As a gesture of solidarity with fellow humans, DUBSTAR present ‘Hygiene Strip’.
“’Hygiene Strip’ was created at the height of the 2020 UK lockdown” said Sarah Blackwood to The Electricity Club, “The writing, recording and video had to be done remotely, and it is the first collaboration with Stephen Hague and DUBSTAR to be released since the ’90s.”
Written by Sarah Blackwood, Chris Wilkie and Stephen Hague, the song itself is classic DUBSTAR and characterised by Blackwood’s distinctively forlorn vocal presence. But there is also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS looming to offer some hope in the haze of melancholy.
Hygiene strips of course have become common place now to remind the population of social distancing but of course, they could also be metaphorically referring to the removal of personal protective clothing for sterilisation or the role of face coverings, actions that ultimately affect life.
The self-made lyric video is a striking monochromatic affair highlighting the emotional tension and psychological effects of the worldwide lockdown; it concludes with Miss Blackwood starkly masking up…
Stephen Hague produced DUBSTAR’s first two albums ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘Goodbye’ as well as their biggest hit singles ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’. Now domiciled on the South Coast of England, the American became best known for working with OMD, PET SHOP BOYS, NEW ORDER and ERASURE.
While Hague has not worked with DUBSTAR since 1997, he and Sarah Blackwood have remained in contact over the years, so a recording reunion was almost inevitable. The 2018 comeback ‘One’ was produced by Youth but while new DUBSTAR material is being written and recorded, the release schedule has yet to be confirmed.
‘Hygiene Strip’ is released as a digital single by Northern Writes
Celebrating their 40th Anniversary, OMD are one of the acts from the Synth Britannia era whose creative powers now are as strong as their chart heyday.
Setting a high standard of romantic retro-futurism with lyrical gists ranging from technology and war to deceased religious figures and long distance relationships, OMD released their debut single ‘Electricity’ in 1979, a statement about the environment that would have made today’s young campaigner Greta Thunberg proud.
Those who complain that OMD’s music is not dark enough often forget that within their highly melodic songs, subjects have included the suicide of a charismatic musician, the suicide of a woman who worked as a stripper because she had no other means of supporting herself, the racially motivated massacre of five innocent demonstrators by the Ku Klux Klan, the death of over 140,000 people by nuclear attack and most notably on two hit singles, the brutal execution of a teenage girl!
Founder members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys began an impressive run of acclaimed albums and hit singles, starting with the Mike Howlett produced ‘Messages’ in 1980. The huge European popularity of the follow-up ‘Enola Gay’ captured the Cold War angst of the times under the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction, while ‘Maid Of Orleans’ became the biggest selling single of 1982 in West Germany when Der Bundesrepublik was the biggest Western music market after the USA and Japan.
Long-time drummer Mal Holmes and live keyboardist Martin Cooper joined the fray as full band members for 1983’s ‘Dazzle Ships’ album, but things went creatively awry for OMD as McCluskey and Humphreys found themselves in an existential crisis, following journalistic criticism that songs about dead saints were not going to change the world. The more politically charged and experimental album failed to sell, but has since been re-evaluated in the 21st Century as a meisterwerk.
Bruised and under commercial pressure, OMD opted to pursue more conventional ambitions and traditions to stay in the black and scored the Top5 US hit ‘If You Leave’ from the John Hughes movie ‘Pretty In Pink’ in 1986. However a North American tour opening for DEPECHE MODE in 1988 failed to sustain momentum. In the backdrop of the resultant fallout and the inevitable musical differences, Humphreys, Holmes and Cooper departed, leaving McCluskey with the OMD brand name.
However, the split precipitated a number of interesting artistic and creative diversions for McCluskey and Humphreys which despite the triumphant reunion of the classic line-up in 2007 and the success of OMD’s most recent album ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ in 2017 , continue in varying degrees today in parallel with band activities.
In his most recent interview with The Electricity Club, Paul Humphreys said: “I still find it utterly amazing and rather fantastic that after 40 years, OMD is still alive and well, selling out big tours and making what even our harshest critics consider to be relevant new records.”
By way of a Beginner’s Guide to showcase the diverse facets of OMD, The Electricity Club has selected a hefty 25 tracks of interest from their career, although largely eschewing those made famous by singular consumption.
But with so many tracks available and the list already being VERY long, links to the OMD family tree like THE ID as well as contributions to the soundtracks of ‘For The Greater Good’, ‘Eddie The Eagle’ and ‘The D-Train’ (which between them saw McCluskey working with notable names such as Danny Boyle, Gary Barlow, Hugh Jackman and Jack Antonoff) have been omitted.
With a restriction of one track per album project, they highlight how two lads from The Wirral have maintained their standing as a creative and cultural force four decades on, despite their numerous ups and downs.
OMD The Messerschmitt Twins (1980)
With their passion for military aircraft and German music, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys were nicknamed ‘The Messerschmitt Twins’; this mournful Compurhythm driven synth ballad of the same name had mournful if cryptic lyrics which could be seen as the thoughts of aircrew during wartime missions, pondering whether they would return to home. The bleak fatalistic narrative was given further resonance by Andy McCluskey’s resigned vocalisation.
The ‘Organisation’ album saw OMD purchase their first polyphonic synthesizer, a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 which allowed Paul Humphreys to explore more haunting gothic timbres away from the cheesier chords of the Vox Jaguar organ. Shaped by eerie choir textures and a repeating two note synthbass motif set to Mal Holmes’ simple marching snare pattern, the beauty of ‘2nd Thought’ echoed the third section of KRAFTWERK’s ‘Autobahn’ and displayed a maturity in OMD’s developing sound.
Running at almost eight minutes, the nautical adventure of ‘Sealand’ demonstrated OMD’s mastery of the epic, mysteriously beginning with a ghostly collage of melodica and reed horns before sad synths and progressive sweeps made their presence felt. Featuring just a minute of vocals in the sparse middle section, the penultimate movement collapsed into a fit of industrial noise before a slow misty reprise of the main melodic theme, like a lost ship in the fog.
Like ‘Maid Of Orleans’, the harrowing ‘International’ was musically inspired by the skippy waltz of ‘Back In Judy’s Jungle’ by Brian Eno. The introductory news report about “a young girl from Nicaragua whose hands had been cut off at the wrists by the former Somoza guards…” acted as one of the fuels for Andy McCluskey to express his anger about economic corruption, political hypocrisy and torture in captivity, all topics which are still sadly relevant today.
THE PARTNERSHIP was an unrealised side project of Peter Saville cohort and ex-SPOONS member Brett Wickens with Roger Humphreys (no relation) who recorded as CERAMIC HELLO. Produced by William Orbit, the pulsatingly uptempo ‘Sampling The Blast Furnace’ featured guest vocals from Andy McCluskey alongside vocodered voices and chants by Martha Ladly. While this version remains unreleased, the slower McCluskey-less demo was on the reissue of CERAMIC HELLO’s only album.
Not officially released, alternate version available on the CERAMIC HELLO album ‘The Absence Of A Canary V1.1’ via Vinyl On Demand
After the critical mauling that ‘Dazzle Ships’ received, OMD were in debt to Virgin Records and realised that they would have to sell more records to survive. The commercial pressure led to a trip to the sunnier climes of AIR Studios in Monserrat and the musically diverse ‘Junk Culture’. A song about McCluskey’s intimate liaison with a local girl, the bizarre mix of carnival whistles, soca, Mellotron choir, rhythm guitar and 808 driven electro came over a bit like AZTEC CAMERA produced by Arthur Baker.
1985’s ‘Crush’ was Stephen Hague’s first full album production and opened the doors for OMD’s ambitions in the US. Following the success of ‘If You Leave’, ‘The Pacific Age’ continued the partnership and was intended to reinforce momentum. The opening song ‘Stay’ threw in the kitchen sink from Mal Holmes’ mighty drums to layers of synthetic strings plus the addition of soulful female backing singers, brass and heavy metal guitar. But the esoteric elements that made OMD so appealing were being wiped away.
The suave and sophisticated Etienne Daho was seen as France’s answer to George Michael. While OMD were in Paris recording ‘The Pacific Age’ at Studio de la Grande Armée, they took part in a ‘Les Enfants Du Rock’ French TV special also which also saw their French label mate interviewing his musical influences like Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg. The DAHOMD duet saw Daho and McCluskey low voices blend well over the original Stephen Hague produced single from ‘Crush’.
