Trailblazing kosmische duo NEU! celebrate the 50th anniversary of their self-titled debut album with a boxed set containing their imperial back catalogue. It is appended by a modern day remixes collection featuring contributions by members of NEW ORDER, FACTORY FLOOR, HOT CHIP and MOGWAI amongst others. The CD version of the boxed set additionally features the divisive ‘NEU! 86’ reunion album.
Michael Rother and the late Klaus Dinger had been members of KRAFTWERK when Ralf Hütter had temporarily left the band; they even appeared on West German TV with Florian Schneider but on Hütter’s return, Rother and Dinger left to form NEU!
The name NEU! had been chosen by Dinger as “a protest against the consumer society” and their aim was to restore a sense of German artistic identity, in reaction to the Americanisation of European post-war culture that was now prevalent due to the large detachment of American armed forces on station during The Cold War.
Dinger and Rother were never easy bedfellows from the start, so it was legendary producer Conny Plank who acted as mediator between the pair’s quite different personalities and artistic aspirations. