Friday, February 27, 2015

Quiet Life by Japan

Japan was an interesting band, that had been wandering around doing art-rock funk and glam-punk and other stuff for a number of years already when the 80s rolled around.  They got binned with the New Romantics due to a similar sound and look.  They've denied it, which many other outlets (including Wikipedia) seem hell-bent on pointing out, but honestly; I don't think that's a call that the band gets to make.  Japan has also said, and this is probably more honest and interesting, frankly, that they had been doing what they were doing (in terms of look, at least) for a long time, and kept doing it after the New Romantic movement came along.  The fact that they intersected briefly with a faddish movement was more coincidence than anything by design.  What lead singer David Sylvian said, to be exact, in 1982 was, "There's a period going past at the moment that may make us look as though we're in fashion."  Clever self-deprecation humor.  How very British. Which is the main reason they deny association with the New Romantic movement, and in that respect, that's fair.  To the degree that it's accurate, of course.

See, they sounded dramatically different with a totally different vocal delivery style on the part of the vocalist David Sylvian, and a major increase in Giorgio Moroder-style synthesizers.  This really was a major change in direction for the band in the same direction as New Romanticism that was happening at the same time.  I'm not 100% sure that I buy Japan's avowal of dissociation with the label.  And like I said, I'm not sure that they get to decide that too.  If they look like a New Romantic and sound [quack] like a New Romantic, and they do so at the same time as the New Romantic movement... you don't get to claim that you're not a New Romantic just because the label in the intervening years acquired a rather silly connotation.

The album Quiet Life was released either in December 1979 or January 1980 depending on the region.  It wasn't initially successful, but after their subsequent releases (which continued the New Romantic sound) were more successful, there were some subsequent and belated single releases, including the song "Quiet Life" itself in August of '81.  It had actually been released 18 months earlier only in Japan (which is oddly coincidental, since the band name was a place-holder that stuck, and the band themselves never professed any particular affinity for the country particularly (although they did record a track called "Life in Tokyo" which actually was produced by Giorgio Moroder.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mexican Radio by Wall of Voodoo

A big part of the earliest synthpop scene in the late 70s and early 80s (and, to be fair, beyond as well) was the prevalence of novelty one-hit wonders.  One such outfit was Wall of Voodoo, who had a strange hybrid style of making spaghetti western-style songs with synthesizers (and more traditional pop/rock instruments too.)  They have, for example, an odd cover of "Ring of Fire".  They're mostly known for "Mexican Radio" of course, which came out in 1983.  Although L.A. based, the song was a bigger hit in much of the rest of the world than in the US, but it got some pretty decent coverage on early MTV, because that was the format that they most often covered in their early days.

Of course, in 1983 I was only 11 years old, and I lived in a relatively small town that had country and top 40 and oldies stations (at least, those were the only radio stations I remember from that long ago.)  We didn't have cable in 1983--wouldn't for a few more years yet--so I couldn't have watched MTV when it was heavy in its New Wave stage even if I had wanted to.  I mostly discovered Wall of Voodoo some ten years (or maybe even more) after the fact on 80s compilations.  Which, at least, were fairly common in the early to mid-90s.  Which I find to be an encouraging sign; while record company execs were sure that we had all "moved on" to Grunge and Neo Punk like Green Day, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Collective Soul, etc. in reality there was a big demand for 80s style music.  And if we couldn't get 80s style music, then there was a big demand for actual 80s music, even of (maybe even especially of) the New Wave electronic type stuff.

Eh, I dunno.  Maybe I'm reaching.  It's certainly a moot point now, in the days of itunes, Amazon mp3 downloads and label-less artists.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Plastic Heart by De/Vision

I'm probably a little too circumspect in describing how much I like De/Vision material.  I admit that my prior posts on them seem a bit ambivalent.  De/Vision didn't really get consistently good until their fourth album, and I do have to admit that there's a lot of filler in all but two of their albums (Monosex and Popgefahr) but since they have twenty albums available (if you count remix albums, that is--if not, you've still got 14 or so) there is a lot of really good material out there.  A casual glance at the audio files on my memory card on my Android will indicate that other than Depeche Mode tracks, I have more De/Vision than any other single artist.  Probably by quite a long shot, in fact (although Erasure, Mesh, Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, and several others have a pretty respectable number of tracks too.)  Some of their tracks are among my favorite synthpop tracks--80s or otherwise--that I turn to over and over again, and have done so for years.