Available on the ETIENNE DAHO deluxe album ‘Pop Satori’ via Virgin Records
ARTHUR BAKER & THE BACKBEAT DISCIPLES Walkaway (1989)
Producer Arthur Baker gathered a studio collective to make a pop record tracing his love of soul, synthpop, disco, HI-NRG and Europop. His first since the fragmentation of OMD, Andy McCuskey contributed lyrics, keyboards and vocals to the electro-reggae of ‘Walkaway’ which threatened to turn into CULTURE CLUB’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’. The vocal cast of the ‘Merge’ album included Al Green, Martin Fry, Jimmy Somerville and Etienne Daho.
Available on the ARTHUR BAKER & THE BACKBEAT DISCIPLES album ‘Merge’ via A&M Records
Going it alone as OMD, Andy McCluskey became open to collaboration. Meeting Stuart Kershaw and Lloyd Massett from pop rap combo RAW UNLTD, the pair set about modernising the rhythmic elements of McCluskey’s new songs. The ghostly ‘Walking On Air’ referenced ‘Statues’ from ‘Organisation’ while the mechanical bossa nova evoked the mellow moods of Bryan Ferry. Kershaw has since taken over the drum stool from Mal Holmes who left OMD in 2014 for health reasons.
Available on the OMD album ‘Sugar Tax’ via Virgin Records
THE LISTENING POOL Where Do We Go From Here? (1993)
With bursts of sampled choir, electric piano and wah-wah guitar, ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ came from THE LISTENING POOL’s only album ‘Still Life’ released in 1994. Driven by a gently percolating drum machine programmed by Mal Holmes, the understated air reminiscent of CHINA CRISIS was sweetened by Martin Cooper’s soprano set with Paul Humphreys vocally pondering their creative situation with the threesome having now departed the OMD camp.
Available on the THE LISTENING POOL album ‘Still Life’ via Telegraph Records
Recorded for his ELEKTRIC MUSIC project after leaving KRAFTWERK, Karl Bartos’ collaboration with Andy McCluskey featured one of his best melodies synth melodies. Bartos told The Electricity Club: “He suggested we do something together and I was up for it… We picked some cassettes and finally I found the opening notes of ‘Kissing The Machine’”. With fabulously surreal lyrics about a love affair with a sexy robot, the song was later resurrected with new backing from Paul Humphreys for ‘English Electric’.
Available on the ELEKTRIC MUSIC album ‘Esperanto’ via SPV Records
On a commercial roll and aiming for a younger pop market, ‘Liberator’ featured lots of busy modern dance effects but saw Andy McCluskey losing his way in the song department. Its confused schizophrenic nature was compounded by the pure genius of darker numbers like ‘King Of Stone’ and ‘Christine’. The symphonic string laden ‘Best Years Of Our Lives’ was another of the better tracks, borrowing its solemn topline from ‘Spanish Harlem’, a song made famous by Ben E King.
Available on the OMD album ‘Liberator’ via Virgin Records
After the muted reception for 1993’s painfully poppy ‘Liberator’, Andy McCluskey brought in a more conventional rock sound for 1996’s ‘Universal’. However, the OASIS sounding ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ failed to get major traction. One of its B-sides ‘The New Dark Age’ gave a haunting nod to ‘Statues’ using the auto-accompaniment on the Elgam Symphony organ and was the last great synth song of the solo era as the OMD vehicle was quietly retired by McCluskey… for now!
When Andy McCluskey joined Stuart Kershaw to make some dysfunctional pop for a girl group, most thought he had lost his marbles. The original project HONEYHEAD was stillborn, but when three girls from Liverpool were recruited to form ATOMIC KITTEN, it eventually led to a UK No1 single with ‘Whole Again’. However, the demo of the first single ‘Right Now’ sounded like disco evergreen ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ arranged like ‘Sugar Tax’ era OMD, but with female vocals!
Available on the ATOMIC KITTEN single ‘Right Now’ via Innocent Records
Having been ousted from Team AK by coup d’état, Andy McCluskey licked his wounds and recruited another three local girls to form THE GENIE QUEEN. Featuring soon-to-be WAG / top model Abbey Clancy and future TV presenter Anna Ord, ‘What A Girl Goes Through’ was an appealing pop R ’n’ B number based around samples of ‘Souvenir’. The project disbanded without being signed, but a track intended for THE GENIE QUEEN called ‘Pulse’ appeared on ‘History Of Modern’ featuring the girls.
Paul Humphreys and Claudia Brücken released their only album as ONETWO in 2007 and from it was ‘Anonymous’, a song that began life as a demo from the aborted PROPAGANDA reunion and which had also been co-written with Andy McCluskey. The pretty ringing melodies and elegiac atmospheres were very reminiscent of classic OMD. But the collaboration had been unusual as at the time of the song’s conception, as Humphreys had not yet committed to rejoining McCluskey in his old band.
BLANK & JONES featuring BERNARD SUMNER Miracle Cure – Paul Humphreys Onetwo remix (2008)
Having worked with THE CURE’s Robert Smith, trance duo Piet Blank and Jaspa Jones had Bernard Sumner of NEW ORDER high on their list of vocalists for their album ‘The Logic Of Pleasure’, which also featured Claudia Brücken. The German duo remixed ONETWO’s ‘Kein Anschluß’, so naturally the gesture was reciprocated when Paul Humphreys offered his smooth offbeat atmospheric rework of ‘Miracle Cure’ in what could be seen as the nearest thing to a NEW ORDER vs OMD collaboration.
Of this ‘History Of Modern’ highlight, Paul Humphreys told The Electricity Club: “It was a song Andy did many, many years ago with Stuart and I think it was done in the 90s. He played it to me and it sounded a bit like a rock ballad. I said ‘I think the vocal tune’s great, but everything else has to go. Give me the vocal stem and I’ll do a whole new track for it’, so I came to my studio and completely reworked it.” – the result was mesmerising and even dropped in ROXY MUSIC’s ‘If There Is Something’ at the close.
Mal Holmes once said that “MIRRORS do OMD better than OMD do OMD!”… originally a ten minute epic split into three movements, ‘Secrets’ closed MIRRORS’ outstanding ‘Lights & Offerings’ long player, driven by an intense percussive tattoo and a shifting octave bass riff that was pure Klingklang. While pushing forward the synthetic claps, Andy McCluskey stripped down and the backing and shortened proceedings, making it much less claustrophobic and militaristic than the original.
Originally on the MIRRORS deluxe album ‘Lights & Offerings’ via Undo Records, currently unavailable
PAUL HUMPHREYS & DOUGLAS COUPLAND Electric Ikebana (2012)
A collaboration between ‘Generation X’ author Douglas Coupland, and Paul Humphreys, ‘Electric Ikebana’ was an audio visual installation to act as the voice of the network for French telecoms company Alcatel-Lucent. The beautiful piece had conceptual hints of KRAFTWERK’s ‘The Voice Of Energy’ while there was also a charming mathematical formula recital “x = [-b +- √(b² -4ac)] / 2a” to the tune of the nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ which recalled ‘ABC Auto-Industry’ from ‘Dazzle Ships’.
Of ‘Helen Of Troy’, Andy McCluskey said to The Electricity Club: “George Geranios and Nick Bitzenis of FOTONOVELA were our label bosses in Greece via their Undo Records and they sent me this track…the demo had Nick going “Helen Of Troy – Helen Of Troy” so I took his vocal off as you do, chopped it all up and rearranged it… it’s gorgeous! I have used some of Nick’s backing vocals… I love it to bits! And ‘Helen Of Troy’ is much more of a metaphor than either of the ‘Joan Of Arcs’ were.”
Andy Bell’s debut solo album ‘Electric Blue’ had been produced by ONETWO’s backing band THE MANHATTAN CLIQUE and featured two duets with Claudia Brücken. ‘The Violet Flame’ album saw ERASURE express an infectious zest for the future with songs beginning as pre-recorded dance grooves from Vince Clarke. But the best number from the sessions was ‘Be The One’ remixed by Paul Humphreys who added some of the beautiful Synthwerk magic that characterised ‘English Electric’.
The avant pop approach of VILE ELECTRODES is reminiscent of early OMD, with ‘Deep Red’ capturing Andy McCluskey’s interest enough to invite the duo to support the German leg of the ‘English Electric’ tour. With its potent drama, ‘The Vanished Past’ came complete with a mighty drum climax like ‘Navigation’. Bleak and wonderful, “not everything is as it seems” as a forlorn stranger joins in after five minutes. As the adventure unfolds like a lost OMD epic, that stranger reveals himself to be Mr McCluskey!
OMD began their recorded career with a KRAFTWERK homage and four decades on, have come full circle. A great grandchild of Klingklang and cousin of ‘Metroland’ from ‘English Electric’ but refined for BBC Radio 2 airplay, ‘Don’t Go’ captures the essence of OMD’s enduring electronic appeal. With crystalline synth melodies from Humphreys and a spirited vocal delivery from McCluskey attached to a hypnotic Synthanorma backdrop, OMD continue to produce quality avant pop tunes.
