The Passage \ Biography
An intense and cerebral group from Manchester, The Passage were active between 1978 and 1983. Mainman Richard 'Dick' Witts had previously been a percussionist in the city's celebrated Halle Orchestra, and this unusual background informed the unique sound of The Passage, combining a range of analog synth textures with layered percussion, harsh guitar, and incisive vocal 'texts'. From Fall-esque beginnings on Object Music in 1978, the group later refined their sound towards dance and electronica on later albums for Cherry Red, Degenerates and Enflame, and should have scored a hit with their single XoYo in 1982.
The Passage first came together in Manchester in March 1978, with Witts joined by Tony Friel and Lorraine Hilton. For Witts and Friel the band was extra-curricular, since Friel still played bass in The Fall, and Witts juggled a post as music and dance officer for Merseyside Arts Association with a stint co-presenting What's On for Granada TV. Although Witts landed the presenting job courtesy of Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson, it was never likely that the Passage would record for his label, and instead the band were aligned with the Manchester Musicians' Collective, Object Music and The Fall. Of this latter influence Witts later recalled: 'The Fall were very direct, very simple and very straight, and I liked that. Also they really are quite radical in their use of existing types of music - the way they assimilate it, the way it comes out is definitely The Fall. Also I like the way Mark Smith delivers the words. Really strong. I love The Fall - they really are exciting.'
After a few dates in Manchester and the North-West, including a show at Eric's in Liverpool with Joy Division in support, and a performance of a new work by electronic composer Simon Emmerson, The Passage recorded their first single for Object Music, the pioneering Manchester indie label founded by Steve Solamar of Spherical Objects. Released in December, New Love Songs (OM 02) featured two tracks each by Friel and Witts, with Love Song in particular raising eyebrows by virtue of an uncompromising lyric ('I love you/cos I need a cunt/I love you/to use you back and front'), misconstrued by some as unalloyed male chauvenism. Unsurprisingly this debut was redolent of The Fall, albeit spiked with rudimentary electronica, and notched up healthy sales of 3,000 copies.
In January 1979 Paul Morley wrote a lengthy piece for NME, promoting the three best new bands from Manchester: Spherical Objects, Joy Division and The Passage. At this time a trio of drums, bass and keyboards was considered highly unusual. 'The same line-up as ELP,' Witts joked. 'It's extraordinary the number of people who come up to us and say that we really need a guitar... Who can't adjust to our sound. There are possibilities in rock that haven't been tapped, avenues that I'd wanted to explore. There's a lot of change in a Passage set, a lot of different things happening - music that goes from one extreme to another. My songs are experimentally based, and Tony's are rock based, but there's still a fluidity. What we've got to find is something that exists as a critique of existing society. Music is one way of doing that. Music is about time and energy. That's why I became interested in rock.'
Still a part-time group, the second Object EP, About Time (OM 08), did not appear until October 1979. Produced by David Cunningham of Flying Lizards renown, it again featured two songs each by Friel and Witts, the standout track being an early version of 16 Hours, an intense meditation by Witts on infatuation. Indeed the EP seemed almost a concept record, with 16 Hours, Taking My Time, Clock Paradox and Time Delay all dealing with various aspects of (deep breath) the passage of time.
Following a London date with Cabaret Voltaire in late 1979, Tony Friel departed, having scuffled with an audience member, and wishing to explore different musical territory with his new group, Contact. For a brief period Lorraine Hilton's sister Martine joined on bass, but after Witts was injured in a car crash and band activity temporarily suspended, the Hilton sisters also moved on.
In July 1980 the band - by now effectively Witts solo - recorded their first album at Graveyard Studio with engineer Stuart Pickering. Self-produced in just 70 tense hours, on four-track equipment, Pindrop made up in rigour and bile what it lacked in production polish. Standout tracks included a powerful version of 16 Hours, the brooding Watching You Dance, and Troops Out, which despite its overt political agenda hinted that the Passage were capable of writing bona fide pop songs. Elsewhere, A Certain Way to Go offered a dig at Factory favourites A Certain Ratio. Despite certain technical shortcomings, the album was widely acclaimed on release in October (OBJ 11) and went on to sell 5,000 copies before Witts fell out with Object, and the record was deleted.
Writing in NME, Paul Morley lavished praise on the album: 'With the disquieting Pindrop, The Passage can be accepted as major even by the cowardly, cautious and cynical: it's a work of disciplined intellectual aggression, frantic emotions and powerfully idiomatic musicality. Pindrop is densely shaded, erratically mixed (which often works in its favour), rough edged, heavy in an unloveable sense of the word... It's as shocking a beautiful nightmare, as stormy and aware a debut LP as Unknown Pleasures. Where you gasp a lot. Comparisons will harm. Their sound is their own. It's the shock of the new - new shades, textures, noises, pulses, atmospheres, energies, the opening up of new realms of feeling.'
