Friday, October 29, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
From their 1986 debut album Please.
Pet Shop Boys - Suburbia
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Monday, October 11, 2010
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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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.
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.
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.
Friday, October 8, 2010
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
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.
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.
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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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?
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" 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.
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.
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?
According to this video, New Romanticism, therefore, presages Lady Gaga's approach by almost thirty years. It's style, image and bizarreness over everything, with gender ambiguity present in heavy doses. Eh… maybe that theory doesn't really work. I don't know that I'd call those hallmarks of, say, Duran Duran, Japan or Ultravox, who are also poster children for New Romanticism. Heck, Midge Ure and Billy Currie, two of the musicians most responsible for Ultravox's sound, were also among those most responsible for Visage's sound, too.
The song "Fade to Grey" itself is also no stranger to controversy; there's a rather heated disagreement amongst the band members (and even Gary Numan's gotten involved) about who actually wrote the song, or came up with the various elements of it. And then there was a breach of copyright lawsuit involving Kelly Osbourne's single "One Word" which is very transparently a reworking of "Fade to Grey."
Visage is one of those bands that got very little airplay in the US, and besides, whatever airplay it did get would have been too early for me to have been paying attention to it anyway, since I was just a kid at the time. But I heard about them later, and Visage led me on a very merry chase, trying to find the CD that was supposedly still in print but which nobody had or could special order. After looking for months… possibly even years, I finally was able to track down a copy in 1988 or so of the initial eponymous (I really like that word, by the way) CD by Visage, and shortly thereafter their second album The Anvil on vinyl. I think the difficulty of that hunt partly influenced how much I liked and valued my Visage stuff.
Even though, ironically, just two or three years later Virgin re-released most of the Visage catalog on CD, making it extremely easy to find. Oh, well.
Apparently, Noel actually released more material than just this. I never heard of it, though… I bought the 12" single back in the day on vinyl, because that's all that was available that I ever saw.
Of course, that extreme of a position doesn't apply to OMD (or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as they're more properly called); I first heard of them when John Hughes made them famous in the USA by having them sing the definitive song from his movie Pretty In Pink. So by the time I was ready to hunt down some backcatalog, they had a pretty comprehensive one, considering that they were one of the very earliest synthpop bands out the gate, releasing material as early as 1979.
Longtime fans (or anyone with the capability of picking up the entire back catalog, really) will tell you that OMD's evolution over time is an interesting one to watch. They started off rather light and breezy with their first album, which gave us the singles "Messages" and "Electricity." "Enola Gay" was also originally meant to have been included on their eponymous freshman effort, but it got bumped, which was a shame, because it sounds more like it belongs with the line-up of the first album. The second album, Organization, was instead much darker; more melancholy and dreamlike in tone.
Of course, in the US, we didn't really know this, because we never got a release of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or Organization; we got a release that combined tracks from the two albums onto a single one. Bleagh. OMD continued this darker direction for Architecture & Morality, as well as picking up a mellotron, which was not an instrument normally associated with the synthpop movement at all, but which added a very lush sound to their work. After this, OMD suffered a critical and commercial stumble with their even more experimental Dazzle Ships, which ushered in a strategic change in direction towards more overt poppish songs on their next albums, Junk Culture, Crush, and Pacific Age. Of course, when I was discovering OMD, they were smack dab in the middle of that more "commercial" synthpop phase, releasing songs like "Tesla Girls", "So In Love," "Secret", "Forever Live and Die," "We Love You" and, of course, "If You Leave" and "Dreaming."
Personally I like much of the "poppier" sound, and since I found them that way, I can hardly with a straight face accuse them of "selling out." This evolution is easy to see, though, even without all the albums in front of you. The greatest hits compilation that came out in the later 80s (and which was the best way to pick up "If You Leave" and "Dreaming" which were off-album singles) shows it clearly enough. But apparently, the band itself was sharply divided over this direction. While they were (usually) a four-man band, there were really only two "core" members, Andy McClusky and Paul Humphries, who never varied, and who did most of the direction, song-writing, singing, and other work, while the other guys were studio and concert musicians who weren't as involved on the creative side. Humphries left the band, along with the other ancillary members, and McClusky carried on on his own with the name OMD for three more albums, including 1991's very successful Sugar Tax, but the writing was on the wall already. McClusky had been the champion of abandoning the more experimental stuff and focusing on commercial success. Ironically, shortly after he did his first "solo" effort with the name OMD, the market for synthpop evaporated almost overnight, so his next two releases were much less successful, and he eventually abandoned working as OMD altogether.
That's not necessarily the end for OMD, of course… the classic line-up has recently reformed, done some very successful touring, and just released a new CD a few weeks ago. Which I haven't had the opportunity to listen to yet, but I'm curious how OMD will sound after all these years and all these changes. I initially fell in love with OMD's signature sound because it was both accessible and danceable (frequently) but also often haunting, ethereal, romantic, or otherwise very different in sound than bands like, say, Depeche Mode (which is interesting, because they toured with Depeche Mode more than once, including performing with them at the Pasadena Rose Bowl 101 concert.) In fact, I often loved OMD songs for the same reason that I loved Book of Love songs, and both of them stood as fairly unique offerings in the 80s synthpop line-up. Depeche Mode and Erasure, in particular, were often imitated but OMD was always something pretty singular.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Although the music press in the UK in particular often lumped ABC with the New Romantics, properly speaking, they sound much more like the undifferentiated synthpop of the earliest 80s, and therefore are probably more similar to Dare-era Human League or Heaven 17 than they are to Visage or Spandau Ballet.