Now a duo comprising Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie, with the guitarist taking on main songwriting duties, ‘One’ is DUBSTAR’s first new album for eighteen years.
Long standing fans who loved the long playing trilogy of ‘Disgraceful’, ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ have had nothing but praise for ‘One’, produced by Youth whose credits include CROWDED HOUSE and THE VERVE.
Despite sitting on the bridge between Britpop and Synth Britannia in their heyday, DUBSTAR’s appeal has always been via their down-to-earth kitchen sink dramas. There is certainly no shortage of those on ‘One’ which has been well worth the wait, as a work following the conflicts of an aborted reunion which was unable to be sustained despite live performances in 2013.
Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie kindly chatted to The Electricity Club over their usual cup of tea about how the two of them became ‘One’…
How has been working together as a duo?
Chris: It’s been easier than as a trio *laughs*
The funny thing is though, it was never just a trio anyway, we’ve always had outside collaborators whether it was our live rhythm section, Stephen Hague or whoever, and Youth has felt like a member in lots of ways this time around.
So it’s rarely just me and Sarah in a vacuum. You don’t have to compromise as much, especially from my perspective as the instrumentalist. In the past, I was often having to field ideas that I didn’t like so much. Now, I get a feeling for how it should be and just do it.
Sarah: It seemed to go a lot more smoothly, Chris would send it to me, I’d sing it and anything he didn’t like, he just didn’t put in the final mix, so that was fine! Subtle enough to not hurt my feelings or anything like that *laughs*
So no writing songs in weird keys for you?
Sarah: Do you remember that Chris? – “Can you reach that note right at the top of the piano Sarah?”… I can with an “aaah” but it’s a whole different story with a word! *laughs*
So was working with Youth on ‘One’ a natural choice as I know Sarah, he had previously worked with you in your previous band?
Sarah: Chris and I have always been fans of his work on things like CROWDED HOUSE’s ‘Together Alone’ album.
Chris: After the adjustment in personnel within the group, we were closely in touch with Stephen Hague, but worried that we’d be putting him in an uncomfortable position by asking him to do it, so after a lot of head-scratching, Me and Sarah made a wish-list of who we’d like to work with, especially the ones whose phone numbers we had, and whittled it down *laughs*
Youth was top of my list and Sarah happened to know him already, so that made it much easier.
We didn’t have a label at this point, but Youth tackled the situation by adopting an early-60s approach, doing what people like George Martin used to do, and became the A&R guy as well as the producer.
We had around 30 tracks demoed, and made regular visits to his house for several weeks, working to get them down to a collection of songs which felt meaningful together, before the official production dates began.
‘One’ does come across like a proper album in that respect, perhaps more than our previous records, despite the style of the tracks being more diverse.
‘One’ has a much more live sounding feel than previous albums although it is still classic DUBSTAR, had that been a conscious move ?
Chris: Yeah, that’s definitely something I was after. Wherever you had programmed elements, I wanted them to feel like they were in the room. Even with a Moog bass or Solina Strings part, I wanted to be able to visualise the space it was in. Youth and his engineer have this down to a fine art. I think they got the best acoustic guitar sound I’ve ever had for instance, because they understand the environment it’s being recorded in so well.
Is the software and tech available now more straightforward to use and to get that organic feel within the budget constraints?
Chris: Very much so. Plug-ins have come so far that it’s difficult to spot the difference most of the time. I would do a lot of the programming, and even record a lot of the guitars at home, but when we got to Youth’s place, we’d have to make a decision about which bits could be improved by reworking in a proper acoustic environment, or would benefit from being left alone. Recording is so much more expeditious now, you could potentially make a whole album on your laptop and most people won’t be able to detect the short-cuts, but I do appreciate a lot of these developments, because back in the 90s we’d be going into a residential studio like Real World and spending four grand a day just to try and get a decent drum sound! *laughs*
That’s good because a lot of modern purely electronic recordings lack air…
Chris: Thanks, on tracks like ‘Locked Inside’ which is one of the most electronic ones on the album, we were really trying to approach it like JON & VANGELIS or the early GARY NUMAN tracks where you can really feel the air moving around the equipment; it might be a machine but you can sense the human being using it.
So on ‘Locked Inside’, is that a TEARS FOR FEARS sample or an actual Drumulator programme?
Chris: Ooooh! There’s a question! *laughs*
I don’t know if I should say, but it is a sample from ‘Shout’. It was something that Youth did to see if we’d spot it… we’d been talking affectionately about TEARS FOR FEARS a lot, and he added it between sessions when we weren’t in the room! When we came back, he had this cheeky look on his face and I went “that’s from ‘Shout’ that is!”
After you’ve heard it for a while you miss it when it’s not there, it’s become part of it! So you have to run the risk of keeping the sample, but if Roland and Curt are reading this, please don’t give us a hard time! It was done with love *laughs*
Sarah: Yes, please don’t! It was Youth’s fault, and we want to be able to afford to make another album! *laughs*
So Sarah, is the tech and software making things more straightforward for you now vocally?
Sarah: A bit, I had a lot of throat problems in DUBSTAR before because I’ve got a really fragile voice. I have a narrow neck, tiny ears and even though my nose is big, I’ve had tubes shoved up there to investigate what was going on and they said there wasn’t a lot of room, so I really suffer, I only have to go to a restaurant and talk too much and my throat is inflamed! This is why the performance thing caused me so much anxiety and stress, which made things even worse.
So I had to find ways to manage that, I’ve got really into pilates which has taught me to expand my rib cage properly and I’m learning to feel space in my head, but I’m still a work in progress. When Youth’s engineer Michael Rendall recorded me, he managed to get a really good sound in my headphones which meant I could sing higher with not much power, I didn’t really have to push for it. On ‘Love Comes Late’, he asked me to go an octave up and I instinctively went “no”! He just stuck the headphones on and said “you can now!”*laughs*
Chris: I think you’re a lot stronger and more proficient; your voice seems to work better than it ever did. I find you can do stuff now that you’d have never been able to do in the 90s and effortlessly. For me, as someone who worked with Sarah years ago, to come back with her operating at a higher level is quite thrilling. It’s great when you’re writing, knowing that whatever you write, she’s going to be able to do it.
Do either of you have any thoughts about the use of vocal effects in modern music? Are you in the mindset that you are making a record as opposed to recreating a live performance?
Sarah: I feel like I’m cheating, I’m remember the first time I went in a studio doing the first DUBSTAR album and the vocals were comped, I thought “that’s not right” but Andy Ross of Food Records just went “everybody else does it, and if you don’t want to sound as good as everybody else, then don’t do it”.
I would say Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t do it! But Andy would reply “Ella Fitzgerald sings those songs night after night after night and she gets muscle memory, she can do it perfect with her eyes shut. You’ve only sung those songs five times, you haven’t toured them, you haven’t explored them in your own voice” – and when you think about it, musicians in the old days would get their material together and take it on tour, get spotted and then go in the studio to record those songs, so it was different. But when you do your new songs, you’ve only sung them a handful of times before you record them, and then you’d take them out on the road, so that’s kind of interesting.
Chris: I understand what you mean, I used to think it was cheating to comp the guitars, and complain to Stephen Hague that I wanted to do it again from the top, worried that people would think I was a sample. I suppose you can improve as a result of being neurotic, though.
Sarah: Yeah, it feels wrong and that you’re compromising your artistic integrity, BUT what we make a point of doing is we try and do one take, and then drop tiny little bits in that are really offensive. But sometimes mistakes keep things authentic… there’s a horrible brown note on ‘Stars’ which Stephen Hague left in because he liked it.
Chris: Another thing about the ‘one take’ thing Sarah, even people who have never worked in studios can pick up on the way someone is breathing when it’s sung from the top to the bottom, you can feel it even if you don’t necessarily know why. So by retaining that element of performance, it makes it feel like Sarah’s in the room singing the song to you more.
To go back to your point about the use of effect, apart from the end of ‘Love Comes Late’ where you have a flanger treatment going on to create a different colour and distinguish from the other sung part, it’s true that Sarah does prefer a natural vocal…if you have too much effect going on, you lose that intimacy.
When you have a ‘character’ singer, like Sarah is, you want to feel her humanity, as if she’s in your ear and telling you something.
Sarah: It doesn’t distract from the words as well, if there’s lots of effects on it, you don’t listen to the words.