Part of this is the collection of stunningly fabulous remixes of De/Vision songs that I have, though, I should admit.  Not only do they have singles with remixes (like anyone else) but they also did something that was somewhat unprecedented, and which I can't remember ever seeing anywhere else.  They took 2010's Popgefahr, as I mentioned above, already tied for best of their albums ever, with essentially no real filler tracks, and opened up a remix contest.  The intent was that they'd release an all new Popgefahr remixed, with all ten tracks, in order, remixed by an outside source.  In point of fact, they did considerably more.  They released a double-CD with all ten songs remixed twice.  They then put out another release for the North American market, also a double CD, but with all new remixes that are not the same as the European remixes (with a small number of exceptions, which are duplicated.)  Because out of 40 remixes, only three of them are repeats (for a total number of unique remixes of 37) you really should, if you like De/Vision remixes, track down both double-CD releases.  Neither the US nor the European release is qualitatively better than the other (both contain some of my favorite versions, as a matter of fact) you're missing out on great material if you don't get both of them.

Then they went and released yet another limited edition remix album with ten completely different remixes of all of the same songs.  Counting the original, that means that there are six versions of the Popgefahr album, and with very few exceptions, all of the tracks are unique.  On top of this, the album did also spawn two CD singles, both of which have at least some other remixes from the album other than those released on the remix album.  This remix frenzy is really quite unprecedented, and it is fun to see it, actually.  It also contributes greatly to the amount of De/Vision sound files that I have on my phone.  I probably have almost as many Popgefahr tracks, in one version or another, as I do all of the other De/Vision tracks put together (on my phone that is.  I actually have all of their albums now, so far, and many of their singles.)  This is, in part, due to the extremely high quality of the songs themselves, but also due to the extremely high quality of many of the remixes.

Sadly, one of my favorite of the tracks, "Twisted Story" only has three remixes, one by Vasyl Tkach and one by Rob Dust.  These two tracks are repeated on both the German and US version of the remix album (the limited edition 3.0 mix has a third remix) and both of them are also on the "Twisted Story" CD single. I would have expected to see more, and given that it was one of my absolute favorite tracks on the original CD, I'm disappointed not to see it out there.

However, one of my other favorite tracks, "Plastic Heart" has all unique remixes, and some fan remixes of nearly equal quality abound on youtube and elsewhere.  I, in fact, have nine versions on my phone, and I'm aware of at least a couple other bootlegs out there here and there.

In fact, I'm going to specifically highlight one of these bootlegs today, but I have to reiterate; this Popgefahr stuff is really good.  Tons of good tracks, tons of good remixes.  I don't love every single remix, of course (a few are totally not my style) but I really do like most of them.  You can buy everything except the US version as a Popgefahr Collection 4-cd from Amazon for less than $40--it includes the two German remix albums, the 3.0 remix album and the original.  You can also buy the US remix albums as an mp3 download (or CD) fairly easily too.  For about $50, you can get six albums with better than 70% (in my opinion) of the tracks being incredibly excellent.  That leaves, if you're somewhat math impaired, only about three versions of any song per album that I could kind of take or leave, or otherwise don't like.  That's an extremely good ratio; better than almost any other album I could name across any genre.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Limelight by Rename

I've spent the last several posts talking nostalgically about synthpop from the 80s.  Yes, I know--that's the stated purpose of this blog and all, but I've long since expanded the scope to cover other electronic music that I like; the majority of which that isn't 80s synthpop being, of course, subsequent synthpop.

