Gatefold Sleeve. Originally released on Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis Dome Records in 1981, Desmond Simmons’s Alone on Penguin Island stands in splendid isolation. Rereleased on Rafftt records with the permission of Desmond’s estate it has been re-mastered from the original tapes by Denis Blackham, the artwork has been re- imagined by the original designer Slim Smith with extensive liner notes on gatefold vinyl rounding out the project.
The year before the Wire pair had initiated Dome: a project where the duo privileged process over the end product. They would often commence recording with little or no material, using the studio itself to create raw instrumentation. After the release of their first Dome album, they then invited Simmons to record an album for the Dome label. Simmons had played bass on Colin Newman’s recently released debut solo album A-Z and he and the Wire frontman were lifelong friends.
His original demos suggested a kinship with the psychedelic guitar pop he’d played on Newman’s A-Z. However, the versions on Alone on Penguin Island enter a very different realm. With Gilbert and Lewis as producers, Simmons’s compositions are abstracted, inverted and warped. It was a bold move on their part to suggest such an approach, yet a far bolder one for Simmons to accept this experimental mindset. Even if the recording sessions were often far from harmonious. Intriguing arrangements, sprightly verses and mournful melodies the album is one that spans many moods, Lewis referring to it as “fragile, mysterious, melancholic” From shimmering electronics and jittery synths to wistful guitar driven post punk. On the unforgettable ‘By Air Or By Sea’ the breathless Simmons vocal was not some incidental effect: the producers instructed the singer to run around the block, then dart back into the studio and record the vocal, before he had a chance to get his breath back. Another of the albums highlights the deeply psychedelic ‘Pathenon’ and the churning rhythms of ‘Man The Lifeboats’ is another of the album’s strongest tracks.
For all Simmons’s Wire connections, Alone on Penguin Island shouldn’t be considered a Wire side project. It’s a fully formed work in its own right, with Simmons’s strangely slanted song writing at its heart. It was produced just at the time a number of post punk’s brightest stars were about to dive into the mainstream. Simmons however, was headed in the opposite direction: creating an album that sounds as unique and challenging as the day it was first released. It is a bleached out coda: chilly and curious. It sounds less like a composition, more like its ghostly remains. Consequently, as the album concludes, the listener is left in an icy, lopsided lacuna.