Chris: A well-known example of the software performing the song more than the singer must be CHER with ‘Believe’ and the autotune thing, which was still new then, but of course she didn’t have to prove anything. It is a shame these days when the autotune is singing the song and you suspect that they probably only performed it on one note and just dialled it in! *laughs*
Sarah: It does make it unlistenable when it’s overdone. When it’s someone like ALISON MOYET, its ok, because you know she’s an awesome singer, she’s got nothing to prove, so playing around with the vocal adds another dimension to the track. It’s how you use it I guess.
Chris: KATE BUSH creates different vocal sounds just with her delivery or the way she’s tracked it. She becomes something else…
Sarah: …yes, like those backing vocals on PETER GABRIEL’s ‘No Self Control’, I’d love to be a bit more experimental but I don’t know if I’ve got the courage.
Chris: The song suggests what you’re going to do.
There’s less of the ‘dub’ in DUBSTAR on ‘One’?
Chris: When we first started, we really loved ONE DOVE, and they had some great tracks remixed by people like William Orbit and Andrew Weatherall. There was something they were doing at the time which leaned heavily on dub in the bass especially, which was just incredible and the sound of it was something we aspired to do.
Having said that, even in the early 90s, the word “dub” had become a little bit hackneyed in pop music, I was sick of the sound of the word. I hadn’t really thought much about the dub element in our group, until our then-manager Graeme Robinson came to visit, saying “It looks like I’ve got you a record contract but the catch is, you’re called DUBSTAR!”, which he’d suggested to Food Records without consulting us, thinking it was a good idea.
I remember at the first meeting, Andy Ross said “that will be a great name because of the dub element”, but my heart sank because I thought “so do we have to keep doing those bass lines in perpetuity then?” The name was now part of the intended marketing, which felt like the tail was wagging the dog, and I found that really depressing! *laughs*
If you listen to the first three albums, by the time ‘Make It Better’ comes along, there’s not much trace of it left, but by then, you’ve become the name and vice versa.
Youth was a bit disappointed that we weren’t up for revisiting some of that dub flavour, since it’s a musical comfort zone for him, so maybe on the next one we will. ‘Two’ could be like ‘Disgraceful 2’!
Sarah: It’s quite surprising isn’t it, that got omitted from this album working with Youth. You’d have thought that’s one of first things he’d have got in.
Chris: It makes sense, because what he did back then was informing a lot of what was going on at the time. In some ways, he would have been a very sensible choice as producer for ‘Disgraceful’.
Sarah: Wasn’t his band BRILLIANT Food 1 by catalogue number??
Chris: Yes, that’s correct… I suppose there is some weird synchronicity going on in the Youth and DUBSTAR story, so it’s not really that surprising we ended up doing something together.
So is this DUBSTAR return a conscious reboot or more of a “suck it and see” approach?
Chris: It sort of crept up on us, we’d been spending time together from 2013 and we’d done some one-off performances. We knew we wanted to do something, I was enjoying having Sarah back in my life on a day-to-day basis, since I hadn’t for a few years, whereas we used to actually live together at one point.
I was really enjoying her singing again, so we started what I thought might have been a Sarah solo record; that was very liberating originally because it meant I didn’t have to think about it in the context of a new DUBSTAR record, and the ideas started flowing in a totally uninhibited way.
So when the likes of Youth started saying “this is essentially a DUBSTAR record isn’t it, so you might as well have the advantage of calling it that”, it obviously made sense and became quite exciting. But it was a pressure-free initiation stage.
How do you feel about today’s music business landscape, like with the current formats, you’re not under pressure to churn out B-sides and covers like in the past, it’s just “the album” now isn’t it?
Chris: Yeah, that’s right but also, the album has a different character now as a format because any one of the songs can effectively be the single, just according to how it’s received. You can still do what you used to do and nominate whichever one of the songs you feel best sums up what the album is about, and throw some money behind plugging it for radio or making a nice video.
We had two chosen singles off this current album: ‘Love Comes Late’ and ‘You Were Never In Love’, but you had ‘Waltz No.9’ and ‘Why Don’t You Kiss Me?’ being received as singles by the listeners, and they’ve subsequently become flagship tunes for us now, but it happens organically. So as an artist, you have to accept that you’ve lost control a bit, but that can be a good thing, it’s nice.
Sarah: I just get a bit confused because I sit there with my iPhone and I’ve got EVERYTHING in the world, what do I want to listen to? And that’s why it’s important that I go to The Electricity Club and go “oh what have you been writing about lately?”*laughs*
There’s no central filter, in some ways it’s brilliant because you have the whole world at your fingertips, but that has its drawbacks as well… I’m the sort of person that likes a little boundary because it gives me a bit of comfort.
Something which I’ve discussed this with Richard Barbieri of JAPAN is this skipping culture with streaming which is actively promoted on Spotify, it’s like no-one ‘listens’ anymore…
Sarah: Yeah! You know what? I’m guilty of that! It makes you wonder how albums like ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ would fare now, that’s an epic… are we going to have our epics anymore or is everything going to be digested in nice little bits?
Chris: It’s very much directed by playlist culture as well. You can have a track that your fans might not think is terribly important, but if it’s turned up on a certain playlist somewhere which has a lot of traffic, you look on Spotify and it suddenly appears to be your most popular song! So somebody who’s investigating the group and never heard you before listens to that one first. It might be something that’s not representative of the band at all, but if they don’t like it, they miss the entire canon of work after hearing the first 30 seconds! *laughs*
Did ‘Love Gathers’ with its lesbian affair on the school run narrative emerge from real life events and gossip from the playground?
Chris: I can’t go into too much detail because it doesn’t really help. The thing is, when you have children, you inevitably find yourself going back to school. And for a lot of people, spending more time at school, even though it’s only at the beginning and end of the day, is a welcome return.
I didn’t like school, and it took me years outside of school to rebuild myself as a person, so when I got there as a parent, all the old anxieties crept in. I noticed how for a lot of other parents, they had been waiting for that moment to return, and were visibly in their element! It was like they had children so they could go back to school! All these old categories returned, you could see who the bullies were and who the nerds were, and I was definitely in the latter *laughs*
So revisiting that school environment, I remembered why I had so much anxiety as a child myself because of this micro-community, and the way little things become big things. So if you fall out with somebody, everything becomes a much bigger deal. That story in ‘Love Gathers’ was based on stuff that was going on when I wrote it, but in order to make it ‘happen’ as a song, everything has to be as inflated to the scale it was felt in the yard… anyway, I hope that covers it *laughs*
Sarah: I loved singing that song because it’s a real story and the words are just fantastic to get your mouth around.
I guess with DUBSTAR, you’ve always been a storyteller?
Sarah: Yes, my voice doesn’t lend itself to drivel, some people can sing anything and it sounds awesome… my voice has to have something to say.
Chris: I think you’ve made a good point, because even though we didn’t want to do cover versions when we did the first album, ‘Not So Manic Now’ is on there because it said something about our ethos more effectively than anything we had of our own at that time.
But that’s a story song. I heard it on the radio a little while ago and I realised why people like it, there’s something about the way Sarah’s voice depicts the character in that story.
So much so that when ‘Stars’ was released the second time, and people finally got it, it was more interesting in the context of ‘Not So Manic Now’, because that character with the cup of tea in the tower block was suddenly underneath the firmament, singing this beautiful torch song, and it benefitted from the context.
You now virtually do own ‘Not So Manic Now’ and there are people who are still discovering that it’s a cover…
Chris: …although strictly speaking, it’s not so much a cover as what they used to call a ’cut’, like when Elvis would cut a song, as in the first recorded version people heard. When BRICK SUPPLY did ‘Not So Manic Now’, we were given what was basically a demo tape, so it wasn’t like a release which people were already familiar with. I always compare ‘Not So Manic Now’ to ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ by SIMPLE MINDS, because that’s the song which defines them for the majority of people, despite not being self-penned. But you’re lucky if you’ve got one of those.
‘Please Stop Leaving Me Alone’ is such a DUBSTAR title…
Chris: Thanks, that one is connected slightly to ‘Love Gathers’ since it relates again to encounters in the school environment and the small village where I live. One of the parent couples were going through a divorce, and the effect this had on the community was like a tidal wave flushing through the village, because it’s a small place and other people seemed to begin having problems in their own relationships, like a domino effect.
I was close friends with one of them, and that legalese jargon was around a lot at the time. I noticed how you could get into a situation where you’re already spending money on lawyers, momentum has built, but you’ve gone so far down the road that you can’t turn around, even if you start having second thoughts.
It kind of wrote itself, there was a lot of unhappiness around, and if you listen to the electric guitar part at the end of the track, that take was recorded on the afternoon that I wrote it, so you can hear the frustration. I like the idea of having a shorter distance between the thought, expression, and what the listener gets in their headphones or speakers at home.