I have, currently a little over 2,000 songs on the memory card of my Android, and I usually just  put it on shuffle and let it play while commuting, jogging, working out, hiking, doing chores, etc.  Without doing any kind of systemic count or survey, I'd break up my collection into four areas, with a rough estimate as to how much of my collection it makes up as follows:

  • 80s New Wave - i.e, the primary source material for this blog.  30-35% or so.
  • More recent electronic music; mostly synthpop and futurepop from the 90s, 00s and 10s, but with some techno, acid, house, etc. mixed in to keep it a little bit esoteric.  45-50%, I'd guess.
  • 80s pop music that isn't New Wave.  It's usually top 40 stuff, and a not inconsiderable portion of it is hair rock like Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, Ratt, Motley Crue, Skid Row, etc.  10-15%, roughly.
  • A few modern pop songs that I've picked up here and there, but don't really fit the profile.  Modern being a relative word, of course; mostly meaning "since the 80s."  This could vary from stuff like Imagine Dragons, Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Onerepublic, etc.  No more than 5%, probably.
Hence my shifting of the focus.  And of course, it's also the fastest growing portion of my collection (for what it's worth, this only music on my phone, not music that I own in other formats. And it does absolutely nothing to account for my vast collection of classical music, orchestral movie soundtracks, video game soundtracks, New Age music, and other weird esoterica which I also own.  Just about the only thing that I don't have any appreciable quantity of in my collection is so-called ethnic music and country.  Although I do have small smatterings of both here and there.  Oh, and hip-hop.  I don't have any of that.)

I've kind of lost track of "the scene" in recent years, in part because it's just gotten to big to keep track of anymore, and in part because I'm OK with stumbling across new stuff by accident; my collection is busy enough to keep me pretty busy as it is.  I don't tend to get "tired" of music and retire it, so I don't always need something fresh to occupy me.  I'm as likely to feel like listening to a 30+ year old track that I've had in hand since it was new and find it surging to the front of my consciousness as I am something that I literally just discovered.  That said; of course, who doesn't like finding something new from time to time?  In this effort, the real leader has long been Todd Durant and his business A Different Drum, which sadly closed its doors recently.  Not only did he maintain the premiere label for synthpop through the 90s and 00s, but he also was the best distributor/shop for the stuff.  Of course, now that Amazon makes self-distribution rather easy, I suppose the place in the world for that kind of thing has dried up, and that's OK... although somewhat unfortunate, I suppose.  

Not only was it the place to buy synthpop, but it also was occasionally the place to sample synthpop, and I admit that I often would download legitimate mp3s of A Different Drum releases from his site, Electrogarden, or even on Amazon back when they used to have mp3 samples designed to spark sales.  Sometimes they did, in fact, spark sales, but sometimes I took the samples, was happy with them, and then never actually bought anything from the artists I was sampling.  Even when I really liked the samples.

One example of a band of this latter category would be Germany's Rename.  I've always meant to pick up more, considering how much I loved the two sample tracks I picked up, but I just haven't managed to get around to it yet.  Maybe this post will help prompt me to get off my lazy behind and see what I can find by the band and investigate further.  If not, maybe at least it will do so for you.

Besides a few CD catalog of their own material for me to investigate, I also have a Rename remix of a De/Vision track that I really, really like (and have had for several years--"Turn Me On".  Check it out) as well as some Mark Oh and Rename collaboration where they remade Visage's classic "Damned Don't Cry."  Same vocalist.

It looks like there was an anniversary release of their debut album, with double the tracks.  Both are available as mp3 downloads from Amazon, as well as a sophomore album.  According to discogs there's a third album that's been self-released, but I don't see it on Amazon, sadly.

