Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order

"Bizarre Love Triangle" is one of my favorite songs of all time, as it happens. And although it certainly lives up to its title in terms of being bizarre, I can't tell that it has anything whatsoever to do with a love triangle. Indeed, like many New Order songs, it's a toss-up whether or not the lyrics are deep and full of some kind of artistic meaning, or merely inane and silly. (Frankly, I'm leaning towards the latter.) The track failed to chart very high when released as a single in both the UK and the US, but gradually climbed for literally years afterward, and even hit Billboard again in 1995; nearly ten years after it was first released.

Over time, it's become pretty emblematic of New Order; almost like their signature song, as it were. It's also been covered by a number of artists who were influenced by New Order, including Stabbing Westward, Apoptygma Berzerk and Frente! (I've included those three versions as well as the 1987 Substance remix) and is even part of The Killers live set in an acoustic piano version that's not unlike the APB cover below.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pompeji by Camouflage

I mentioned earlier that Camouflage's "Pompeji" was almost a better example of their melancholy, ethereal take on the Depeche Mode sound, in spite of the fact that it was really just an instrumental b-side. I also mentioned that I couldn't find any versions of the longer 12" version that I had on my "The Great Commandment" 12" single. That is no longer true, so here it is.

I like that this fan-made video has a bunch of images of the Serengeti on it. Although Pompeji is the German spelling of Pompeii, and therefore presumably this has an ancient Roman type theme or something like that, it always reminded me sharply of the opening credits to the movie Hatari! by Henry Mancini. Just for fun, I attached a youtube clip of that, too.

It helps, perhaps, that Hatari! is one of my favorite movies.

Friday, December 3, 2010

I Love My Radio (Midnight Radio) by Taffy

Not all italo-disco was Italian, and in fact Taffy was from New York. While her impact in the US was essentially non-existant, "I Love My Radio" was a one-hit wonder in the UK and in other markets where it slotted nicely into the italo-disco countries and markets.

The video is notable, if you can call it that, for highlighting some of the worst 80s clothes I have ever had the misfortune of having seen. The cars are pretty cool, though.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Souvenir by OMD

I've talked a bit about what I like about OMD already, but "Souvenir" is one of the songs that most encapsulates their strengths in one, three minute byte. From their early CD Architecture & Morality, it showcased their wistful, ethereal, dreamy side, before they developed a more cynical pop structure and sound.

I read an interview of McClusky and Humphries, the two creative heads behind OMD's sound, and interestingly enough, they speak of that more commercial sound as an unhappy time for them, musically at least. Humphries in particular mentions singing songs that he didn't even necessarily like, but which he felt he had to do to appeal to his audience and generate sales, and because they "owed" it to the audiences or something. This is a little bit ironic, since Architecture & Morality was the most successful album OMD ever pressed, from a commercial point of view, although the follow-up, Dazzle Ships, must have really shaken them with its commercial failure.

This deepening malaise (one of my favorite words, even though I was too young during the Carter years to really remember when it was all the rage) contributed to the split at the end of the 80s between Humphries and McClusky, who oddly enough, remained good friends even as their respective lawyers argued about who was responsible for what, and what the value of the equity in things like the band name were worth and all that.

But, on "Souvenir" we see OMD at their finest, still pushing the envelope, still going in new directions, still happy and excited about creating the future of music. Unlike most OMD songs, Humphries instead of McClusky does the vocals. The band has also expressed disappointment in the video in recent years, since it is open to the possible interpretation that there are homoerotic undertones between the two musicians, which was not their intention at all. That said, the video did get heavy rotation in the early years of OMD, and it remains one of their most recognizeable videos today.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Suffer the Children by Tears for Fears

Nobody in the US remembers Tears for Fears much before 1985's Songs from the Big Chair which had hit songs "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Shout," "Mothers Talk" and "Head Over Heels" but in the UK, their earlier 1983 effort The Hurting was also a major success. One of the less remembered songs from it, however, is literally the first song Tears For Fears recorded, which went on to be a failed first single: "Suffer the Children." It was always my favorite The Hurting era Tears for Fears song. All of the songs on The Hurting were really pretty depressing; in fact, almost every song references primal therapy, a psychological tool meant to dredge up childhood trauma and relive it as a means of purging repressed pain, apparently a reflection of songwriter Roland Orzapal's own bitter childhood.

As a curious bit of trivia, John Lennon, James Earl Jones and piano player Roger Williams are all famous primal therapy patients. Tears for Fears themselves were very disillusioned when they met primal therapy creator Arthur Janov and he wanted them to write a musical to promote his practice.

Also; check out the fragile acoustic cover of contemporary Tears for Fears track "Mad World" on the Donnie Darko soundtrack if you get a chance. Beautiful song.

Tears for Fears later abandoned their synthpop sound. Some sources claim that only The Hurting itself is synthpop while Songs from the Big Chair abandoned that sound to become a contemporary rock album. I think that's a ridiculous statement. Have these guys not heard "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" or "Shout" or "Head Over Heels" recently? It wasn't until the 1989 release The Seeds of Love that Tears for Fears dropped the synthpop sound, and even then they used quite a few synthesizers still.

Safety Dance by Men Without Hats

"Safety Dance" is one of those iconic songs from the 80s. Men Without Hats themselves are almost exclusively remembered for it and it alone (which is a shame, because at a minimum, "Pop Goes the World" was just as good a song.) Part of that might be the bizarre, trippy video that they made for the song, which was a kind of Renaissance Festival Maypole celebration with a dwarf and a girl who danced like she was high the entire time.

Apparently the song was, of all things, a protest song about how New Wave pogo dancing fans were getting kicked out of clubs by bouncers because their dancing looked vaguely dangerous.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crash by Mesh

Mesh, like De/Vision that I posted about last time, is a bit of a relic in some ways. They formed in 1991, and just missed synthpop mainstreamism. Their earliest material (which actually wasn't released for some time; it came in out 2001 on Original: 91-93) sounds very much like a product of this time period. Perhaps ironically, it's not overly Depeche Mode like, and in fact when Mesh finally got a release, in 1994, Fragile didn't sound very Depeche Modish at all either. If anything, it sounded like slightly more melodic and British Pretty Hate Machine era Nine Inch Nails. 1996's In This Place Forever was more of the same, although the melodic side was made stronger, and this is where some tentative comparisons to Depeche Mode start making sense.

Mesh did some compilation and live albums over the next few years, and 1999's The Point At Which It Falls Apart and 2002's Who Watches Over Me? are the two that sound the most like Depeche Mode albums to me, out-Depeche Moding Depeche Mode themselves (although the song "People Like Me (With This Gun)" is probably the most Pretty Hate Machine sounding song Mesh ever recorded.) With 2006's We Collide and 2009's A Perfect Solution, Mesh introduced some rock sensibility in the song structure and tone of some of the songs, while still remaining darkly synthpop on most of the rest. If anything, those later albums suffer from being over-produced at times; they're too lush and "busy." Some of the earlier, slightly more raw tracks have more punch. Although I will say that "Crash" is one of my favorite songs of all time.

So anyway, that all sounded pretty rambly and probably incoherent, right? Well, check out the song then, and don't worry about it. If you like it, I certainly recommend that you check out more Mesh. They're relatively easy to find nowadays, and you can get quite a few of their works as mp3 downloads from Amazon, or as cheap CDs on the used market.

EDIT: Curses! The user who posted the video I had closed his account! Anyway, here's a live version of the song. It lacks some of the fragility live, but hopefully you can still get the idea.

EDIT EDIT: Replaced the live version of "Confined" with the music video of "Crash." Maybe I'll upload "Confined" myself one of these days, since it's gone now.

Until the End of Time by De/Vision

I'm going to make two posts today that will change my format just a little; these are not 80s songs. But both of the bands I'll be highlighting in these posts formed in the 80s or earliest 90s, actually signed and released their first material in the mid-90s after it was too late for them to get major mainstream recognition for their work. They both did, however, go on to become major players in the post-mainstream synthpop scene.

They're also quite similar in style in many ways, and I consider the two bands I'll be talking about in these two posts, Mesh and De/Vision, to be amongst the premier "false Depeche Modes" out there.