Terry Senai of Sounds was no less effusive. 'This is an astounding first LP by a band about whom I know nothing. Comparisons are futile and confusing, but the most appropriate parallels at the moment are early Joy Division and late Wire. No, there's no plagiarism. Pindrop is as innovative and individual as 154 or Unknown Pleasures were.'
Although Witts was now the sole writer in The Passage, a proper band was required for live work. Liverpudlian drummer Joe McKechnie was already known to Witts via the Merseyside Musicians' Collective, where he had played in a band called Activity Minimal, and later Modern Eon. Just 15 years old, Oakey-fringed guitarist Andrew Wilson joined straight from Manchester Grammar School, having previously fronted two short-lived bands, The Spurtz and Action Holidays. Recalled Witts: 'He was the svelte and sexy guitarist who played on three different instruments - one tuned as normally as time and heat allowed, one to E Major on which he jiggled a metal bar (as on Man of War), and one not tuned at all, which was our favourite. At gigs he had his own roadie whose job it was to hand him the right axe before each song, and sometimes we were in luck.'
Briefly, the band also gained a glamorous co-vocalist, Lizzy Johnson - an odd development, given that Witts' vocal delivery had formed a large part of Pindrop's unique appeal. However, as Witts explains: 'As we were spineless about singing we once auditioned a bunch of hopefuls, including a certain Steve Morrissey, who we thought a bit too glum for the likes of us. But this explains gorgeous Lizzy Johnson's presence on Devils and Angels.'
The new-look foursome recorded a John Peel session in November 1980, and made their live debut at the Beach Club in Manchester the following month. A third single, Devils and Angels, was then cut at Graveyard, and the band also headlined an ICA Rock Week showcase in London on 1 January 1981, supported by Crispy Ambulance and Biting Tongues. According to NME: 'Their sound is pitched somewhere between Bow Wow Wow and the B-52s. They feature keyboard, bass, sharp drums and guitar, original use of the synthesizer, and a sulky, pouting girl singer with a voice like Cindy or Kate in the B-52's. Photo Romance was sung from behind a copy of Jackie magazine.'
Backed with a new version of Watching You Dance, Devils and Angels was released on the band's own imprint Night & Day (AMPM 24.00) in February 1981, with distribution through Virgin. Sales were modest, however, and Lizzy Johnson left shortly before work began on the second album. Without her, the band also recorded a set of otherwise unheard material for Piccadilly Radio, including The Beginning The Dawn, A Man Set Out, My One Request and Tangled, all of which formed part of a song cycle then known as 'A Good and Useful Life.'
The Passage spent February 1981 recording another single and a second album. Troops Out, a new version of a stand-out track on Pindrop, emerged on Night & Day (AMPM 22.00) in May, backed with Hip Rebels. Chart and airplay potential was somewhat undermined by a sleeve text in support of the Troops Out Movement, yet both tracks offered clear indications that the band might yet reach a wider audience, in an electro-obsessed musical climate which saw DAF and the Some Bizzare Album hogging column inches, and The Human League conquer the charts with the mighty Dare.
Second album, For All and None (PMAM 23.00), followed in July, and borrowed its title from Nietzsche. Lead track Dark Times was strong enough to remain in their live set until the bitter end, while Hip Rebels proved equally durable (here retitled A Good And Useful Life Revived). Lon Don bemoaned their perceived status as provincial outsiders, while The Shadows showcased the vocal talents session singer Teresa Shaw. Writing in Sounds, John Gill compared the album to Peter Hammill and 'a lance falling straight into a block of ice', although despite improved production values, much of the music was scarcely more accessible than Pindrop. Indeed Witts' penchant for structures was already much in evidence, with eleven revealed as a keynote number. There were 11 images on the sleeve, and 11 songs on the disc. The sleeve also featured a pentatonic scale with 11 notes, whose introverted curve shape corresponded to the flow of fear and hope through the songs, and so forth. As Ian Cranna noted in The Face, if that sounded too serious, then at least the conceit was so skilfully executed that listeners were unlikely to notice unless they looked very hard indeed.
Unfortunately major distribution proved even less effective than independent channels, with the result that the Virgin connection was severed later that summer. Disillusioned with the lack of headway, McKechnie quit the band to return to music college in Liverpool, leaving Witts and Wilson to carry on as a duo. Witts later explained to Dutch magazine Vinyl: 'There are two reasons why things have not gone well for The Passage. The first one is the fuck-up of our organisation. The second one is that we live in Manchester. And the distance between Manchester and London is almost the same as Amsterdam to London. The English media are stationed in London, and everything happening outside of that is mostly ignored.'
