasn’t Robinson’s original, but the Jackson 5 on their 1970 debut, and their memorable appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
When D’Arby was recording Introducing The Hardline, Michael Jackson was the number one artist in the world, recording his follow up to the biggest selling album ever released. Perhaps this was all part of D’Arby’s plan, a slightly more subtle variant of the Muhammed Ali approach he was taking in interviews.
Having become an international phenomenon, critically acclaimed and loved by audiences, there was only one thing that could stand in the way of Terence Trent D’Arby’s ascent: Terence Trent D’Arby.
There were clues to where he would end up going. At the height of his success, he released the single The Birth of Maudie under the bizarre pseudonym The Incredible E.G. O’ Reilly. But it is fair to say that the public weren’t prepared for Hardline‘s sequel.
On the one hand, perhaps it was inevitable. He had been built up by the press, so they were always going to knock him down for album number two. But he made it easy for them to do that.
Released in October 1989, Neither Fish Nor Flesh went out of its way to be a difficult album. If his debut had one foot in 60s soul, the follow-up looked to art rock and psychedelia.
Lyrically, he indulges in pretensions, and stumbles under the weight of his own ambitions and naivety. Billy Don’t Fall, for example, is perfectly fine musically and in intent. However, the clumsy way he deals with this subject matter – a gay friend who dies of AIDS – leaves much to be desired.
Billy don’t fall in love with me
I’m not that kind of guy
But I’ll stand by your side if you need me to be
Aside from being a little patronising, he was somehow able to take the struggles of the victimised and dying Billy and make it about himself.
That said, the good intentions of the song are underlined by the video, in which at the height of the paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic, D’Arby is seen sharing a liquor bottle with his infected friend and their relationship is unaffected by Billy’s condition.
There are great moments throughout Neither Fish Nor Flesh, and it probably warrants more discussion than Introducing The Hardline, which for all its brilliance, is an accessible pop album at its core.
I’ll Be Alright is a gospel number that raises your spirits as any gospel number should. I Don’t Want To Bring Your Gods Down may be a Jim Steinman-esque mouthful of a title, but it succeeds in being the kind of old soul ballad for which D’Arby had previously relied upon his cover of Who’s Lovin’ You. There’s also It Feels So Good To Love Someone Like You, which though probably one of the worst offenders for the charges against the album as a whole, somehow comes together in ways some of the other songs do not.
But there was nothing as easily accessible as If You Let Me Stay, or even an album track like I’ll Never Turn My Back On You.
Making matters worse, D’Arby insisted on mirroring Prince’s strategy for his 1985 record Around The World In a Day. He instructed the label not to release advance singles from Neither Fish Nor Flesh.
By November, Columbia picked up on the sluggish sales of the album. How could they not? Having been number one all over the world in 1987 with Hardline, Neither Fish Nor Flesh didn’t even crack the UK top ten, stalling at number 12. Peak position in America was number 68.
In response, This Side of Love was released as a single, though the aforementioned I’ll Be Alright would undoubtedly have been the superior choice, even if it didn’t exactly represent the album particularly well. As a soul rave-up, it was reflective of what D’Arby’s audience had become accustomed to, and furthermore the song’s horn line was a monster ear worm that would have stuck in the mind of anyone who heard it.
D’Arby has blamed the failure of Neither Fish Nor Flesh on “the label’s wholesale rejection”. But whilst I can imagine that they weren’t exactly receptive, it still feels like a bit of a cop-out. D’Arby himself didn’t make it an easy sell, and the restrictions he put on the release made it even more difficult for Columbia to raise interest from the public.
Oddly, this all took place at around the same time that George Michael was having a similar battle with Columbia over his Listen Without Prejudice album. Both men at the same time followed up their hugely successful late 80s pop masterpieces (in Michael’s case, Faith), with a more challenging work.
However in the case of both Michael and Prince on Around The World In a Day, they had built up their reputations and core audiences throughout the 80s. D’Arby took this route having released just one album. Therefore where their “disappointing” albums sold around eight million copies, D’Arby didn’t get anywhere near that number.
Further muddying the story, his previous popularity meant the market was flooded with TTD-lites. The most obvious example was Milli Vanilli, not-so-coincidentally created by D’Arby’s former producer Frank Farian, and who looked almost exactly like D’Arby did in 1987. He found it impossible to return to his superstar stature following the fall-out of Neither Fish Nor Flesh, but he did maintain a fair career.
1993’s Symphony or Damn matched the commercial ear of Hardline with the sprawling experimentation of its follow up to great effect, and returned D’Arby to the top five on the UK album charts.
It was probably the album that should have followed Hardline. Pop enough to keep the audience he had built, but experimental enough to earn him new plaudits too. Among the highlights were lead single Do You Love Me Like You Say?, the hard rocker She Kissed Me (apparently written as a “postmodern Shangri-Las” song) and the Des’ree duet Delicate.
The pinnacle, though, was Let Her Down Easy. A gentle piano ballad that, lyrically, may be one of the more unusual themes for a pop song; a father making a heartfelt plea to the man who is taking his daughter’s virginity.
He released one more album under the name that made him famous, 1995’s Vibrator, and then with the exception of a brief appearance with INXS for the Sydney Olympics, D’Arby seemingly disappeared entirely.
Strangely, his career path closely followed Prince.
He too had relations with his label break down past the point of repair, and left in 1996. He moved to Java Records for one year and recorded Terence Trent D’Arby’s Solar Return, which Java refused to release. Eventually, he bought back the rights to the material and independently released it on the album Wildcard.
Also like Prince, he opted for a name change. He claims that he chose the name from a series of dreams he experienced in the mid-90s. Today, he goes by Sananda Maitreya, stating that the name means “rebirth” in Sanskrit.
He continues to release music independently. In fact, he has released seven albums since his name change, almost double what he released under his original moniker. He is as bonkers as Sun Ra yet at his best as accessible as Stevie Wonder.
If he wished to stay in the limelight he probably needed to swallow his pride and self-edit more effectively. But he is a free agent today, and seems much happier with what he is doing as a cult artist than when he was attempting to stay part of the mainstream. Ultimately, he is having the last laugh.
It’s hard not to wonder what might have been. Perhaps Terence Trent D’Arby was only ever going to be a perfect pop star for 18 months. Maybe once he had been there and done that, there was no way he was ever going to go back.
But even if that is the case, Introducing The Hardline is criminally overlooked as one of the major blockbusters of its era. It is vastly superior to anything fellow soul-pop superstars Whitney Houston or Luthor Vandross ever recorded. So maybe it’s time to dig it out again and celebrate this strange, but compelling talent.
And when you have done that…dig a little deeper.