Perhaps its not really fair to characterize De/Vision (and Mesh, but I'll get to them in the next post) as merely another Depeche Mode imitator, but certainly there's an element to that in their work. Despite coming up through the ranks as synthpoppers, they've gradually converged somewhat with the harder-sounding futurepop in many ways. De/Vision actually formed in the mid to late 80s, and although they wandered throughout Germany with some demos, opening acts and other live shows for a while, they didn't actually release anything until 1993. Their anthem for many years was the song "Try to Forget" which highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of De/Vision. Like fellow countrymen Camouflage, it was dark-edged, frequently danceable synthpop, very much in the same vein as mid to late 80s Depeche Mode except without (yet) any hint of guitars. "Try to Forget" is a catchy song, and an easily danceable one. It really sounds great. However, if you listen to it too closely, the fact that the songwriter and singer isn't a native English speaker becomes very obvious. The lyrics are often awkwardly written and sung with a strong accent. This is true of much of De/Vision's work even to this day. "Try to Forget" also tries too hard. The subject matter becomes melodramatic to the point of silliness. Yeah, OK, so the subject of the song is lonely. Is that really going to cause her to scream in horror?

In any case, in most respects De/Vision started off very strong and have continued to improve as time has marched on. They haven't changed too dramatically... starting with 1998's Monosex, their samples became much more organic sounding, picking up some "fuzz" so to speak, but that was common right about then, and it makes the songs sound more modern rather than the older, more sterile sound of the 80s and early 90s.

With 2000's Void they added a harsher sound and more guitars. A lot of synthpop fans rejected Void, and called it a betrayal of synthpop altogether, disparagingly labeling the effort a "rock" album. A lot of synthpop fans are pretty stupid, though, quite frankly. If Void is a "rock" album and not synthpop, then so is everything Depeche Mode has done from Violator on down, and so is the entire catalog of New Order. That accusation is both puerile and preposterously wrong anyway.

However, De/Vision were a bit gun-shy from departing too much from their trademark sound after that minor experimentation fell kinda flat with many fans. Although they did go a bit up and down in terms of how dark and depressing their sound would be, by and large the post-Void output of De/Vision is remarkably unified in style.

And De/Vision's output has been rather remarkable altogether. From 1993 to 2010, they've released no less than twelve studio albums, several compilations, remix albums, greatest hits and live albums. There's a lot of material out there, and much of it is very, very good; amongst the best in the modern, post-mainstream synthpop scene.

2010's Popgefahr is their latest album (not surprisingly, since it just came out this year) and has a lot of great songs. I short-listed four potential tracks (out of ten) to highlight in this post, and finally settled on "Until the End of Time" which is the final, closing track. Not exactly a dance monster, but certainly highlighting De/Vision's ability to craft these dark, melancholy tracks that see them so often compared to Depeche Mode. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Only You by Savage

This is one of the funniest italo-disco music videos I've seen. Savage, a skinny, kinda nerdy-looking Italian guy who's made his hat into his signature look, has to stop his girlfriend from marrying a really sleezy looking fella in a strange computer cult ceremony with really bad English grammer.

While the video is mostly silly and unintentionally funny, the song itself is kinda nice; and highlights some of Savage's best features; he had a nice voice, could write emotional and memorable synth and vocal hooks. Of course, Savage had already demonstrated this with his earlier song "Don't Cry Tonight" which sounds so similar, in fact, that "Only You" is almost eerily deja vu in nature. He later went on to have a few other minor hits (that managed to sound a little bit different) including "Goodbye" and hey; apparently he chose his stage name after Doc Savage the pulp hero. Ya gotta like that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Everyday is Halloween by Ministry

This is sadly belated; I meant to post it before (or on!) Halloween, but I was busy, plus I got a terrible cold over Halloween weekend and was laying around in bed half the day miserably. Ministry is best known as an industrial metal band, but they went through two earlier incarnations before that. 1986's Twitch was a hard EMB sound, not too unlike some Front 242, Nitzer Ebb or even Frontline Assembly of similar vintage, and before that, Ministry released the rather tepid synthpop album With Sympathy in 1983. It's not clear whether Arista pressured Ministry's Al Jourgensen to release a synthpop album because that's what they wanted in their stable at the time (for 1983, that doesn't seem unlikely) or if Al himself was doing that because he hadn't discovered the concept of "harder" music yet on his own. In any case, he certainly disavowed the album in later years.

Near the end of his synthpop era, in 1984, Ministry released the non-album single "Everyday is Halloween" which seems to be a song about being goth. It got a pretty cool (although also pretty faithful, really) cover version by Dangerous Muse more recently, and it's been covered by a variety of goth musicians in a number of styles since. After this release, Ministry left Arista and signed up with Wax Trax!, the famous industrial label, and put out some pretty dark and hard-edged EBM, before becoming even harder and more metal. This is by far the best of their synthpop output, though.

Pure Energy by Information Society

Back to the 80s again, here's Information Society's "Pure Energy." Oddly, the video and the music are out of synch in this version, but hey... close your eyes and listen if it bothers you.

I actually got to see Information Society live in 1993 or so... right about the time of the "Peace and Love, Inc." era. They played this song too, of course. As part of the American response to the second British invasion, this was a local home-grown dance music hit, reaching #3 on the pop chart and #1 on the dance chart. Although "Pure Energy" (or more accurately, "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)") is probably InSoc's most iconic song, their debut major release album actually had four singles from it, and their sophomore effort had two decent hits as well. Peace and Love, Inc. on the other hand, was poorly supported by the label (despite having a #1 on the dance chart hit) and sank without much notice, no doubt due to the changing climate for dance music in general in the US.

It's questionable to what degree exactly Information Society was (or remained) synthpop, coming as they do out of the same "freestyle" tradition that I discussed briefly with Noel, but as I've also said, I think some of those genre splitting exercises are somewhat silly after a certain point.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pure Energy by Accuface

I actually meant to post a video of Information Society's "Pure Energy" but while searching Youtube for it, I came across this quite by accident. Normally I'm not a huge fan of trance--vocal or otherwise--because it can tend to get boring and repetitive unless it's really good. Not saying I don't like trance, because I do have a modest collection of that too, but this song is one of the better examples of that genre. On a whim, since I stumbled across it, I decided to post it. Accuface is a German trance DJ (aren't most of them?) and therefore is probably almost completely unknown in the US. Looks like you can buy this (and a bunch of other of his tracks) as an Amazon mp3 download, though.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Blind Vision by Blancmange

Blancmange is another band that was a purely British phenomena, being little known in the US. Given the name, that's not necessarily surprising. They formed in '79 and got some major attention when appearing on the famous Some Bizarre Album compilation that also made Soft Cell and Depeche Mode famous (among others.) Like Soft Cell (and many other outfits throughout the 80s, including Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Red Flag, Sparks and more) they were the classic "electroduo"--a charismatic frontman/vocalist and a more introverted keyboardist who hung out more in the background doing all the instrumentation.

After the success of Some Bizarre Album, Blancmange signed to London Records and had a string of hits from their first two albums, between 1982 and 1985 or so. Their third album flopped, however, and the band broke up. "Blind Vision" was always my favorite song of theirs (I don't have the three albums; I just have a greatest hits compilation) and it reached #10 in the UK in late 1983, and was included on their 1984 album Mange Tout. Although Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe are, of course, Blancmange, this track had many additional musicians, including three backing vocalists, a guitar player, a bass guitar player, an additional percussion player, and an entire brass group called The Uptown Horns.

Like many 80s bands, word on the street (and on Blancmange's official myspace page) is that they've reformed and our preparing some new material. We'll see how that goes. I'm somewhat sceptical of reconstituted 80s synthpop bands, but I often can't help but to see what they're up to anyway.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Drama by Erasure

By 1989, Erasure had become relatively popular. Wild! was their fourth studio album, and the last two had been big hits; The Innocents on both sides of the Atlantic. Their first album, Wonderland, had become a collector classic by this time as well.

However, I had one friend in the early 90s who claimed that of Erasure's catalog, only every other album was any good; he discounted Circus and Wild! as too weird and "artsy" as opposed to the more conventional catchy synthpop (focusing on pop) sound of Wonderland and The Innocents. I'm still not sure I agree with him completely--and his pattern was broken after Chorus anyway--but he has a point. While Wild! does have moments of weirdness, it's also hard to argue with some of the classic hits that it spawned, like "Blue Savanah", "Star" and today's selection, "Drama." "Drama" does, in fact, remind me sharply of some of the material from Erasure's mid-album EP Crackers International… maybe not quite as aggressive and dark sounding as "Knocking At My Door" but just as obviously club focused, and well, similar. Crackers International actually makes a nice bridge between The Innocents and Wild! in more ways than one. The dance anthems get more dance centric, and the non-dance songs get a bit more artsy and perhaps a bit less accessible at first blush. Wild! is one of those albums that has to grow on you.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Humunkulus (Man of Glass) by Mysterious Art

In 1988/89 Mysterious Art swept Germany by storm, becoming incredibly popular in that country, while remaining relatively unknown elsewhere. In the 1990s when I was looking into finding underground synthpop on the internet, I heard a lot about this band, and they became a bit of a holy grail search for me as well.