My favorite of the sample tracks was the dreamy and catchy "Limelight" which I like for much the same reason that I like guys like OMD or Book of Love.  While I think it's fairly representational of their sound, I think much of the rest of Rename's output does tend to be more overtly clubby than this particular track.  Not that you can't easily dance to this, of course.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Let Me Go by Heaven 17

I've never been a huge fan of Heaven 17 myself, especially since the first song I heard of there's was the execrable (and frankly, really stupid and insulting) song "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang."  Of course, that's probably unfair to the group, who have been cited as very influential for quite some time.  The group itself is the original core of The Human League.  They really wanted Glenn Gregory as lead singer, but he wasn't available, so they went with their next choice Phil Oakey.  In many ways, they were more influential on New Wave music in this incarnation than in later ones, but they failed to find mainstream chart success, and the group broke up in the early 80s.  Phil ironically was left with the name, which he went on to do amazing things with when he released Dare, which is still one of the biggest early New Wave albums of all time, especially with its massive hit "Don't You Want Me."  The rest of the group managed to get Gregory after all, and changed their name to Heaven 17 and went through the rest of the 80s with more modest success.

In America, their best known song is "Let Me Go" which was ironically not all that popular in the UK (there, their biggest hit was probably "Temptation.")

I actually missed Heaven 17 entirely the first time around, and when I discovered them later, I found that I really only liked (of the material I heard, anyway) "Let Me Go."  And I only discovered that because it was covered by the ill-fated late 80s synthpop band T-4-2 (sometimes spelled T42, although that's not how I did it when I spotlighted one of their songs a number of years ago.)  I should do more with T-4-2; they briefly made a big impression on me when they were poised to be another Anything Box.  Sadly, they didn't live up to their promise.  But they did lead me, eventually, to this song by Heaven 17, which I do have to admit is pretty cool.  Even if Heaven 17 was never really one of my favorites of the 80s.

Shout out to the guy who commented a long time ago saying that Heaven 17 was one of his favorites that he missed seeing here.  Well, now their on the board.  I can't imagine that I'd put anything else of theirs on; this is really the only song of theirs that I really liked, and I discovered it very belatedly.  Oh, well.

In Memoriam: Steve Strange

Last week, Steve Strange died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 55 in Egypt (I'm not sure what he was doing there either, no.)  Steve Strange, a.k.a. Steven John Harrington, is the front-man and most visible founding member of Visage, of course, which was the leading edge of the New Romantic movement in the very late 70s--although none of his music was actually released until 1980.

I've talked about it before, but I was led on a merry chase after Visage's eponymous first album on CD (only to have it appear, re-released and with bonus tracks just a few years later).  It's fairly sad; after years languishing as a former pop star, Strange got the name Visage back together again, with a few of the original musicians and a few new guys, and released the album Hearts and Knives in 2013, which has at least a few great tracks.  Actually, just two or three months ago, he released a new album, Orchestral, where he reworks a number of Visage tracks as, as you'd expect from the title, orchestral songs with vocals.  For this In Memoriam post, I thought of posting "Shameless Fasion" or "Dreamer I Know" from this more recent material.

But I won't.  Instead, I'm going to post "Fade to Grey".  You kind of have to, right?  It's by far the biggest hit and best known legacy of Visage.  The song has actually had three singles releases; the first time, as a lead-single, released at the exact same time as their debut album Visage.  This one charted in the top 10 in the UK, and #1 in some continental markets.  It was released again to support a 1993 Greatest Hits compilation.  I have this CD single, although frankly, the Bassheads remixes that it showcases are total bollocks; they're just terrible remixes.  What can you say?  It was 1993.  Club music was going through a real nadir right then.  This also featured the original version of the song (whoop-de-doo, since I also have it on the original CD, on the Greatest Hits CD, and on another 80s compilation too) but I still hold on to it because of the so-called 7" Remix.  This at least sounds like "Fade to Grey", unlike the Bassheads abominations, but with a very notable difference: it trades out the beautiful fragility of the original for a thumpy "club nazi" approach.  I quite like it, actually, but I have to admit that it absolutely does not replace the original; it's just an interesting alternative take on the concept.  It was also re-released more recently as an orchestral single to support the Orchestral album.