Sarah: I think that’s quite a Youth thing, even at proper production stage, we had little time to do the actual recording so decisions were made and often they were the first decision, so we didn’t dither around. It was all “we’ll go for this, is everyone happy?” which gave it a kind of immediacy that is prevalent throughout the album.
Chris: That’s why Youth prioritised many of the guitar takes I’d done at writing stage, even though I assumed that they would be replaced. There’s a lot of guitars on the record which I’d done on the day it was written at home, and they retain an urgency that you wouldn’t get when you’ve done it 25 times in the studio.
‘You Were Never In Love’ is classic DUBSTAR, how did that come together?
Chris: It came from that earlier period where me and Sarah were hanging out with Youth round at his house a lot. We’d developed a good relationship by then, and we were talking about the sort of records we liked, the producers we were into, the sound of record we wanted to make..
I was really wanting to impress him because he can be quite a fierce critic, but in a constructive way. There was a certain type of song we didn’t have which was closer to what we had been talking about in our conversations, so I really wanted to go back to him, and for him to say “yes, that’s what we’re missing”!
So I had a sound in my head, and visual image of Sarah looking like Virginia Madsen at the start of ‘Dune’, with her head in the stars, imparting benevolent advice about where you’d gone wrong. At the time, I was seeking some kind of celestial advice myself. I wanted it to be more electronic sounding and dreamy, and it seemed to write itself.
Sarah: I remember you sent me this really rough demo, you said “It’s a bit patchy, I’m not sure, I think I’m going to bin it…” and I was “NO! NO! NO! That’s got legs, we’ve got to keep going with this one, it’s awesome”.
What’s coming across in your relationship with Youth is its sounding like what DAF had with Conny Plank, in that its homely and encouraging. I know you’re friends with Stephen Hague but the impression from what I’ve read is he can be a bit school teacher type of character? Please enlighten me…
Chris: He has a reputation for formality, but he’s always very down-to-earth and fun-to-be-with, I’ve found, we always had a laugh.
He can be very disarming and genuinely hilarious when the mood takes him. And he’s a lot more experimental in the studio than he gets credit for. I’ve burned a lot of midnight oil with him, exploring the unexpected.
Sarah: He always seemed to literally weep with laughter when he was out with us!
Chris: I guess he has the image of a fastened-top-button sort of guy, but maybe that’s been projected onto him, because some his best known records feel so pristine, but that perfection makes them endure. He’s very thorough.
With Youth, as much as I loved his records and was really excited about working with him, I wasn’t in a good place in my own head when we met, and I was paranoid that he was going to be this ‘rock star producer’ who was going to throw his ego around and impose his will excessively onto everything we’d been working on. But it was the total opposite, I have to say; it was me who went in with bad attitude, and he’s actually very ego-less and generous in his spirit.
Although he can be a merciless critic, it’s usually for the greater good and to your benefit, I think. So we did some gentle sparring initially, but I really love the guy because he gave me something which no-one else has been able to give me, and we’ve made the record which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so I’ll always be really grateful to him for helping us to do that. We’ve been extremely lucky to have producers like Stephen Hague and Youth, and have learned so much from them.
The classic brass infused ‘I Hold Your Heart’ was a surprise and takes you on Northern soul journey….
Chris: That one started off as quite a mellifluous, dreamy-sounding thing, but Youth’s engineer Michael is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and one day we were just throwing ideas around and then Michael opens a drawer, produces a trumpet and starts playing it! *laughs*
I had mixed feelings initially, but it did make sense in that Northern soul, Dexys way… it made the track more robust than it had been, and you could see its pop potential, whereas it had felt more apologetic in the way we’d been delivering it. So it was a happy studio day.
Sarah: It was weird because when we were doing the demo, I was like “yeah, these words, they’re great, they’re about an abusive relationship”, and when I was singing it in the studio, I was “Oh my god! It’s me that’s the bunny boiler in this song, I AM ONE!”, all this stuff about “restricting your movements”! It’s so sinister man! *laughs*
Chris: But it’s nice that it’s so happy! *laughs*
‘Mantra’ is very Beatles-esque and has that lush vocal ending…
Chris: During the pre-production hang-out with Youth, he had expressed a desire to co-write with us. Right at the end of those sessions, I had this idea for the verse and was visualising it as a three part harmony, sounding like Karen Carpenter. I was really happy with the verses, which emerged like the ‘stream of consciousness’ lyrics in ‘Waltz No.9’ but I wasn’t completely sure what it was about yet.
When we were doing the demo for ‘Mantra’, Sarah would do this lyric-less part sometimes, and it seemed to be heading that way. My working title was ‘You Are Gone’. But after Sarah was doing that ‘wobbly’ stuff, I started calling it ‘Mantra’ because it felt like one.
We’d just had dinner with Youth and there was this strange atmosphere in the room. There was a palpable charge in the air, like static, and I noticed his breathing had changed a bit. He announced that we should try “the Mantra one”, so I asked if he had anything for the chorus section, and he immediately started singing it. We worked through the night and by dawn it was finished. It’s a good one for the end of the album.
Sarah: Youth was playing me like a Theremin, he made me open my mouth, moved his hands up in the air and my voice went up and then a little higher and then my voice followed his hands DOWN! It was like he was conducting me. That was quite a moment actually.
The acclaim must have triggered some interest in performing again…are live dates in support of ‘One’ in the offing, or even say an acoustic combined talk format?
Chris: We have been asked a lot, and we’ve tried to avoid the nostalgia circuit up to this point, because we wanted this to be an artistic endeavour rather than ‘making hay’ just because people are interested in the 90s again. It saddened me a bit that it took us so long to get it together, and by the time we got round to doing it, this 90s trip was already on, but I’m glad we at least beat SLEEPER to the post! *laughs*
Sarah: We’re just masters of cr*p timing!
Chris: It would be nice to do some live appearances in 2019, but rather than a tour, I’d prefer to do a number of small live events, or maybe a significant one-off. I like the idea of doing an acoustic thing. Sarah and I have done this in the past where it’s just the two of us and there’s an intimacy that I really like. When I’ve seen other artists do it, it’s like you’ve hung out with them for the night…
Sarah: It’s so honest isn’t it? There’s no hiding, your songs have to be good, the performance has to be good and it’s bloody nerve racking as well! With regards having a talk format, I don’t think I could multitask, I have to concentrate on singing… women are supposed to be good at multi-tasking but I’m utterly sh*te.
Chris: I went to see CHINA CRISIS at The Sage in Gateshead before Christmas and they did that particularly well, I thought. It was pretty much 40% chat and 60% music, but at the end of the night, you felt like you knew who they were.
Sarah: Miles Hunt from THE WONDER STUFF is like that too. About 10 years ago, he did these acoustic shows and would tell such entertaining nuggets about what the songs meant to him or how the songs came about… I remember there was one about him and David Gedge of THE WEDDING PRESENT having w*nking competitions so he wrote this guitar line that emulated his forearm whilst in the act called ‘Angelica Maybe’… it’s one of my favourite Miles songs.
I remember when DUBSTAR covered ‘Every Day I Die’ for the Numan tribute album ‘Random’, Gary did ask me if I was aware of what I was singing… I smiled sweetly as I said yes *laughs*
What next for DUBSTAR?
Chris: We were already writing the next record as we completed the last, and we’ve got enough to do another quite quickly now, but I don’t know if it’s exactly what we need yet.
Some of it is like the poppiest material we’ve ever done, while conversely, there’s some of the most inscrutable stuff as well.
So I imagine we ought to do what we did last time and hang out with Youth for a bit, to get that third party perspective where a producer can hear it more clearly than you can. I’m hoping we can do as much of that this year as possible.
Sarah: Same for me as well.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to DUBSTAR
Born in Halifax, Sarah Blackwood has been a most striking vocal and visual presence since 1995 when DUBSTAR hit the UK singles charts with ‘Not So Manic Now’, a cover of an obscure song by Wakefield band BRICK SUPPLY.
Sarah Blackwood studied Spatial Design at Newcastle University and it was while living in the city that she met Chris Wilkie and Steve Hillier, joining DUBSTAR as lead singer. Scoring hits under the auspices of OMD, PET SHOP BOYS, ERASURE and NEW ORDER producer Stephen Hague, kitchen sink dramas like ‘Stars’, ‘No More Talk’ and ‘I Will Be Your Girlfriend’ appealed to both electronic music and indie audiences.