Sadly, they've never got a mp3 release at Amazon that I'm aware of, and the CD sells for more money than I'm willing to pay still, so I listen to Mysterious Art on Youtube and elsewhere. They had a club friendly, gothic horror sound, with beautifully delivered female vocals (another relative rarity in synthpop.) While "Das Omen" was their biggest hit, I quite like the songs, "Humunkulus (Man of Glass)" and "Requiem" at least as much.

Mysterious Art is also a great example of the differences in the music scenes in various countries. Maybe not as much as some other acts I could mention: Plaza's "Yo-Yo" would never have had a prayer in the States, for example, but it's still in interesting example of how much variety there is locally.

Book of Love by Book of Love

Book of Love's self-titled freshman album also ended on a self-titled song. Although never released as a single, it remained one of their best songs, I always thought, neatly encapsulating everything that BoL did right on their first CD. Combining a cheerful yet dreamily romantic danceable sensibility with light synthesizers, numerous chimes (or "tubular bells" as they're often credited) and of course Susan Ottaviano's lush, nearly baritone feminine voice singing poetic imagery in the lyrics, it's a perfect send-off for their album, and a great iconic song if you've got to name a song after your group.

Romanticide by Combo Audio

The 80s was a time when one-hit wonders seem to have been prevalent, and Combo Audio, with their song "Romanticide" seems to have been a great example. Well, to the extent that you can even call "Romanticide" a hit, which may be a generous label. It's probably better to say that they had some local fame, opened for some big acts (including Duran Duran, U2, the Talking Heads, INXS and others) and got this song attached to a popular New Wave compilation series, where I heard it for the first time.

Due to friction with the labels with which the band worked, their musical output was sadly cut short. A single EP, which contained this song, was all that they ever put out.

Jubilation by Anything Box

While T-4-2, who I mentioned a few posts ago, had mostly local modest fame (they were Texas boys), similar sounding Anything Box had a couple of genuine hits on their hands before the synthpop crash pushed them underground. Their second album, Worth, was produced by legendary producer Gareth Jones, but never officially released due to a dispute with the label. Members of the fan club were able to get it, and for years it was a highly sought after collectors item.

Of course, now you can buy it directly from Amazon as an mp3 download for about nine bucks. Although I wouldn't trade the easy availability and accessibility of music (and other things) in the age of the internet and the iPod, I do wonder sometimes if the scarcity and hunt for obscure releases didn't somehow make me value some of that difficult to find music all the more, though.

In any case, this song is not from Worth, and has never been particularly hard to find, since Anything Box's first album Peace is still in print even today, twenty years after first being released. This was the second, and less well-remembered (but not because it's any less good) single release from that album, "Jubilation."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dancing With Tears In My Eyes by Ultravox

Like many bands of the early 80s who didn't have a stream of mainstream hits that I would have heard on the radio, I discovered Ultravox in the later 80s after they were past their prime, and indeed after they had broken up. For many long years, the only Ultravox I had was Collection, a greatest hits cassette tape that compiled the output of the four albums that the had done with the "classic" line-up with frontman Midge Ure, synth-guru Billy Currie, drummer Warren Cann and bass player Chris Cross. After this, they canned Cann (no pun intended) and released the thoroughly disappointing album U-vox (which I once briefly owned) before calling it a day.

So, a lot of my Ultravox info was out of context, since I never heard the original albums. More recently I have---you can now buy digital remaster double CD versions where the CD of bonus material (alternates, demos, remixes, live versions and b-sides) are actually longer than the original material. "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" was Ultravox's second biggest hit; it hit no. 3 on the UK charts. It's from their 1984 album Lament, and it was the first track on Collection, and as such, always struck me as one of the most iconic (if not the most iconic) of the classic line-up Ultravox's output.

Although it actually has a pretty cool music video, I decided to mix things up and put out the "Special Remix" version instead. The Special Remix is mostly notable for being really long, but it's also nice because it separates out most of the elements of the song at at least one point instead of burying it under all the other elements, so you can really hear everything that the song does.

Suburbia by The Pet Shop Boys

It's not really surprising that outfits like The Pet Shop Boys became popular with suburban youth in America when they sang songs that romanticised the "dangers" and "difficulties" of the modern suburban lifestyle. I have no idea what the song means, but I've got to think that it's tongue in cheek. A song about the sinisterness (sinistry?) of suburban life can't possibly be serious, and the video with gang members and cops and dogs and creepy suburban housefronts is just strange.

From their 1986 debut album Please.

Pet Shop Boys - Suburbia
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Doot-Doot by Freur

Freur was the collaboration of two art school students in 1983. They actually didn't have a band name until their label insisted that they have one, and that it be pronounceable. They had previously referred to themselves simply by a squiggly symbol. In fact, the British music magazine Sounds called the band "elephant with a stick of rhubarb" because that's what the symbol vaguely looked like.

Freur had a very minor UK hit with "Doot-Doot" before folding and coming back with a few new musicians as Underworld, which was a successful electronic music collaboration that operated throughout the 90s and beyond. Their Freur material, though (at least the little of it with which I'm familiar) was quite attractive; artistically and aesthetically pleasant, vulnerable and "cute." Underworld was no such thing; their frequently dark and rather hard sound featured on the soundtracks of Hackers and Trainspotting (the songs "Cowgirl", "Born Slippy.NUXX" and "Dark & Long" specifically.) But Freur was typical, yet fragile and very well-made 80s synthpop, compared to Underworld's more acid house approach.

Angst In My Pants by Sparks

The musical duo of Ron and Russell Mael had been doing Kinks or The Who style music throughout much of the early 70s, but by the mid 70s they were tired with that sound, felt that it was stale, and tried a "West Coast" sound. Several recordings with studio musicians were released which the band felt were "bereft of personality." Deciding to go a completely different direction, they teamed up with Giorgio Moroder to revamp their sound as among the earliest synthpop groups out there. Moroder was famous (at that point) for producing some Donna Summer disco, but honestly; late era disco (as well as it's descendents, italo-disco, Hi-NRG, Eurodance, etc.) and synthpop were quite often separated by a very thin and very blurry line. Moroder would also go on to define the sounds of Blondie, Irene Cara, and others, and worked with David Bowie, Japan, Melissa Manchester and more, managing to transfer his disco synthesizers into a synthpop sound while style remaining trademark Moroder. Depeche Mode, the Pet Shop Boys and New Order have all cited this transformed Sparks, specifically the album Number 1 in Heaven as hugely influential on their own sound.

A few years later, Sparks brought back some of their live instrumentation, although the keyboards remained important, when they had their bigger US exposure with the 1982 album Angst in My Pants, the title track of which appeared on the Valley Girl soundtrack as well. Sparks continued to experiment with a variety of different sounds between rock and roll, and even in the early 90s they sounded like the Pet Shop Boys with 1994's Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins.

Sparks were also infamous for their look and stage presence. Younger brother Russell was an animated, charismatic frontman, usually with very big hair, while songwriter and keyboardist Ron was famous for his Hitler stache (later to be replaced with a thin, Errol Flynn pencil moustache) and nearly motionless scowl on stage. Sparks also appeared on Saturday Night Live at this time, and characteristically, Russell is bouncing around rather hyperactive, and Ron is just standing their scowling at his keyboard, barely moving a few fingers to play.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat

I referred vaguely in a past post about what the profile of the typical synthpop fan was during the 1980s. In the music press, retrospectives and elsewhere, it is often claimed that synthpop was carried to success based on its success amongst gay audiences. In fact, I've seen this stated so often and in so many venues that I think it's in danger of being accepted at face value, but I think there's a big problem with that idea: namely that throughout the 80s---from the late 70s successes of Gary Numan to the early 90s successes of Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Pet Shop Boys, OMD, and others---it was obvious that this type of music had popularity that couldn't be explained by appealing to a niche market. Right, I mean, novelty songs can occasionally top the charts, but synthpop songs weren't novelties. Many synthpop artists charted multiple times over many years, and there was a rather sizeable wave of artists all publishing sufficiently similar songs to be considered part of the same movement. How anyone can claim that a relatively small subset of the population can cause a genre to play on the charts so significantly for many years is beyond me; they are either way overestimating the amount of gay people in the US and the UK, or are way overestimating their power in determining what is popular and what is not.

Of course, where and when I grew up, it never really occurred to me that people were gay. It wasn't something that people really considered (with the exception of Boy George. Everybody knew he was.) To me, synthpop, or New Wave as we called it at that time, was music that was elegant and sophisticated, plus it was fun to dance to, and that was what drove its popularity with fans that I knew. This is similar to the Continental Europe view, even today.