Thankfully their lot soon improved. Signed by prolific independent Cherry Red, Witts and Wilson recorded the single Taboos in August 1981 at Strawberry Studio in Stockport. Described as a 'gothic 124 bpm cacophony' dealing with sexual dysfunction, Taboos was engineered by Martin Hannett protege Chris Nagle, although Witts didn't quite capture the sound he wanted: 'I drowned the drumming with timpani and other percussion, in particular Taboos which now sounds more like an Orange Order marching band than the Spector 'Wall of Sound' I had in mind.' The single (12 Cherry 30) was released in November, a month after the two-piece Passage aired their second Peel Session.
After recruiting new drummer Paul Mahoney, the group entered a populist phase that - with luck - might have resulted in chart singles. A new album, Degenerates (B Red 29), was taped at Strawberry between September and October 1981, and mixed at Red Bus in February of the following year. Lead single, XoYo appeared in May in 7" and 12" formats (Cherry 35), and stated the case for sexual liberation over a bouncy dance beat. It didn't chart, but was widely heard by virtue of being included on the landmark compilation Pillows and Prayers, which sold in excess of 100,000 copies. The flipside, a version of Born Every Minute, also gained wider exposure after appearing on a Melody Maker flexi disc.
Degenerates was released in May and delivered a more orthodox, direct sound than previous albums, with XoYo joined by other alternative pop nuggets such as Born Every Minute. However there was still room for dark, brooding Passage abstraction, as on Love Is As, Revelation and Time Will Tell. Lyrically, Witts focused on love: misguided passion, twisted relationships and love gone wrong, while at the same time kicking against various forms of oppression and hypocrisy. The critical response was mixed, with some journalists suspicious of Witts' rigorously intellectual approach, and his role as a presenter on an artsy BBC magazine programme, the Oxford Road Show. For Smash Hits, however, Degenerates was 'mostly fabulous' and for Melody Maker 'the most complete pop record heard in recent years... focused magnificently upon the real world.'
In rival NME, however, Dave Hill complained that 'Its density and irregularity is, I guess, the trick part of the question. The bits that mystify are probably meant to, so just as The Truth is lost in a maze of false messages, so The Passage partially ape the process themselves. I just wonder if I'd have figured this stuff if Dick Witts hadn't explained things on the phone. Crucially, the songs are often ungainly, and the way to their rewards obscure. I mean, this isn't exactly a Big Fun review. The album prompts either study or disinterest. It doesn't exactly entice. This logic can work both ways, but ignorance of another set of rarefied ideas just rule you out of the contest at the weigh-in.'
In June, the band aired a third John Peel session, while a lengthy interview with Johnny Black for indie scene-sheet Masterbag saw Witts explain his enduring fascination with form and structure: "'We've done 53 songs now and they're all based on just three words,' says Witts, beginning to illustrate his musical triangle on a paper napkin. At the corners of the triangle he writes the words and speaks them as he does so. 'Fear, power and... love.'
'Another triangle takes shape while he tells me about power. "Power is ambiguous, it depends on how it's used. In the same way, a knife can be used to cut bread, or to slit a throat."
'The second triangle is ready, and at each corner he writes, semitone, minor third, major third, then pushes the napkin over to me. "Within these triangles you can sum up everything about Western music."
'The Witts fixation with structure (and triangles) is reflected even in the design of their album covers. "We use only black, red and white, which are symbolic colours. The red flag, the black flag for anarchy, black and white united fight - all these things. On stage we can't use black light, so we use blue, white and red, which are the colours of as many flags. There are three people in the group and I associate those colours with us. I'm red, Andrew blue, and Paul is white."
During this period The Passage toured frequently. After several weeks in Scandinavia, Holland, Germany and the UK in May and June, in July the band embarked on a four week American tour in company with Richard Strange and his Cabaret Futura. At Danceteria in New York, Witts was rewarded with the sight of a then-unknown Madonna dancing to Hip Rebels. If The Passage were developing an increasingly smooth sonic sheen in the studio, the band still raised a storm live. Reviewing a show at Sheffield Art College, Amrik Rai of NME praised their aggression: 'The Passage hedge their live bets daringly on a heady confrontation with Paul Mahoney's military tattoo of a drum pound. Live, the represent the purest punk derivative - anarchic, angry and decently frustrated. They use tapes in a singularly unpretentious fashion, using the additional embellishments to accentuate the immediacy of their cut-throat invective without ever turning to stylised arty sloganeering. Where the recorded output, especially XoYo, radiates a coy charm that's often polite enough to be bland, the live performance is an exhibition that's at once blatant and offensive.'