DUBSTAR bridged the gap between Synth Britannia and Britpop, opening for ERASURE while also simultaneously being label mates with BLUR, JESUS JONES and SHAMPOO. But after three albums ‘Disgraceful’ ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ on Food Records, with worsening band relations, management tensions and waning audience interest, DUBSTAR disbanded.
In 2002, Blackwood joined multi-instrumentalist Kate Holmes in female synthpop duo TECHNIQUE after original singer Xan Tyler was unavailable for a European tour opening for DEPECHE MODE in Europe. The support slot was a success and led to the pair forming crucial friendships that would help their relaunch as a brand new project.
Morphing into CLIENT and releasing their self-titled debut album in 2003, they initially shunned using their real names, choosing to be mysteriously referred to as Client A and Client B in a ‘1984’ inspired Orwellian twist. Interest in their mysterious allure coincided with the emergence of acts like LADYTRON, MISS KITTIN, BLACK BOX RECORDER and GOLDFRAPP.
A favourite act of Karl Bartos who they opened for at his London ULU gig in 2003, CLIENT became a popular cult draw in Europe and released a further three albums ‘City’, ‘Heartland’ and ‘Command’ before Blackwood officially departed in late 2010, coinciding with a reunion of DUBSTAR.
But despite a well-received 2013 comeback concert at The Lexington in London, things went quiet until Summer 2018 when Blackwood and Wilkie announced they had recorded a new DUBSTAR album as a duo entitled ‘One’. Released in Autumn 2018, it was well-received and considered by some observers to be one of the best albums of the year.
Although best known as the front woman of DUBSTAR and CLIENT, Sarah Blackwood has always been open to collaboration and has lent her charming voice to a number of recordings helmed by artists from Germany, Greece and Canada as well as the UK. Also adept in the art of reinterpretation, among the artists she has covered are TUBEWAY ARMY, PET SHOP BOYS, ADAM & THE ANTS, VISAGE, NEW ORDER, DEPECHE MODE and THE SMITHS.
By way of a Beginner’s Guide to her work, here are eighteen recordings highlighting the varied musical portfolio of Sarah Blackwood, presented in chronological order with a restriction of one track per album project.
DUBSTAR The Day I See You Again (1995)
Possibly one of the standouts from DUBSTAR’s debut long player ‘Disgraceful’, ‘The Day I See You Again’ featured the immortal line “If the man you’ve grown to be is more Morrison than Morrissey”. Blackwood captured a deeply Northern English cynicism which actually transferred abroad, with the song’s American producer Stephen Hague dusting the tune off for the German songstress Claudia Brücken to cover on her reinterpretations album ‘The Lost Are Found’.
Available on the DUBSTAR album ‘Disgraceful’ via Food / EMI Records
One of the B-sides to ‘No More Talk’ and co-written by the late Charles Aznavour, ‘La Bohème’ became the Frenchman’s signature song and an acknowledged chanson classic, telling the tale of a painter recalling his younger years in the Parisian bohemian suburb of Montmartre, hungry yet happy. Applying a wonderful Anglo aesthetic to the translation, Blackwood gave a superb interpretation which more than suited its relocation to West Yorkshire over its icy electronic backdrop.
Available on the DUBSTAR CD single ‘No More Talk’ via Food / EMI Records
DUBSTAR featuring GARY NUMAN Redirected Mail (2000)
Having covered TUBEWAY ARMY’s ‘Everyday I Die’ for the ‘Random’ tribute album, it was now Blackwood’s turn to duet with Gary Numan himself, albeit remotely. “I was in Manchester when we recorded ‘Redirected Mail’” she said, “but Steve and Chris actually went down to Gary’s and sat and had ham and chips with him. They had a right laugh and had a really good time.” As a result of that visit south, Steve Hillier also bought a Roland CP70 electric piano from Numan.
Having secured a deal with Mute Records via Andy Fletcher’s Toast Hawaii imprint, CLIENT’s stark mission statement of “satisfaction guaranteed” also included a striking look which had a distinct element of Cold War chic. “It started because we didn’t know what to wear on tour with DEPECHE MODE” said Blackwood knowing they would be performing in front of some very partisan Devotees, “if they threw anything at us, we wanted it to be something that was sort of disposable so we thought of the uniforms!”
Available on the CLIENT album ‘Client’ via Toast Hawaii
For their second album ‘City’, CLIENT got more ambitious by featuring some guest vocalists which included THE LIBERTINES. But the most notable one was DEPECHE MODE’s Martin Gore in a collaboration that was instigated by Blackwood writing him a letter: “Martin had this newly set-up studio and recorded himself. The thing is, when we mixed the two vocals together, that was a moment! I didn’t know how it was going to work but when you heard it, it was like ‘woo!’…it was a bit spine tingling really!”
Available on the CLIENT album ‘City’ via Toast Hawaii
Of DIE KRUPPS‘ mighty industrialised cover, Ralf Dörper said to The Electricity Club: “When I first heard ‘The Anvil’ (‘Der Amboss’) by VISAGE, I thought ‘what a perfect song for DIE KRUPPS’ – it just needed more sweat, more steel. And it was not before 2005 when DIE KRUPPS were asked to play a few 25-year anniversary shows that I remembered ‘Der Amboss’… and as I was a big CLIENT fan at that time, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask Fräulein B for assistance in the vocal department”.
To beef up their concert sound, CLIENT expanded to a trio to include bassist Emily Mann aka Client E and became a gritty live act which exuded an electronic body presence that powerfully complimented Blackwood’s stoic stage persona as Client B. Occasionally and fittingly, they would be joined on drums by Robert Görl from esteemed Industrial Godfathers DEUTSCH AMERIKANISCHE FREUNDSCHAFT and together they would end the set with their seminal EBM classic ‘Der Mussolini’.
Originally on the self-released CLIENT album ‘Live In Porto’, currently unavilable
Of Athens-based female duo MARSHEAUX, Blackwood said: “They sort of copied us but it was the biggest form of flattery because they’re such lovely girls! It’s nice to think I’ve inspired something”. So when the two parties toured Germany together in 2008, it was a most appropriate pairing. On their remix of ‘It’s Not Over’, some Hellenic shine was added to the original’s more dystopian demeanour with additional Eurocentric riffage for a slice of electronic pop perfection.
Described as “one of my favourite Northern folk songs” and arranged by Chris Wilkie on acoustic guitar more or less as such, this live solo performance of this NEW ORDER evergreen formed part of a free download series which also included stripped down versions of CLIENT and DUBSTAR songs as well as THE SMITHS ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’. “I just think a good song will work if you can do it acoustically” Blackwood would later remark.
Originally on the CLIENT B EP ‘Acoustic At The Club Bar & Dining’, currently unavailable
Having previously tackled new wave pop like ‘White Wedding’ and ‘Xerox’, CLIENT took a diversion and covered Curtis Mayfield’s soultastic and groove laden ‘Make Me Believe In You’. Co-produced by one-time KILLING JOKE bassist Martin Glover aka Youth who added a more rhythmic energy, things were danced up with an icy edge coming from his frenetic guitar work. This approach more than suited their fourth album’s “brazenly bossy” title of ‘Command’.
Available on the CLIENT album ‘Command’ via Out Of Line
DUBSTAR I’m In Love With A German Film Star (2010)
Although at the time Blackwood was still in CLIENT, the newly reformed DUBSTAR were invited to submit a cover of their choice as part of a project for Amnesty International Catalunya. While songs by THE ROLLING STONES and the late Kirsty MacColl were considered, the trio settled on this 1981 cult classic made famous by THE PASSIONS. While there was to be an emotional reunion concert in Spring 2013, the DUBSTAR’s reformation as a trio was not to last…
Originally on the compilation album ‘Peace’ (V/A) via Amnesty International, currently unavailable
WILLIAM ORBIT featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD White Night (2010)
While things had become uncertain within the CLIENT camp, Blackwood took time out to work on a Rico Conning penned track for William Orbit’s album ‘My Oracle Lives Uptown’ which dated back to their TORCH SONG days. Although her version did not appear on the final tracklisting, her take was offered as a free download. More accessible than some of CLIENT’s offerings but more purely electronic than DUBSTAR, this was a priceless pop gem which lyrically expressed her pain during that period.
Originally available as a free download, currently unavailable
SOMAN featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Blue Monday (2010)
No stranger to cover versions, Blackwood was invited to add her suitably forlorn voice to German producer Kolja Trelle’s version of NEW ORDER’s signature tune. The esteemed musical ears of Stephen Hague always felt that Bernard Sumner and Sarah Blackwood would make a perfect duetting partnership but until that happens, covers are what the public has to make do with for now. Now imagine if she had had sung on ‘Tutti Frutti’ instead of Elly Jackson of LA ROUX?