That said, it's hard to deny some kind of greater than coincidental link between the gay population and synthpop. Without doing any scientific survey (or looking to see if someone else has done so) it certainly seems as if a higher proportion of synthpop artists were gay than other musical genres; some of them quite openly. Andy Bell (of Erasure), Neil Tenant (of The Pet Shop Boys) Jimmy Sommerville (of Bronski Beat and The Communards), Marc Almond (of Soft Cell) Boy George (of The Culture Club) and more were relatively high profile gay icons. And the entire Blitz Kids scene, in which much of the early synthpop music and associated New Romantic fashion was founded, was purposefully androgynous and sexuality ambiguous. If Duran Duran were dubbed the "Fab Five" by the music press (in reference to the Beatles as the Fab Four), Spandau Ballet were in turn called the Fag Five because of their image. Even Vince Clark era Depeche Mode sang a song that was literally gay--"What's Your Name?" is a song about picking up a pretty looking boy--although none of the band members were gay (and both Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher claimed in 2005 on a TV interview that it was categorically their least favorite DM song of all time.)

And certainly in the years since synthpop faded, it's come to be seen in the US as somewhat "faggy" music, and I've had to become resigned to the fact that my favorite type of pop music has acquired a reputation as "gay music." Exactly what caused this shift in perception isn't exactly clear to me. It never appeared during the 80s that only gay audiences were enjoying this type of music, and in fact that implication is ridiculously unreasonable from a numbers perspective, if nothing else. The underground synthpop movement that has chugged along in the 15-20 years since doesn't appear to be any more gay than any other genre of music in terms of performers, fans or subject matter, and folks who remember synthpop fondly from the 80s appear to cross all walks of life. Needless to say, the shift in perception appears to be quite real regardless.

Of course, it's a bit harder to dispute the gayness of at least some synthpop material. Bronski Beat were three British artists, all three of which were gay, and which often sang about gay issues. Their modestly successful "Smalltown Boy" and "Why?" and later songs by some of the same artists working under different names, such as the Commundards "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Never Say Goodbye" to say nothing of "There's More to Love than Boy Meets Girl" are all so overtly gay in terms of subject matter and presentation that it's hard to argue the connection. I suspect, however, that emphasis on fashion and style were seen more and more as gay characteristics, and that was sufficient, when the genre became suddenly unpopular, to label the entire movement as some kind of "gay thing" to later generations of music listeners.

But, honestly, I can only speculate about the paradigm shift. Any serious journalism on the subject seems to already accept as a given that synthpop and gay go together, despite the fact that the huge numbers synthpop songs were seeing on pop charts couldn't possibly mean anything other than significant mainstream popularity. Lacking any critical thought on the subject that I can find, I'm left to guess.

Perfect Kiss by T-4-2

By the late 1980s, not only were bands popping up that had a darker Depeche Mode like sound, a wave of similar sounding songs from other new bands that had a lighter tone, and high tenor vocals, hit the airwaves. The debut of Anything Box with "Living in Oblivion" and "Jubilation" are part of this wave, as were The Hunger with their song "Never Again" and the output of rather unluckly synthpoppers T-4-2. I picked up a vinyl EP from T-4-2, which includes among others, the song below, and thought it was extraordinarily good.

Sadly, when they finally scored a full length CD release, it had been reproduced and remixed, by Paul Robb of Information Society fame, and much of what made the initial release so charming was exorcised. The CD is disappointingly mediocre, while the vinyl self-produced EP remains difficult to find in digital format. After releasing this sad CD, T-4-2 seem to have disappeared from the music scene altogether. Frontman Will Loconto went on to compose music for video games, mostly, and so has remained active and apparently fairly successful. But their contribution to synthpop in the 80s was under-rated and unappreciated.

Situation by Yaz

Yaz, or Yazoo as they're known in the UK, was the group Vince Clark formed after leaving Depeche Mode early on and teaming up with old school friend Alison Moyet. I say "old" school friend, but keep in mind that in late 1981 when they formed, Clark and Moyet had barely turned 21, and clearly they hadn't actually been out of school for very long. Their debut album Upstairs At Eric's, referring to the time spent at producer Eric Radcliffe's place during production of the album, actually doesn't contain the song "Situation" on the UK version, where it was merely the b-side to "Don't Go." This seems odd to us in the US, where it featured prominantly on the album, and is in fact one of the highlights of the CD. It's also the song that is most remembered by Yaz these days, although "Only You" and "Don't Go" had some modest chart success, and "Too Pieces", "Bad Connection", "Midnight", "In My Room" and "Bring Your Love Down (Didn't I)" are also all standout tracks.

Actually, with a tracklist that impressive, it's not surprising that I highly recommend Upstairs At Eric's all round. It's good stuff. Not cold and futuristic like some of the other synthpop that had been out recently, Yaz embraced a warm, soulful sound that was also becoming more mainstream with other acts as well, and proved that electronic music was, in fact, made by humans after all.

The Great Commandment by Camouflage

I've said earlier that Depeche Mode had greater success in the mid-80s on Continental Europe than they did in either the UK or the US. In the English speaking world, they had some dance club favorites, and "People Are People" had been a successful single, but otherwise Depeche Mode's commercial success was on slowburn... it took a long haul of putting out modestly successful singles and dance hall favorites like "Strangelove" or "Behind the Wheel" before they had the incredible sold out Rose Bowl concert in 1988 and the massively commercially successful Violater singles of late 1989 and 1990 kicked out.

I also mentioned that at about this time, and number of modestly successful bands started imitating Depeche Mode, so it's not surprising that one of the earliest and more successful such act was from Germany. In 1988, the trio's "The Great Commandment" spent three weeks at the top of the Billboard dance chart, and made an appearance just better than #60 on the Hot 100 pop chart. Camouflage had some other minor hits in 1989, including "Love Is A Shield" which was very much in the same vein, before changing their sound to a less synthpop oriented approach in the early 90s, and losing much of their audience in their home country as a result. Of course, their synthpop audience in the US and UK were lost at about the same time, because synthpop became unpalatable to those audiences.

Camouflage did have a unique take on the Depeche Mode sound; although you can't tell necessarily from this track, they did cultivate an unusual, dream-like, melancholy atmosphere that was very different from Depeche Mode's more straightforward dark and depressing sound. The B-side from "The Great Commandment" which is the instrumental album track "Pompeji" showcases this a fair amount. Sadly, I no longer have a vinyl player, so I can only listen to the shortened album version of that song rather than the nearly twice as long extended version that came on my 12" single for "The Great Commandment." Hopefully, one of these days when I get a machine that will play or convert those vinyls, my old vinyl will still actually play. I haven't been able to find anywhere where that song's been uploaded in youtube or anywhere else, except in the shorter album version.

In recent years, Camouflage have had some success, at least in Germany, by returning to their roots and recording stuff that sounds like dark synthpop. They re-released "The Great Commandment" with new, re-recorded vocals and instrumentation, and their 2003 album Sensor is a thing of dark, raw beauty. Their 2006 album Relocated isn't bad either, although not as good as Sensor. They've certainly improved their sound over the years, including their vocals. On their first release, Voices & Images (from which "The Great Commandment" comes) the German accent was often quite strong, and their lyrics were occasionally klunky and awkward as non-native English speakers will occassionally do. Subsequently, they cleaned that up a fair amount.

Future Brain by Den Harrow

Den Harrow was an italo project that made an attempt to break out in the mainstream, English-speaking synthpop movement, although unsuccessfully. Although they had a string of hits in West Germany, Switzerland, Italy and other non-English speaking countries, they never found any success in the UK or the US.

Which was kinda ironic, because American born Tom Hooker was the uncredited vocalist and songwriter for much of Den Harrow's output. In a Milli Vanilli like move, they hired a non-singing model to lip synch the songs for "live" performances and video.

As an aside, Den Harrow was a pun, it was meant to sound like the Italian word for money, denaro, which is what the producers hoped to make by carefully crafting this image that they hoped would transcend the previously inaccessible English speaking market with a hired lip syncher. While they weren't successful in all of those ventures (although presumably they did make some money for their central European and Italian success), "Future Brain" is still a great song, and a great example of the musical scene in continental Europe during the mid-1980s.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bostich by Yello

Swiss outre musician Boris Blank teamed up with a millionaire businessman and professional gambler Dieter Meier to form the electroduo Yello, who put out material throughout the 80s, but who only really became well known in 1986 when John Hughes used their track "Oh Yeah" as the finale for Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It's since become an incredibly iconic song of the 80s and almost synonomous with something that you really want to have, showing up in commercials, movies, TV shows and elsewhere repeatedly to this day.

But they'd already been at it for over five years and with five albums under their belt, they were hardly newcomers when they finally got some notice in the US. Yello's signature sound was an electro montage of weird sound effects, tape loops, frequently a driving synthesizer beat, and of course, Dieter's distinctive vocals which are more likely to be chanted or stylized rather than sung. This song, "Bostich", is from their debut album in 1980. I don't know why the video below says it's from 1984, as it most definitely is not.