A follow-up single, Wave, was recorded at Amazon in August, and released in October on 7" and 12" (Cherry 50), though it remains one of the least known Passage tracks, since both Wave and b-side Angleland did not appear on any core Passage album. That same month the band embarked on another string of UK dates, including a Cherry Red showcase at Kingston Polytechnic and an excellent BBC In Concert from Manchester Ritz on 11 October. I had already seen the Passage live at Colchester Polytechnic, but it was a tape of the brooding, dynamic Ritz show that persuaded me to invest in their back catalogue.
The tape came to me via Nick Currie (aka Momus), whose high opinion of the band is worth recording: 'One of the greatest, yet least known of 80s groups. I bought Pindrop after hearing a track on Peel. The album (slightly murkier, more introverted and mysterious sounding than later releases) was like nothing else being made at the time. Totally electronic, spooky, intelligent, political, passionate as hell, like Laurie Anderson crossed with The Fall. Degenerates and Enflame are also great records, Brechtian politics melded to angular, caustic lyrics. The Passage were very un-English in their willingness to write about sex and politics. I think you'd have to see them as libertarians in a peculiarly Protestant mode, like Quakers or Methodist radicals or something. Witts was obsessed with Manchester police chief James Anderton to an unhealthy degree. I saw The Passage live in Edinburgh. Witts performed in a blood-spattered white teeshirt. There were about 15 people in the audience.'
Following Wave, Mahoney quit the band, and was replaced for the forthcoming tour by a returning Joe McKechnie. McKechnie stayed on board for the fourth Passage album, Enflame, recorded at Sound Suite in December 1982, and mixed a month later. Released by Cherry Red (B Red 45) in March 1983, the album ranged from barbed pop (Sharp Tongue, and bad sex odyssey Horseplay) to thrash (Man of War) to hard-edged electronics (Drugface, brd usa ddr jfk). Sung by McKechnie, Dogstar was written following his run-in with a bouncer in a Munich nightclub after a live TV recording, when he was refused entry for wearing a red star badge.
Once more reviews were mixed. According to Don Watson in NME: 'Musically Enflame is an improvement on its predecessor, with greater power behind its keyboard sweeps and less of a tendency to lapse into the studiously grandiose theme that marred Degenerates, but the penalty we have to pay for the relief of the harder sound is that Witts himself has departed into previously uncharted seas of pretension.'
Sharp Tongue was released as a single (Cherry 58) that same month, but made little headway, not least because both featured tracks were on the parent album in identical form. The last hurrah for The Passage came with two final BBC radio sessions, both recorded for Janice Long. The first, in February 1983, featured Angleland, Clear as Crystal, Dogstar and the otherwise unrecorded Sing the Praise, but by now the band was beginning to run into trouble. As well as struggling to make ends meet in London, relations with Cherry Red had soured, and the band parted company with manager Lawrence Beedle. Although Witts, Wilson and McKechnie completed rough demos of new material, periods of inactivity meant that momentum was lost, and thus their last work was a final Janice Long session in December 1983. This fascinating set featured a brass section and harp player, and Tattoo and Song to Dance in particular show how the band had developed in the wake of Enflame. Tattoo, incidently, was deemed unsuitable for broadcast by the BBC due to its lyrical content. A possible new band project in 1985 came to nothing, and so The Passage petered out.
Since the group disbanded, Dick Witts has broadcast frequently on BBC radio, written books on Nico and the British Arts Council, and is now an academic and lecturer in modern music. He also reminisced on dark times in Manchester in Carol Morley's film The Alcohol Years in 2001. Joe McKechnie joined Liverpool outfit Benny Profane, graduating from drums to guitar; more recently he has worked under the names the Mindwinder and DJ Tempest. In 1999 he also drummed for Echo and the Bunnymen. Andrew Wilson went on to work as dance DJ on the free party scene in Asia and Europe, and in 1998 became a radio DJ for Cadena 100 in Ibiza. Paul Mahoney joined Kitchenware label band Hurrah!, and later the police force. Cherry Red released two compilations (Through the Passage in 1983; Seedy in 1997), but neither really does justice to a band which developed so far and fast over five years. So these reissues of their entire studio catalogue are especially welcome.
Collector's note: an album titled Stuntman which appeared in 1995 is the work of a different band entirely. Slightly more relevant to this story is a Moby 12" released under the name Barracuda on Instinct/CT Records (CTT 31) in 1991. Titled Drug Fits the Face, it features an extensive vocal sample from Drugface, one of the more experimental tracks from Enflame.
January 2003 (revised July 2008)
Go to Passage website www.thepassage.co.uk