Available on the SOMAN album ‘Noistyle’ via Trisol Music Group
FOTONOVELA featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Justice (2013)
The concept of FOTONOVELA’s sophomore offering ‘A Ton Of Love’ was to produce a supreme electronic record featuring vocalists from all stages of classic synthpop. Andy McCluskey was the first on board for the project but the resultant song ‘Helen Of Troy’ turned out so well, it ended up on OMD’s ‘English Electric’! Undeterred, the duo recruited Sarah Blackwood. Halifax’s own Queen of electro took FOTONOVELA onto a cloudier but enjoyable hitchhike through the North West of England with the very personal ‘Justice’.
KOISHII & HUSH featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Rules & Lies (2015)
Keeping herself busy, Blackwood collaborated with progressive house duo KOISHII & HUSH. “Sarah was one of the vocalists we had always wanted to work with. We managed to get in touch with her and decided to meet in London to discuss the idea.” said Alex Hush, “She was quite keen on the project and after that initial meeting, we sent Sarah a rough backing track which she wrote and recorded vocals for. We then did some tweaks and additional production on ‘Rules & Lies’ and are thrilled with the final version”.
Available on the KOSHII & HUSH single ‘Rules & Lies’ via Grammaton Recordings
VILE ELECTRODES featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Captivity In Symmetry (2016)
The Electricity Club initially described VILE ELECTRODES as “Client B born and raised in the Home Counties fronting Dindisc-era ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK”, so a duet with Anais Neon was perhaps inevitable. Blackwood added a nonchalant almost-spoken vocal to a variation of the gorgeous ‘Twin Peaks’ flavoured ‘Captive In Symmetry’ as part of a bonus CD ‘Not Everything Is As It Seems’ which came with the initial run of their second album ‘In The Shadows Of Monuments’.
RADIO WOLF featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever (2017)
RADIO WOLF is Canadian musician and producer Oliver Blair who remixed ‘It’s Now Over’ and ‘Can You Feel’ under his KINDLE moniker as well as playing guitar on ‘Command’. Now performing with PARALLELS as well as recording in his own right, his debut EP combining electronic music with rock ‘n’ roll featured a stellar cast of female vocalists including his bandmate Holly Dodson, Marika Gauci from his previous combo HOTEL MOTEL, Kelli Ali ex-SNEAKER PIMPS and on the title song, Sarah Blackwood.
Just when it looked like that was it over for DUBSTAR, Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with ‘One’. While Wilkie took on prime songwriting duties, the classic bittersweet aura remained, albeit within a more organic setting. Produced by Youth, the most electronic number on ‘One’ was the gorgeous ‘Locked Inside’ with elements of KRAFTWERK creeping in and even TEARS FOR FEARS while Blackwood poignantly reflected on how “my hands are tied”.
Available on the DUBSTAR album ‘One’ via Northern Writes
Here are 30 songs which may have escaped attention as the world went grunge and then had an ongoing hangover in the wake of Britpop.
Denied mainstream recognition and now lost when looking from a UK perspective even within the dwindling synth music community, these offerings come from artists who have mostly remained in total obscurity.
However, some are highly established in their own right, albeit not necessarily in the electronic pop field.
Starting from 1992 when the CD established itself as the dominant format to the year before The Electricity Cub came into being, here are 30 Lost Art School Bops listed by year and then in alphabetical order…
VEGAS Walk Into The Wind (1992)
What happens when you cross FUN BOY THREE, EURYTHMICS and SHAKESPEARS SISTER? This lovely under rated electro-reggae tune featuring Terry Hall, David A Stewart and Siobhan Fahey! VEGAS was a one-off project when Hall and Stewart were between bands, with the former’s forlorn opening gambit of “You have to learn to love by loving” more than suiting the latter’s lush cinematic backdrop on the captivating noir of ‘Walk Into The Wind’.
Sven Väth is a Frankfurt based DJ whose his career started in 1982. Mixmag rated his album ‘Accident In Paradise’ one of the Top 50 dance albums of all time. From that, this synthpopped remix of its most accessible track ‘L’Esperanza’ recalled ‘Magic Fly’ by SPACE and captured the tranquillity of a swim with dolphins. The melodies sang despite the tune being totally instrumental while the groove drove along without being intrusive.
Hear Me Calling captured the spirit of early ultrapop DEPECHE MODE and even had CULTURE CLUB backing singer Helen Terry thrown into the mix of this infectiously catchy number. Although a publicly a trio, there was a silent fourth songwriting member who was represented by a cartoon character called Biff in the band’s promotional material. Biff was actually Richard Stannard who has since written songs for KYLIE MINOGUE, LITTLE BOOTS, MARINA & THE DIAMONDS and SPICE GIRLS.
Available on the single ‘Hear Me Calling’ via Epic Records
INTASTELLA were formally indie rockers LAUGH, until they discovered singer Stella Grundy and adapted their sound to a more dance-orientated style in a vein not dissimilar from fellow Mancunian’s HAPPY MONDAYS. Having had a minor hit with the SAINT ETIENNE flavoured cover of the FRANK VALLI Northern Soul favourite, the funkier electrovibe of ‘Grandmaster’ was the follow-up and later featured on the soundtrack of the ‘9½ Weeks’ sequel ‘Love In Paris’.
Available on the album ‘What You Gonna Do’ via Planet 3 Records
INAURA combined NINE INCH NAILS and DURAN DURAN, with the latter every much in mind when the band were signed to EMI. Produced by Steve Osborne, the metallic finish of ‘Soap Opera’ gave a rock edge to the electronically driven sound. But despite securing a support slot with THE HUMAN LEAGUE, the band got emboiled in internal record company politics with EMI actively trying to bury the band. The shelved album ‘One Million Smiles’ eventually secured an independent release in 1998.
Melody Maker’s Simon Price announced the arrival of a new scene of New Romantic revivalists, with a bold headline declaring, “ROMO – The Future Pop Explosion!” From these Romantic Modernists came ORLANDO who combined stylish, synthesized dance-pop with a love of classic songwriting. ‘Just For A Second’ was their best song, with elements of PET SHOP BOYS euphoric flavour as reimagined by the boy bands of the day, combined with an emotive lyrical backdrop.
Also seen as part of the Romo movement were SEXUS, a Manchester duo comprising of David Savage and Paul Southern Signed by ZTT, ‘The Official End Of It All’ was their second single and recalled ELECTRONIC’s ‘Getting Away With It’. The pair recorded a full album with Trevor Horn but it remains unmixed and unreleased. The duo would later team up again musically under the name PSYCHODELICS.
Available on the single ‘The Official End Of It All’ via ZTT Records
MONO were Siobhan de Maré and Martin Virgo, who found their cinematic sound lumped in with trip hop movement that spawned SNEAKER PIMPS and PORTISHEAD. A mysterious Gallic flavour crossed with samples from John Barry’s soundtrack to ‘The Ipcress File’ provided the song’s spy drama chill. The track was later incorporated into a contemporary film adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ which starred Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow and Hank Azaria. SPICE GIRLS’ Emma Bunton recorded a cover of it in 2006.
The late Trish Keenan’s ice maiden cool was instrumental to BROADCAST’s cognoscenti appeal and with their experimental electronica, they won many fans among the cognoscenti. ‘Come On Let’s Go’ was their most accessible offering with its spy drama feel, vintage organic textures and Keenan’s sweet nonchalant vocal tones. Futuristic yet with a Cold War chill, this pushed all the tender buttons. The band were a favourite of Matt Groening, creator of ‘The Simpsons’.
QUEEN OF JAPAN were a colourful European trio consisting of singer Koneko alongside eccentric producers Jo Ashito and Jason Arigato. Specialising in dance covers of an incongruous origin like JOHN LENNON and QUEEN, their fun electronic sound took on a distinct sinister turn with this brilliant synthesized interpretation of rock legends KISS’ neo-discofied 1977 anthem. The track gained prominence after being included as part of 2 MANY DJ’s ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax Part 2’ DJ set in 2003.
Available on the album ‘Headrush’ via Echohammer Records
Following Ms Allison’s pop flavoured debut album ‘Afterglow’ in 1999 and prior to her ‘Aftersun’ collaboration with MASSIVE ATTACK, the former ONE DOVE vocalist experimented with some lo-fi electro sounds alongside some more folky acoustic excursions on her album ‘We Are Science’. Playing squelch games over stuttering percussive loops, Allison’s enigmatic breathy vocal style almost acts as another instrument in a mildly hallucinogenic dance fashion.