You're the Answer by Seven Red Seven

Seven Red Seven was one band (among several) that had some modest mainstream success at the very end of the 80s and very beginning of the 90s by sounding as much like Depeche Mode as they could. There was a little cottage industry of bands who did this: Seven Red Seven, Cause & Effect, Camouflage, Red Flag and others. Some of the bands in this little cottage industry weren't quite quick enough off the draw to become well known before the market crash that made synthpop unpalatable for mainstream record labels, but after struggling for a few years managed to self-release or indie-release material and become amongst the luminaries of the newer underground synthpop movement of the 90s and 00s, like Mesh and De/Vision.

These artists generally lacked the subtlety and artistry of Depeche Mode, but they seem to have correctly figured that if they had the same vaguely similar sound and wrote their songs to be danceable and get played in clubs, that they could milk that approach for a record deal and some sales, and for the most part, it seems to have worked quite well for them, for at least a few years.
Each of them also seem to have had a "schtick" or defining feature; what they brought to the table with their variety of Depeche Mode imitation. Seven Red Seven's was that they were fans of electro music, apparently, and did a lot with samples, tape loops, and deadpan, distorted (or sampled) vocals. However, not all of their songs were like this, it was just a prominent theme on their debut album Shelter. The songs that are best remembered are straight up electronic dance music tracks like "That Way Again" or "Thinking of You." The song I selected, "You're the Answer" was one that I thought showed more artistic merit than most of the rest of the album. It also got a second lease on life when Synthpop Mk. II band Iris covered it for their long delayed sophomore album Awakening in 2005.

Video gone from Youtube

Maniac by Michael Sembello

By 1983, even in the US "pure" synthpop was incredibly successful in the mainstream arena, as evidenced by the #1 performance of Michael Sembello's "Maniac," thrust to the top of the charts after appearing on the soundtrack for the hit movie Flashdance. The Giorgio Moroder helmed and Irene Cara performed song "Flashdance… What a Feeling" did so as well. For that matter, everything about the movie Flashdance was a big surprise hit in 1983.

Sembello's song, although popularized by the movie, actually wasn't written for it, and was originally penned after Sembello was inspired by seeing the grindhouse 1980 splatter flick Maniac about a serial killer in New York who scalped his victims and made mannequins decorated with their hair. The lyrics were even changed; the maniac in the original version was male, not female, and rather than dancin' like he's never danced before, he would kill your cat and nail it to the door.

Whatever inspired Michael Sembello to write a disco/synthpop song about a serial killer is unclear, but luckily for him, he was convinced to update it to something a bit more accessible, and he hit mainstream gold with this tune.

That gets a bit into the question of exactly what the profile of the synthpop fan was in the 80s, but that's more fairly the topic for another post and another song. For now, let me just say that with the kind of mainstream success songs like "Maniac" was having, Human League's "Don't You Want Me Baby," pretty much the entire early to mid 80s catalog of Duran Duran, and much more, clearly shows that this kind of music didn't have just niche appeal.

Michael Sembello quietly disappeared after this song, and is known today as a one-hit wonder who swept in with one gigantic hit and then was completely forgotten. He also "wins" for being one of the least image conscious synthpop stars; as a sweaty, hairy bearded guy in a black tank top, he wasn't setting any fashion trends, that's for sure, which was quite the opposite of many of his British compadres.

Too Fast to Live by 16 Bit

Obscure German group 16 Bit skirted the edges of electro, synthpop, EBM, and techno. The whole spoken/growled lyrics sounds very industrial, and the themes of desperation with regards to the modern lifestyle fit that vibe too, but the chugging techno bass line makes this sound perhaps more like Front 242 than anything else.

Sadly, I don't really know anything much else about 16 Bit. They had a few other releases, but they were extremely obscure and I've been unable in all the years since I heard about 16 Bit, to really find out anything at all about the band other than the names of those involved.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Oh L'Amour by Erasure

When synthpop legend Vince Clark teamed up with newcomer Andy Bell to form Erasure, they would become one of the most enduring collaborations of the genre, and one of the most successful and iconic. It seems odd looking back at it now that their first releases from 1985 and 1986 were actually commercial failures… the album Wonderland charting low and the three singles charting low in the UK and not at all in the US. The singles did get some play in the dance clubs, and made some headway on the dance charts, however. And as Erasure later became big news, starting with The Circus in the UK, and especially with The Innocents in all regions, Erasure's back catalog became a hot item, and their club anthem "Oh L'Amour" became extremely well known, well loved, and well played. It's fair to say that it's become the iconic Erasure song, actually. For me, in the later 1980s, three or four years after it was initially released, "Oh L'Amour" became a fixture of my high school musical experience; I listened to it a lot, I danced to it at almost every dance I went to, and it seemed to become almost ubiquitous. And I still stumble across new remixes of it repeatedly; it's become a staple of the 80s scene, and quite well remembered. For that matter, Erasure seems to have been one of the synthpop bands that weathered the synthpop crash relatively well, continuing to put out reasonably successful releases for many years before the change in taste finally caught up to them.

The song was later re-released as part of a greatest hits compilation, and charted very well at that time. This remix below is actually one of those later remixes, but it's among my favorites.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

But Not Tonight by Depeche Mode

1986's Black Celebration is, in my opinion, the high point of Depeche Mode's career in terms of artistry (which probably explains its relative tepid reception commercially,) and the finale for that album was the song "But Not Tonight." It was always my favorite on the album, but the reason for that is perhaps kind of odd.

By 1986, Depeche Mode had abandoned any sense of their former "tinkly-bop" synthpop of the type Vince Clark wrote, and were notorious for being extremely dark in nature. Black Celebration was perhaps one of the darkest albums that they've done, before or since. The themes were almost post-apocalyptic at times; the song "Black Celebration" refers to the best we can hope for is to make it through another day of our failed and miserable lives, while "Fly on the Windscreen" is an obvious metaphor. Many of the other songs are more personal in nature, but no less hopeless… which is why the album turning on a dime and ending on "But Not Tonight" is such an interesting choice. Suddenly the cathartic darkness is over, and "But Not Tonight" is an upbeat song, like a ray of hope shining at the end of the CD.

Of course, even outside the context of the rest of Black Celebration, it's still a wonderful track that stands well on its own. It got a single release at the end of Black Celebration's run, but it wasn't really until the Music for the Masses singles started coming out the next year that Depeche Mode started making headway on the charts again.

Love Is Like a Game by Hot Cold

Hot Cold was another italo disco song I discovered in 1991 or 1992 or so, but who's artists operated in the years of about 1985-1986. Like most italo-disco, it's a bit poppier than some synthpop; less ironic and more just plain fun. Because italo disco artists are extremely more obscure, especially to the English speaking world, than other synthpop acts, I don't really know much about either the song or the artists except that it was made of two women, Antonella Pepe and Ivana Spagna. Antonella was also one half of the other famous woman italo disco duo, Fun Fun, as an aside. They had several hits on the Continent and in Latin America, including "Baila Bolero", "Happy Station", "Colour my love" and more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Metal by Gary Numan

Many of the posts I've made recently are more concerned with the early synthpoppers than with those who came out when the genre was more fully defined and mainstream. This would seem odd, since I came across the genre more fully in those later years, and actually missed much of the beginnings of it, but I'm a person who's always been interested in roots and beginnings, and for my own reasons, I've done quite a bit of exploring in the earliest synthpop and the acts that preceded it.

I don't think it's any secret that Brian Eno (and his work in art rock with Brian Ferry of Roxy Music, as well as his production of David Bowie's Berlin trilogy of albums) was hugely influential on later synthpop followers, as was the entire krautrock movement, but most especially Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk are often considered the godfathers of electronic music, and synthpop, industrial, techno, electro and even hip-hop. Kraftwerk, for that matter, were hugely influential on Bowie's Berlin trilogy itself. But Kraftwerk was not synthpop, and it took a number of enterprising young artists who were intrigued or captivated by the artistic approach Kraftwerk took and then fused that influence with pop music structure and the punchy, single-driven feel of the punk movement to really create synthpop itself. While Ultravox's "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is often called the first true synthpop song, it wasn't a big hit, and neither was their follow-up album, often called the first true synthpop album, Systems of Romance.

I recently read an interview with Paul Humphries and Andy McClusky of OMD, who while reminiscing about those early days, said that they weren't initially aware of there being any scene of synthpop New Wave; they thought that their condensing of Kraftwerk down into something more poppish and accessible was a unique thing. McClusky specifically remarks that he was devastated to discover that other people were doing the same thing at the same time. Interestingly, he also remarked that while speaking to Phil Oakey, he remarked that he was similarly devastated to discover that the Human League wasn't unique.