The version I'm going to showcase today is actually a bootleg remix by Rob Dust.  If the 7" Remix is a thumpy club nazi version, this one is even moreso, but I have to admit, I really love Rob Dust's trademark very lush and layered aggro remix style.  I discovered him a few years ago with De/Vision's Popgefahr remix albums, where he did remixes for "Ready to Die" and "Twisted Story."  His remix of the latter is possibly my favorite version of any song from that entire affair (although Renegade of Sound's "Plastic Heart" and the Melancholic Mix of "Flash of Light" are up there too.)  He's also done some great bootleg Depeche Mode remixes, and some remixes of some German bands, most of whom I haven't heard of--but because they have Rob Dust remixes, they're among my favorite clubby dance tracks right now.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Life in a Northern Town by Dream Academy

While not technically synthpop, the "dream pop" label, which was kind of an early prototype of what later came to be known as "shoegazing" has some commonalities with elements of synthpop.  A lot of synthpop really celebrated their synthesizers; while others used the synthesizers to emulate real instruments in many regards.  This is why it's hard to separate sometimes: in Dream Academy's one hit, "Life in a Northern Town," how much is synthetic and how much is a real instrument, albeit one not commonly associated with the pop music scene?

I remember thinking this in particular about Camouflage and their 1989 album Methods of Silence with it's dance chart hit "Love is a Shield."  I remember particularly reading a review in which the reviewer claimed that in attempting to not sound like a synthie-pop knock-off of Depeche Mode, they introduced a real oboe sound, which ironically sounded even more like a synth-line.

"Life in a Northern Town" also prominently features an oboe, background strings, backing piano lines, and a lot of overdub and other effects, which is why it fits nicely in with the synthpop scene, even though the use of synthesizers by Dream Academy was somewhat limited.  To the casual listener, this was simply a somewhat dreamy and Romantic (in terms of the literary and music movement moreso than with regards to the genre of literature famously read by women, although it could qualify to some degree under both definitions) new wave song not too unlike a lot of synthpop ballads.

It's not clear what northern town is being referred to in the title.  The song is dedicated to late guitarist Nike Drake, who was from Tanworth-in-Arden, but the two music videos featured scenes mostly filmed in Hebden Bridge and Newcastle Upon Tyne respectively.  Then again, maybe you're not really supposed to think that much about it anyway.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Perfect Wine by Shades of Grey

I've mentioned before that one of the things that has often made me appreciate music more was the hunt that I had to undertake to find them, back in the day prior to the internet, Youtube and more.  These days, this really isn't much of a thing.

But, I'm going to do something a little different and highlight a song that I can't find on the internet anymore.  It's not on Spotify (at least the original, unremixed version isn't, although a more danceable remix is.)  It's not on youtube.  The label that released the CD is defunct and the website is long gone.  I can't find it for sale on Amazon, iTunes, eBay or anywhere else.  Heck; even is missing this compilation (although here it is on allmusic.)

Rather than listening to the track, you're going to have to actually go and find it.  And it'll be challenging.  I can't find it.  But then again; I don't have to.  I bought the actual CD that it was originally released on back in 1998 or 1999 or so.  (As an aside, it just came up on my shuffle play on my phone while commuting today, which is what made me think of it again.)

In fact, since 50 Shades of Grey was released after this group had already stopped working, Google isn't even particularly helpful.  You'll get all kinds of wrong results.  Good luck!

Shades of Grey was a southern California team made up of two brothers.  I actually have not only this song, a Synthphony Records compilation called The United Synthpop of America Vol. 1 (of 1, as it turns out, although there was also a United Synthpop of Europe release) but both their one album and their one EP.

The vocals are a little pitchy, but it's almost as if that was a deliberate stylistic choice.  "Perfect Wine" is a beautiful, hauntingly melodic and even romantic track, and is largely considered; or at least it was so back when the synthpop fan scene was smaller much smaller--probably the best song of the group.  Although Shades of Grey always seemed to have pretty good buzz in the scene, they weren't very prolific, and they've been gone for a long time now, it seems; 2001 was their last release that I can find.