Although the video below is cartoonized, it does, actually, pretty accurately reflect the actual look of the band members of ABC, cementing them in place as one of the most ridiculous looking groups to come out of the 80s, perhaps needing to share that "honor" with A Flock of Seagulls and some of the more ridiculous of the New Romantic styles.
It also happens to be another song of which I'm the proud owner of a 12" single on vinyl that I currently lack the capacity to listen to. Ah, well.
Great memories of dancing to this song back in the day, too, stomping as loud as we could during the pounding bridge with the heavier percussion effects.
So, rather than going with a rather strange and sinister instrumental track by Camouflage called "Pompeji", I'm going to post the Paul Cameron remix (i.e., the one that everyone heard all the time in the clubs) of C.C.C.P.'s "American-Soviets."
The idea of reducing the Cold War down to a phone call between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to play a regularly scheduled chess match was kind of cheeky, but I guess that's probably the secret to the song's success, really.
C.C.C.P. didn't really release anything else of note, although they had a few other things in their catalog. This is probably the only song you've heard of theirs, if you've heard it at all. And, ironically, it removes all of the vocals.
The soulfull, warm sound of Andy's distinctive vocals and Clarke's distinctive instrumentation really make Erasure what they are. Clarke eventually even further refined his trademark sound in later releases (such as Chorus) to wring warmth and life out of even more artificial and synthetic sounds, which makes his touch instantly recognizeable. I've got a number of Vince Clarke remixes of other songs, and hoo boy can you instantly tell that it's Clarke's.
Off and on as I've blogged, I've mentioned Ultravox quite a bit, and since that part of the Propaganda video with the arms reaching through the wall reminded me sharply of this video, I thought I'd start here. This is part of the Midge Ure era. Midge and Billie Currie, already of Ultravox, met on the Visage side project (oh, man! Do I ever need to talk about Visage!) so perhaps unsurprisingly, this period of Ultravox, the "classic line-up", is famously New Romantic in sound and approach. "The Thin Wall" was one of only two singles that were released from 1981's Rage in Eden.
I'm not going to talk about Ultravox too much now, because they'll figure many more times yet before I'm done, but it was always surprising to me how obscure they were in the US compared to the UK, where they had several top ten singles, and a run of success that was comparable to that of fellow New Romantics operating at the same time, Duran Duran. I think it had to be promotion; after all, Duran Duran were huge in the US, and the sound of Ultravox and Duran Duran in the earliest years of the 80s was really quite similar in most respects.
Ultravox-The Thin Wall
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This, right here, was probably her greatest single claim to fame, though... the track "The Duel." Also; check out that 80s hair on Claudia. Yowch!
See, the 80s as a time-bound chronological unit are easy enough to demarcate, but as a pop-culture unit, it's not quite so simple, because musicians aren't thoughtful enough to hold onto their ideas and release them all at the same time. To whit; the 80s synthpop movement really started probably with some early Ultravox. "Hiroshima Mon Amour" from 1977 is considered by many to be the first true synthpop song, and their Systems of Romance from 1978 the first synthpop album. That certainly fits under the aegis of "80s synthpop" regardless of the release date. Excluding Gary Numan's classic The Pleasure Principle or his Tubeway Army work because they had a late 1979 release also seems like a quixotic endeavor. So, I'm not going to worry about going slightly before time if the songs I'm talking about are clearly part of the same movement of 80s synthpop as the main thrust of this blog.
At the same time, the 80s continued as a musical block a little bit beyond the actual 80s as well... it was probably sometime after the explosive releases of Nirvana's "Smell Like a Teen Spirit" and Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" in 1991 and 1992 that brought alternative rock into the mainstream in a much bigger way than any previous efforts had managed to do, and simultaneously changed the course of record labels everywhere, thrusting synthpop into a mostly underground role for years to come. That's odd that it was grunge that did that, if you think about it. U2 and R.E.M. were certainly no slouches before then, and had had massively successful alternative rock album releases of their own (The Joshua Tree and Green respectively) yet somehow managed to do so without substantially changing the landscape of popular music. But somehow the grunge releases spelled the death knell for 80s synthpop as we knew it.
In any case, other than waxing long-winded on the wisdom of holding looser boundaries to the 80s as a musical block, I'm also here to provide you with a rather obscure (at least to American audiences) track by Germans Hubert Kah from 1989. I was lucky to be familiar (at least a little bit) with some of the musical scenes outside of the US, so I heard a few of the Continent's hits that were never aired, released, or really even known about here in North America. Hubert Kah were one such group, that I always thought sounded very similar to their fellow countrymen, the slightly more universally successful Alphaville.