Of course, that phase couldn't have lasted long. Although early Ultravox, Human League and even OMD releases were not hugely successful, by later in 1979, Gary Numan hit #1 on the singles charts twice with "Are Friends Electric?" and "Cars" both of which were more overtly Kraftwerkian than anything OMD was doing, or even that early Human League was doing. Not long after, electronic success in the charts was a regular occurance, and it happened to (among others) OMD, Ultravox and the Human League, although in many cases after they toned down their bleak, Kraftwerk-like coldness and embraced a warmer, more pop-like sensibility. And Kraftwerk themselves had some inadvertent success when an older single, "The Model", was re-released in Britain and performed relatively admirably.

But briefly, in the latest 70s and very early 80s, that cold, computerized, dehumanized futurism vibe permeated much of what was going on in electronic music. Before splitting up and recording Dare, the Human League had a cold, dehumanized, sound. Some of the early Ultravox tracks exhibited it in spades, and John Foxx's Metamatic was probably the best single example of it recorded. Sadly, Foxx's work was undercut by the success of Gary Numan, who's sense of showmanship and his persona of the dehumanized android performing electronic music from Replicas and The Pleasure Principle captured the public's interest and made short-lived big money by being heavily influenced by a number of New Wave science fiction writers who went on to become very influential in their own fields (John Foxx commented about Metamatic that he was reading way too much J. G. Ballard that year.) In this sense, oddly, the music preceded the revolution in science fiction of cyberpunk; Gary Numan, John Foxx and others writing what could be the soundtrack for cyberpunk five years before the release of William Gibson's Neuromancer. This futurist synthpop sound could almost be called the first cyberpunk soundtrack, predating the crystalization of the genre in print by just a few years.

My favorite Gary Numan song was always "Metal" which is probably one of the darkest songs on the The Pleasure Principle, and a major fan and cult favorite, despite not ever having been released as a single (in fact, in the US at least, it was the b-side to "Cars.") It was also heavily influenced by science fiction writing, particularly Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the movie Blade Runner) and the work of William S. Burroughs. Afrika Bombaataa covered it as a weird New Wave hip-hop fusion, using Numan himself to re-record the vocals. Nine Inch Nails made an intriguing cover of the song, and Gary Numan himself completely re-recorded it, updated with new technology, as the 90s rolled over into the 00s. All of these subsequent versions lack the delicate fragility of the original, though, and while I like them, they stand a bit apart from the 1979 version.

Gary Numan: Metal
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The Politics of Dancing by Re-flex

Re-flex's "The Politics of Dancing" is a one-hit wonder New Wave synthpop outfit from 1983. The lyrics are pretty cheeky; the idea that politicians have all been replaced by DJs was appropriately both silly and scary.

That's one of the hallmarks of a lot of 80s music, though… underneath the veneer of disposability and silliness lurked a genuine fear that was a product of the Cold War and the strategy of brinkmanship that was prevalent during the decade. Re-flex handily and succintly highlights both.

1963 by New Order

As a B-side to 1987's "True Faith" one would think that New Order's "1963" would be a rather ignominous and poorly known song, but it got a release on disc 2 of the Substance compilation and a new version and even a single release in conjunction with 1994's Best of New Order. As original producer Stephen Hague once said of the song, it's the most danceable song about domestic violence ever produced. Lead singer, guitar player, and lyricist for New Order, Bernard Sumner, inadvertently ruined some of the poignant mystique of the song by claiming that it's about the JFK assassination, introducing a theory that JFK's death was a botched assassination attempt on Jackie instead, commissioned by none other than the President himself. As a devout Catholic, he didn't believe in divorce, and wanted an excuse to spend more time with his lover Marilyn Monroe. On hearing the news that JFK had died instead of Jackie, Marilyn Monroe committed suicide.

Presumably this theory wasn't meant to be taken seriously, as it conveniently ignores the fact that Monroe actually died a year earlier than JFK. All in all, that story is best ignored, as it actually detracts from the song rather than adding to it, and it's a lesson to all artists out there that talking too much about the creative process isn't necessarily a good thing.

To Cut a Long Story Short by Spandau Ballet

Before introducing this song, I'll give you a heads-up now that I intend to ramble a bit.

In the early 80s, the music press made a lot of a supposed friendly rivaly between Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, both young, photogenic heart-throbs of the New Romantic movement. While from a style and appearance perspective, they were good "rivals" that had a lot in common, from a musical perspective they weren't really all that similar most of the time. Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran had a similar string of UK hits, but Spandau's songs tended to incorporate an overwhelmingly strong influence from funky jazz and soul, which made them sound extremely dissimilar to the polished New Wave of Duran Duran.

Rather, I've always thought that Duran Duran was more obviously matched up against the classic line-up Ultravox--which operated at the same time as the classic line-up of Duran Duran--from a musical perspective. Granted, they weren't exactly the same. Although Duran Duran was formed by a bunch of art school boys and did a bunch of progressive things musically, they were still polished pop first and foremost, and even cultivated an almost "boy band" approach in those early years (an approach they later regretted.) Ultravox, on the other hand, were really progressive, and I think the biggest difference there is legacy. Ultravox weren't a bunch of fresh-faced twenty year olds. By the time they created their classic line-up, they'd been recording for years, and had been ground-breaking synthpop pioneers, punk rockers, and amongst those who created the New Romantic sound in the first place. Midge Ure had played with no less than four other bands already by then (Thin Lizzy, Slik, The Rich Kids, and Visage) as well as having been invited to join the Sex Pistols, and Billy Currie, the other half of the musical genius behind Ultravox, had created the synthpop scene by merging pop songs with the Kraftwerk sound (even working with german producer Konrad "Conny" Plank for Systems of Romance and Vienna.) Not only did his work with John Foxx era Ultravox pioneer the sound of post punk electronic New Wave, but he played with Gary Numan and created the signature Visage sound. Between the two of them, they allowed Ultravox to broach artistic barriers that Duran Duran wouldn't ever have dreamed of crossing, and brought in a wide variety of disparate influences that were the direct results of their past projects. Can you imagine Duran Duran doing anything as noisy and dissonant as "New Europeans" or even "All Stood Still"? How about anything as bleak and coldly cyberpunk as "Mr. X"? Maybe it's just that Nick Rhodes and Andy Taylor weren't as accomplished musicians as Billy Currie and Midge Ure respectively, but I doubt it. I think it was more attitude and willingness to experiment.

All three bands had a string of UK hits during the early through mid 1980s, by which point all three bands, fractured by internal schisms and the evolution of their audience, either called it quits, broke up their classic line-ups, or evolved to the point where they weren't really in the same game anymore. Spandau Ballet, notoriously, became a hotbed of lawsuits and legal wrangling between members of the band, while Duran Duran simply limped along with only a portion of the classic line-up and struggled to find their identify for the remainder of the decade. Ultravox simply lost its way as Midge Ure focused more on his solo career and wanting to morph into a bit of an arena rocker, and Billy Currie ill-advisedly tried to keep the name alive with a completely different line-up doing completely different things. And, oddly, all of them reformed in the "Noughties" with their classic line-ups for new releases, live performances, or both.

During their heyday, Spandau and Duran were able to find the number one spot on the charts at least once, although a #1 notoriously eluded Ultravox, who ended up with a #2, a #3 and several other placements that still easily qualify as hits. "Vienna" was #2 for four weeks, losing out to novelty song "Shaddup You Face" although overall it was a more successful song than that one, or John Lennon's "Woman" which kept it off the #1 spot for an additional week.

So, despite the fact that I think of Duran Duran and Ultravox as more like peers from a musical perspective than either is with Spandau Ballet, it was SB who were considered Duran Duran's true peers and rivals at the time for a number of other reasons. And, occasionally, Spandau could put out a track that sounded like it actually fit in the same scene that Ultravox and Duran Duran ran in anyway. Their debut single, "To Cut a Long Story Short", was much more raw and dark than their later polished and slick work, such as "True" or "Gold." And, supposedly, this track inspired Vince Clark to pen "Just Can't Get Enough." Although this enjoyed some success in its day (reaching #5 on the UK singles chart) it's largely and sadly forgotten today, probably unjustly. It's a great song.

October Love Song by Chris & Cosey

After working for a few years as half of the pioneering industrial group Throbbing Gristle, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti went on to form Chris & Cosey. While I have to admit that I'm not really all that familiar with their total output of work, I heard their first release, "October Love Song" years ago and have loved it ever since. It's quite a departure from some of their Throbbing Gristle work, which is, to put it mildly, a bit inaccessible. That could also fairly be said of much of their work as Chris & Cosey that I've heard here and there, but "October Love Song" on the other hand is almost a synthpop song. I mean, it lacks the normal pop verse chorus verse chorus etc. structure, but everything else about it is a perfect fit.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Touch and Go by John Foxx and Mr. X by Ultravox

I'm doing something a little bit different with this post, and actually talking about two songs in the same post. There's a reason I'm doing this, though, and hopefully after you've heard them both back to back that reason will be obvious.