Apparently based on true events, ‘Party Monster’ starring Macaulay Culkin, Seth Green and Chlӧe Savigny was effectively ‘Electroclash – The Movie’; ‘Take Me To The Club’, written and produced by Bruno Coviell, captured the tension and euphoria of nightlife. Electrofied slap bass and sinister sequences added some gothic grandeur to the aural hedonism. “I only feel right under bright lights… take me to the club” was the profound proclamation!
‘I Feel Love’ meets THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS on this duo’s amazing debut single, SYNTAX consisted of Jan Burton and ex-FLUKE member Mike Tournier. The 8 minute full length version possessed a pulsing hypnotic quality while spacey Sci-Fi synths and full-fat sequences recalled a bygone disco age but updating the template for a new century. Dark but immensely danceable!
WHITE TOWN aka Jyoti Mishra had a freak No1 hit with ‘Your Woman’ in 1997 but kept a low profile, carving out an independent musical career with little regard for public profile. Influenced by his heroes OMD and DEPECHE MODE, ‘Whenever I Say Hello’ first appeared on Ninth Wave’s ‘Electricity 2’ compilation and was the highlight of his album ‘Don’t Mention The War’, eventually released in 2006. A wonderful lonely paean to lost love, this does sound like ‘Things You Said’ reimagined for ‘A Broken Frame’.
Sony Music were none too happy when the former SAVAGE GARDEN front man veered from his drippy ballads to go electro! ‘I Like The Way’ was the highlight from his album ‘The Tension & The Spark’, the title of which came from the chorus of this spiky piece of synthpop. Like ERASURE gone all aggressive if you can believe that, Hayes and Sony Music parted ways following this fuzzy excursion.
THE great lost act of the synthesizer revival has to be VIC TWENTY. Blowing away ERASURE while supporting them on their muted covers tour, Piney Gir and Adrian Morris showed promise with their cartoon-like girl/boy synthpop. One of the highlights in their live set was an ironic electronic reconstruction of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. Released on Mute, ‘Text Msg’ was their only single as a duo, a quirky narrative of the modern generation who can only dump hapless lovers by mobile phone.
Available on the single ‘Txt Msg’ via Mute Records
Argentine combo COSAQUITOS EN GLOBO originally started out as a duo comprising of Maru Pardo Saguier and Sebastian Cordoves. With a heavy KRAFTWERK and GIORGIO MORODER influence but adding a rock edge, ‘Fantasy’ from their eponymous debut album was a perfect demonstration of their strong melodies based around club friendly synthetic grooves and new wave sensibilities. Their most recent album ‘Humanum’ came out in September 2017.
After the succes of THE KILLERS, indie bands were starting to embrace synths again and DELAYS almost went the full hog with this Trevor Horn assisted electronic disco number. The pulsing sequences and syncopated rhythm section were just pure DURAN DURAN, while Greg Gilbert’s raspy falsetto in the soaring chorus and choppy guitar ensured the band weren’t totally detached from their roots.
Available on the single ‘Valentine’ via Rough Trade Records
Before he worked with MADONNA, NEW ORDER, THE KILLERS, KYLIE MINOGUE, TAKE THAT and PET SHOP BOYS, Stuart Price produced and co-wrote most of the only album by Philadelphia songstress Juliet Richardson. Driven by a heavy percussive mantra coupled to a deep bass rumble, her sultry soulful vocals worked well within the cool electro backing to provide a wonderful sexually charged atmosphere. Richardson is now a yoga teacher with a young family.
This promising band took the best of New Romantic thrill and a tight Stephen Hague production for a brilliant single with a killer chorus and solid beats, reinforced by a big reverberating bassline. Despite a support slot with HEAVEN 17, a chart scandal involving over enthusiastic management on their second single ‘Industry’ destroyed all momentum and the band retreated, re-emerging later as MATINEE CLUB before becoming THE MODERN again! Nathan Cooper has since reappeared as KID KASIO.
LUKE HAINES Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop – Richard X Mix (2006)
Once referred to as the Adolf Hitler of Britpop by the music press, Luke Haines’ memoir ‘Bad Vibes: Britpop & My Part In Its Downfall’ suggested that BLUR’s Damon Alban deserved to be nominated for that title far more! An installation of danceable pop terrorism by THE AUTEURS and BLACK BOX RECORDER leader, with a full fat octave driven electro mix by Richard X, this gleefully satirised the Shoreditch club scene with a bitter attack on its array of poseurs.
PROTOCOL had some Romo flair and despite being almost entirely based on ‘Atomic’ by BLONDIE, second single ‘Where’s The Pleasure?’ secured that all important radio play. But despite this, Polydor pulled the plug on their excellent follow-up ‘Love Is My Drug’ and the promising debut album ‘Rules Of Engagement’ despite sending out promos to the press and filming a promo video. Lead singer John Pritchard took another punt at stardom by participating in the 2013 series of ‘The Voice’.
This was an excellent ‘Sweet Dreams’ pastiche from vocalist Stefy Rae and producer Jimmy Harry. Aimed at the teen pop market with its Orange County brat subject matter, ‘Chelsea’ was more sophisticated than it appeared and was probably three years ahead of its time. Co-written by the soon-to-be ubiquitous producer Greg Kurstin and accompanied by a video featuring an Adam West cameo, if this had come out in 2009, it probably would have been a Top 10 hit.
Available on the album ‘The Orange Album’ via Wind-Up Records
Victoria Hesketh before she was LITTLE BOOTS, she came to together with Lucy Catherwood and Marie France at Leeds University to produce a series of well received spikey pop numbers before splitting. Their final single ‘You’re Out’ was produced by Greg Kurstin and the start of a more electronic sound in the mix. Treated guitars, fuzzy bass and subtle synths all merged together in a feisty cocktail and the seed of the raw excitement found its way into songs like ‘Meddle’.
Available on the single ‘You’re Out’ via 679/Atlantic Records
Consisting of Aggie Peterson and Per Martinsen, FROST have described their music as upbeat space-pop. This was beautiful electronic dance music from the enigmatic Norwegian duo with Peterson’s soaring soprano and the gorgeous synth vibrato putting minds into a marvellous trance. ‘Sleepwalker’ was the sort of song you would want to play at a rave in the snow! their cool cover of OMD’s ‘Messages’, from the ‘Love! Revolution’ album which ‘Sleepwalker’ came, is also a worthy listen.
Italo disco was a much maligned form of electro kitsch but was rooted in GIORGIO MORODER which eventually influenced NEW ORDER and PET SHOP BOYS; Anglo-Argentine duo HEARTBREAK revived the genre, complete with accents, “wo-woah-ah” chants and heavy dance rhythms. On great catchy songs such as ‘We’re Back’, the sweaty impassioned charisma of vocalist Sebastian Muravchik was more than convincing while Ali Renault provided the meaty electronic backing.
The Dresden sextet were a dreamy but epic cross between A-HA and SIGUR RÓS. Singer Felix Räuber’s falsetto voice polarised but the frantic driven tempo, dramatic electronic strings and rousing melancholic chorus of ‘The Colour Of Snow’ made it a fine follow-up their German No1 ‘Allein Allein’ and gave the band enough of a reputation to be invited to support DEPECHE MODE at their Leipzig gigs in 2009.
Pure octave shift disco heaven on this ode to the IKEA generation by modern electronic take on BANANARAMA. Despite being all under 25, these three ladies grew up to the sound of the synthesizer and learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums via their mothers’ ERASURE and A-HA singles. Paying girl group homage to both YAZOO and DEPECHE MODE, RED BLOODED WOMEN sounded not unlike GIRLS ALOUD produced by Daniel Miller!
KATSEN were a short lived Brighton duo comprising of Donna Grimaldi and Chris Blackburn who crossed CRYSTAL CASTLES with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA for their own brand of quirky synthpop. ‘Florian’ with its mournful melodica line inspired by ‘Kommetenmelodie 2’ was yet another in a tradition of songs dedicated to the enigmatic quiet man of KRAFTWERK which have included ‘V2 Schneider’ and ‘Rolf & Florian Go Hawaiian’ (sic).
Available on the album ‘It Hertz!’ via Thee Sheffield Phonographic Corporation
SPUTNIKO! (real name Hiromi Ozaki) showcased her brand of laptop pop around London where she was based. “Exploring intersections between technology and popular culture” as reflected by titles such as ‘The Skype Song’ and ‘The Mixi Song’, her most immediate track has been ‘The Google Song’, a story of love in the modern computer age. Too shy to approach the object of her desire, she simply went home to her faithful laptop and googled him!! “I like you” she proclaimed. It was tremendously catchy too!
Available on the DVD ‘Parakonpe 3000’ via 360° Records