A biography of Gregory Darling


By Phill Savidge

We know Arctic Monkeys called their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (a phrase the Albert Finney character uses in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) but there are very few artists that take this recalcitrance to the nth degree. Gregory Darling is one such artist. “At school, I played in a lot of bands, a black funk act, even at the Southern Baptist Church in Tujunga every Sunday, until they kicked me out for falling asleep under a piano,” he says and you can bet this wasn’t the first time he’d kicked against the pricks. Subsequently, Darling moved to Los Angeles and attended music school in order to learn to write songs properly. Naturally, his heroes included Sinatra and Crosby but it was contemporaneous artists like Prince and Bowie that ended up having a profound effect on Darling’s recorded output. Indeed, Darling counts Prince as a fan and his diminutive godliness has been known to appear on stage beside Darling at his concerts.

Despite this level of acceptance, Darling remains an enigma. Initially a matter of public concern due to his antics (and yes, his first “metal” band was called Antix) in Bowie/Prince/Queen-influenced US outfit Darling Cruel, Gregory released a debut album (as Darling Cruel) called Passion Crimes (via Polygram US) as far back as 1989. Gregory was managed by Guns ‘n’ Roses/Poison lynchpin Vicki Hamilton at the time (although it was legendary producer Bob Rose that actually secured the deal) and as the record sold 100,000 copies in its first week and spawned two videos that became Polygram’s most successful MTV videos of the year (according to label boss Dick Asher it was also “the best album I have heard since I signed Pink Floyd”) you could be forgiven for thinking that Darling’s future looked as bright as the decade it was no doubt heralding. Typically, just as Darling Cruel completed the follow-up - a record called Movies For The Mind produced by Tony Visconti in New York - Polygram discovered rap, Asher got fired and all bets were off. At this juncture, you could hardly blame Gregory for cracking up and jumping out of a moving car before disappearing for a full six months.

Eventually, Rose rediscovered Darling (through some kind of LA osmosis), frog-marched him into recording several demos at Rockfield Studios in Wales (with Silverhead/Robert Plant guitarist Robby Blunt) and secured a £1.5 million advance from EMI/SBK. Amazingly Darling turned this down, formed a punk band called NUDE and spent the next few months hanging around LA and procuring offers from A & M and RCA. Inevitably, Darling swerved both deals, turned down another (solo) deal from Capitol Records before making an album for Monaco Records (founded by Scorpions drummer Herman Rarebell) that coincided with the demise of that label.

Mind you, serendipity is a wonderful thing and in 1996 Darling found himself somehow living in France where he became Julian Lennon’s co-writer. Indeed, Darling was all set to sign to Lennon’s Music From Another Room record label before Sony New York made an even bigger offer but it was yet another offer from FOD Records label boss Dean Manjuris that finally secured his signature. Subsequently, Darling started recording an album at Lennon’s Tree House studio before finishing off the record with sessions at studios in Prague and Air Studios in London. The results (produced by Bob Rose) became Shell, a record that catapulted Darling into the Top Ten in Italy and Germany and saw him touring with Bryan Adams as main support. It’s strange but after all this time it felt like Darling had finally arrived.

Having said that, Darling would be the first to point out that life is all about the journey rather than the destination although the imminent arrival of Darling’s second album for F.O.D. is likely to change all that. Produced by Bob Rose and recorded at Wisselord Studios, Amsterdam, Stew Americano is the great leap forward that Darling has promised throughout his career. It boasts Portishead’s Clive Deamer, Alan Parson’s Project bassist Joe Puerta and Darling Cruel guitarist Dani Robinson within its ranks yet it is Darling’s coolly, cruel lyrics and unique vocal delivery that mark him out as a man with a past and a man with every intention of having a future. The record kicks off with Kiss The Pain (a song about a painful relationship break-up that was written whilst sitting on a rock on the Italian Riviera) which sounds like Costello fronting the Beatles and is as sob-inducing as that comparison suggests – “Take me back I’ll never let you go/Take me up I’ll never let you down/Kiss the pain and make it go away/I don’t ever want to feel like this again.” This segues into the Billy Joel-esque Life’s Gotta Funny Way, an existential ballad that Darling admits he could never have written as a younger man (“If you believed in me/You’d end this misery”) before the album begins to belie Darling’s song-writing heritage with the altruistic jazz swirl of Where Were You Last Night (where Darling forgives and forgets his girl for the kiss he sees her place on the lips of the man she has met out on the town - “Where were you last night/I thought I'd lose my mind/When I pictured you with another fool/when I couldn't get through to you/So I painted the town, when I caught you in the crowd/A kissing fool/Then I knew that I loved you/A kissing fool/The way he looks at you, the way I used to do”) and the magnanimous nightclub swoon that is Out Of Time, a song about the godless, neon-lit wilderness we surely all recognise. Interestingly, it’s never revealed whether the song’s protagonists are merely old-fashioned and out of time or that they’re simply just running out of the stuff.

The album continues with Am I Losing You, a ballad (about a couple questioning their commitment - “Do my kisses please you anymore?”) that recalls Alan Price in his darker moments and Somebody Kill The DJ, a song inspired by a night out in Monaco (and not the Smiths Panic that it neither acknowledges nor remotely resembles), the latter employing a reworking of Morton Stevens’ Hawai Five O theme that’s enough to make you whoop with recognition. After this, we get the album’s best and most ambitious track, Suicidal Acrobats, a meandering Morricone-inspired masterpiece that Darling used to mumble through at sound-checks until he stumbled upon the kind of words he knew would do the song justice: “Excuse me if I seem unkind/Again I'm learning how to feel/If it’s too late now for compromise/Forgive me for my vanity/Drove you to insanity/I Stumble in and out of mind/Tremble as I walk the line/Like suicidal acrobats/Who never learned to dance.”
See what we mean? And Warm Blooded Killer which follows is reminiscent of early-mid ‘70s Elton John and is as much about a “temporary loss of insanity” as it is about the death of the relationship it no doubt acknowledges.

Stew Americano closes with three of the best: Mad Twist Of Fate (all Harmon mute trumpet and Joe Jackson histrionics) appears to concern the travails of a young girl stepping into the unknown although it was actually inspired by Darling’s move to New York in 1990; Hard Way Back is like something off Punch The Clock and so impossibly catchy you’ll be convinced Darling is wired into some illegal song-writing machine; and, best of all, is the haunting They Come Together, a triumph of Beatles-esque orchestration and technique and a fitting coda to a beautiful record.