As I've said before, Ultravox is often credited by the music press, fans, and wikipedia with having the first true synthpop song ever recorded, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" in 1977 and the first true synthpop album ever recorded, Systems of Romance in 1978. After that happened, John Foxx, frontman and one of the leading creative sides to the band, left to pursue his solo career, starting with 1980's release Metamatic, 1981's The Garden, etc. Ultravox, after recruiting Midge Ure, whom band member Billy Currie had met on the Visage project back in '78 and '79 (it took a little while to sign to Polydor and release Visage, which also came out in 1980) released Vienna in 1980 as well.

This weird nepotistic relationship between Foxx, Ultravox and Visage was kind of odd in that both Foxx and Ure have sung tracks that they worked on from some of those other groups, especially in live sets. Foxx wrote a song called "Systems of Romance" that was originally intended to slate onto the Ultravox album of the same name, but which didn't get recorded until his 1982 solo album The Garden. He also used some tracks that were performed with Ultravox (while he was still a member of that band) but never recorded by them, "He's a Liquid" and "Touch and Go." In one interview in the late '90s, Warren Cann, drummer for Ultravox up until 1985 or so, noted that he considered those songs Ultravox songs, not Foxx solo songs, and remarked that Ultravox was not credited when they were included on Foxx's Metamatic.

That said, have a listen to Ultravox's "Mr. X" after you've listened to "Touch and Go." Foxx wasn't credited on that one either. So, who wrote that main synth line, I wonder?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Headhunter by Front 242

When I discovered Front 242 with the release of their Never Stop EP and the Front By Front album, the effect on me was explosive, and it sent me on a chase to find backcatalog recordings and similar artists. I hadn't realized that any variety of industrial music could be sufficiently listenable and danceable that I'd actually enjoy it.

The song "Headhunter" is probably their magnum opus, and it was the most commercially successful industrial music track ever recorded up to that point and the attendant CD Front by Front is the best selling item in the history of legendary industrial label Wax Trax! Records. Belgian Front 242 was hugely influential, and even after the 80s, bands like Covenant, Funker Vogt, and Apoptygma Berzerk were eager to admit that they were imitating Front 242's style in many ways. British band Mesh even were proud to announce that a reviewer had called their music, "like Front 242, only more melodic." While I don't necessarily agree with that (they sounded more like a fusion of Music For the Masses era Depeche Mode and Pretty Hate Machine era NIN to me, at least at that point in their career) the point is that they want to be identified with Front 242. That's a good thing.

After many years of listening to the original version, I got a little tired of it, and a few years ago I picked up this Funker Vogt remix, which is quite faithful in tone to the original. It was released on the Headhunter 2000 CD, which is a frankly kind of ridiculous 2 CD compilation of nothing but a gazillion remixes of the song. That means you don't get to see the bizarre Anton Corbijn directed music video (Corbijn did all of the video directing for Depeche Mode after 1987 or so, and also designed album covers for U2, Depeche Mode, Metallica, and more.) But you get to hear a different version of the song, at least.

Kiss Me (With Your Mouth) by Tin Tin

Stephen Duffy made probably the worst career move of his life when, as a founding member of Duran Duran, he split with Nick Rhodes and Jon Taylor before they signed to EMI. This, of course, led to Duran Duran looking for a new lead singer, which led to the recruitment of Simon Le Bon, who's been the lead guy on pipes for Duran Duran for thirty years now.

As a minor consolation prize, we did get this nice little song from Duffy's other group, Tin Tin. This is the original version, and I'm sorry for the crappy audio quality on this video; it was the only copy of the original version I could find. It was released no less than three times between the years 1982 and 1985, although at no point did it do more than become a very minor fixture on the charts, sadly. And it was released as three different artists, first as Tin Tin, second as Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy, and finally simply as Stephen Duffy. This version always was the best one, though; the 1985 was remixed and reproduced into a very different sounding song altogether. That version's quite easy to find, as is the extended "U.S. Mix", but this is the perfect size and the perfect version.

The Sun Always Shines on T.V. by a-ha

Highlighting again the disparity in artist and song performances in different markets, a-ha's second single, "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." was a bigger hit in the UK than it was in the US, where it only peaked at number 20 and is largely forgotten today (I can't remember how many times I've seen a-ha referred to as a one-hit wonder lately.) If you're familiar with the famous video to "Take On Me" then you'll recognize this as the bitter sequel to that one. Morten Harket is dragged, sadly, back into his comic book world, leaving his girlfriend alone.

Apparently Morten Harket and the girl from the music video actually dated in real life for at least a few months. Curious.

Because of "Take On Me" a-ha is often seen as a relatively happy, upbeat band, but much of their catalog was actually pretty melancholy. The next three singles from the Hunting High and Low album after "Take on Me" all had that vibe either wistful at best or bitter at worst vibe; "The Sun Always Shines" was followed up by "Train of Thought" and "Hunting High and Low".

A-Ha - The Sun Always Shines On TV
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Tonight by Ken Laszlo

I had said back in the beginning that I'd also post italo disco songs here, and I haven't yet done any, so it's probably time to change that, right? If you're an American reading this, then you've probably never heard of italo disco and don't know for sure what I'm talking about. I was lucky enough to get wind of the movement when I went to Argentina for two years in the very early 90s. Now, I didn't go to listen to music, but you can't escape hearing plenty of stuff, and naturally the musical scene in Argentina was quite a bit different than it is in the US. What I mostly heard was cumbia, which was the Argentine version of ghetto music, but I also heard a bunch of stuff from Europe that nobody had been interested in promoting in the US. The only italo-disco songs to make any headway in the US at all weren't known as italo-disco, they were just seen as danceable pop songs that used a lot of synthesizers. Laura Branigan's output, and one-hit wonder Baltimora with their song "Tarzan Boy" were about it.

Italo disco also wasn't all that popular in the UK, but it was bit on the Continent, which is the vector where it came to Argentina. I wrote down some track names, and even burned a cassette tape of stuff I heard, and then made a concerted effort to locate this stuff after I got home. Sadly, to little avail, until the internet was in full swing, and I could hear songs on youtube and elsewhere. Some compilation CDs also started coming out in recent years, and just in the last couple of years or so, I've finally really bulked up my italo disco collection.

As you can probably divine from the subgenre title, italo disco is danceable stuff. I'm not aware of any ballads or experimental songs whatsoever within the genre; everything is meant to be danced to. Although it sounds extremely similar to synthpop, its roots actually like more directly in the continuing evolution of disco music. Disco was a major influence in a lot of synthpop bands too, hence the convergence. Although many italo disco artists were, in fact, Italian, other folks chimed in too: Germans, Spaniards, and others. The lead singer for Baltimora was Irish (the rest of his band was Italian) and Laura Branigan was from New York (although of mixed Italian and Irish descent, which is curious.)

One side effect of this is that many if not most italo disco artists sing in English, but are not really very fluent in our language. This means that it's often difficult to actually tell what they're saying, and then when you can, what they said was often outlandishly silly. Which, come to think of it, may well explain the lack of headway the genre was able to make in countries where people spoke English natively. Also, while synthpop was often serious (or at least artistic, pretentious or sarcastic) italo disco was often quite cheesy and bubble-gum disposible.

Despite these minor differences, I think you'll find, on listening to Ken Laszlo's song "Tonight" that it sounds not at all unlike any other New Wave synthpop song from the mid-80s. Ken Laszlo is not his real name (few of them performed under their real names) but according to the artist, is a reference to the character from Casablanca. And sorry about the abrupt fade in and fade out. Hey, it's youtube, what can you do?

Hold Back the Rain by Duran Duran

If I were asked to name the best album of the 80s--of any genre--a serious candidate and probably my ultimate pick would be Duran Duran's 1982 release Rio. Duran Duran's prior and subsequent releases all had some good songs; genuine hits, but only Rio was a complete package, where literally everything on the entire CD would be a major success alone. With the possible exception of "Lonely In Your Nightmare" which only suffers relatively; it's still a pretty good song. Not only that, most of the really enduring Duran Duran songs; the ones that everyone remembers (with the exception of "The Reflex" which was probably their biggest post-Rio hit) came from this album: the song "Rio" itself, "Hungry Like the Wolf," "Save a Prayer" and the non-single but cult classic release "The Chauffeur" which I highlighted a cover version of by Sleepthief last post. This is the album that cemented Duran Duran's reputation and legacy.

The release history of the album is also quite interesting in its own right. The original US and UK releases were the same, and the US release made little impact. This may be because Capitol Records had failed to realize that the New Romantic scene didn't mean anything to North American audiences (most New Romantics also failed to be significant chart favorites in the US--I'd never heard of Visage, Ultravox, Adam and the Ants or several other famous New Ro artists until I was looking them up later. And even Spandau Ballet wasn't on anyone's radar here until they released "True" several years after they'd had a parade of UK hits.) However, Duran Duran worked with producer David Kershenbaum to work up some alternate versions and remixes, and put out the Carnival EP, marketing Duran Duran in the US as a dance band rather than a New Romantic band. This had enough success that Duran Duran was able to convince Capitol to re-release Rio with the entire A-side of the album containing alternate Kershenbaum produced versions. They then released a third version of the US album, with the iconic song "Hungry Like the Wolf" using a different, longer Kershenbaum mix, the so-called "Night Mix." This is also the version that was released on cassette tape, so it was the version that I had for years and years until it finally wore out from being played too much. These second and third releases were massively successful, especially bolstered by the incredible, exotic music videos that were receiving heavy rotation on MTV at the time, and Duran Duran's US breakthrough was assured, a feat that escaped most of their British New Romantic compadres.

When my tape finally did die out (and for that matter, all of my tape players,) I found a cheap used copy of the CD, but to my disappointment, all of the CD releases in all of the regions were from the original release, not the improved second and third US releases. I think at this point, I actually lost my CD but because I was disappointed in it, I didn't worry about it too much. The greatest hits CD had the better versions of songs like "Hungry Like the Wolf" anyway.

However, this was always disappointing to me that I couldn't have the entire album, because it really is good enough that I don't want to cherry pick it for the good songs, I want to hear the whole thing. While poking around yesterday looking for some videos on youtube, I saw references to a 2009 Remastered version, so I decided to go check it out at Amazon. Lo and behold, the so-called "Collectors Edition" of Rio, released in 2009, not only remastered everything, but it was a double CD release with no less than 29 tracks, including all of the alternate versions released on any version of the album, demo versions, b-sides, and even a live song. And I could buy it instantly as an mp3 download for $13.54. Ka-ching! Needless to say, I did right away.

The collector's CD is only unusual in one respect; the over-representation of the song "My Own Way" which was recorded and released before the rest of the material on the album as a bridge single, and which the band itself never really liked very much. It's got both a US and a UK release version, an instrumental, a demo version a weird disco remix, and a 7" version.

Today's Duran Duran video selection for you is "Hold Back the Rain," a song Simon Le Bon wrote about guitar player John Taylor's growing drug and party problem, which he was concerned about. Although lacking the haunting beauty of songs like "Save a Prayer" or "The Chauffeur" it certainly highlights why Duran Duran thought they could market themselves credibly as a band that would put out club hits for US audiences.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Chauffeur by Sleepthief, featuring Kirsty Hawkshaw

After posting over thirty videos or at least samples of 80s synthpop, I thought I'd do something a little different just to break up the monotony. Actually, I was looking for a video of Duran Duran's "The Chauffeur" I could post, and I didn't find one that I wanted to use. One (of two) official videos is a bizarre film noir paeon to the controversial Italian art film Night Porter, but because it is an official EMI America music video and doesn't allow embedding, I can't use it. Not only that, near the end there's a bizarre sequence where a platinum blonde in an SS uniform takes her jacket off and dances topless in a parking garage, which, frankly, I didn't want to post on my blog anyway, even if I could have. I couldn't find a good copy of the other version, although granted, I didn't look that hard.

"The Chauffeur" is part of the Duran Duran mystique and legendry; supposedly when lead singer Simon Le Bon was offered a role in Duran Duran, he came with a handwritten book of lyrics and poetry already in tow, and "The Chauffeur" was one of those songs. Despite never having had a single release, it's extremely well known, and their early video collection was named Sing Blue Silver from the lyrics to this song. I can vouch with personal experience that they played it still regularly at concerts during the 90s, a feat which not even all of their successful singles releases from the 80s managed to do (curse you for not playing "New Moon On Monday" the night I was there, Duran Duran! Curse you!")

Also, even moreso than most Duran Duran songs, it's extremely electronic, and synthesizers make up an enormous portion of the instrumentation relative even to their other dance and synthpop flavored hits. It's also extremely sexy while also being extremely creepy and somewhat disturbing, although only in vague ways. The video I mentioned above makes it slightly less vague, but still... creepy as all get-out.

I created a new label, "Other" to carry this and any other slightly off-topic asides I decide to post. The first such is this remake of Duran Duran's song that came out a few years ago by electronic musician Sleepthief (actually Justin Elswick), a project where he rotates through guest vocalists (this time featuring Kirsty Hawkshaw.)

This version is quite faithful to the original in many ways, despite having a female vocalist, and is actually, if anything, even more creepy than the original. The music video below is surprisingly subtle, and I don't want to spoil the surprise at the end, but watch it and you'll see.

I Touch Roses by Book of Love

Daniel Miller is a gigantic figure on the world of 80s synthpop. Not only did he dabble in music himself, penning the highly influential cult song "Warm Leatherette" in the late 70s that paved the way for synthpop and industrial to go kinda mainstream, but he also founded Mute Records, who brought us Depeche Mode, Yaz, Erasure, Fad Gadget, and more. There was a long and fruitful collaboration with Mute Records and American company Sire Records, who had been bringing over progressive British music since the mid 1960s; most of the Mute catalog got a Sire release in the States. Daniel Miller also made a name for himself as a producer and remixer, including, as it turns out, remixing this rare version of "I Touch Roses" by Book of Love. I actually hadn't ever heard this version until I found it on youtube just now, and I assumed that it was just a mislabeled "I Touch Roses (Long Stemmed Version)" but this is certainly a different remix altogether. A little digging around shows that it was originally packaged with the "You Make Me Feel So Good" 12" release. I never bought that because most of the remixes on the 12"ers for all of the releases from Book of Love were also present as bonus tracks on the CD release that I got. The casualties there were just this one mix, a dub version of "Modigliani" and a dub version of "Boy."

Of course, keeping in mind the fact that in the 1980s remixes were much gentler creatures than they are now. Now, what you expect from a remix is that remixer take the vocal track and essentially redo the instrumentation all over again, possibly with a nod back to original or possibly not. But in the 80s, they truly were mixed; they played around with different segments of the song, rearranging them, and lightly producing them by adding a few sounds or instruments here and there to change it just a bit. And, of course, to make it longer. This version isn't an overly long version of "I Touch Roses" though, and it just highlights the natural charm of the song.

This is also the first song I heard of Book of Love's, so it was my introduction to the band. Yep, in the 1980s, even tracks like this got some airplay, even in a rather small town that had barely one radio station that was just a slight bit off-center in terms of going beyond Casey Kasem's weekly top 40.

Although its neither here nor there, we had several country stations.

Blue Monday by New Order

With the inclusion of New Order's "Blue Monday" I've got all but one of the "big" bands that'll appear many times on this blog on the scoreboard. At least, that I can think of right now. "Blue Monday" claims to be the best selling 12" single in the UK, and although that claim's not been verified (that I know of) it seems plausible to me. This was a huge, sleeper hit, that resurged in popularity not once but twice after its original release in 1983. By the time I heard it regularly in 1987 or 1988 (along with the greatest hits compilation Substance) it was a dance club anthem that nearly defined what dance clubs were supposed to sound like. Quite literally in at least one case; it featured prominantly on a local radio commercial for a dance club when I was a teenager in '88.

I didn't put up the actual music video, which is quite strange, actually (although not as strange as the video for "Bizarre Love Triangle" where there's a mid-video aside where a woman stops the music and defiantly proclaims that she doesn't believe in reincarnation because she refuses to come back as a bug or as a rabbit.) Rather, I think the long fade-in intro to this extended version is part of the iconic nature of this song.

New Order's iconic and dramatic career is an interesting story in it's own right (although I won't get into it today), but for me this song has a very personal connection. See, I actually met my wife for the first time when I asked her to dance to "Blue Monday." Or possibly it was "True Faith" I met two girls with blue dresses that night, and I never saw the other one again. I would be embarrassed that I can't remember for sure which of the two songs it was that I danced with Julie (I know for sure that it wasn't "Bizarre Love Triangle" which also played that night, because I danced that with someone else) but as it turns out, it's still much better than my wife can do, who doesn't even remember meeting me at all until nearly six months later. I also remember exactly what she wore on our first real date. And yet despite this, to this day, she still claims that she has a much better memory than I do. Whachoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?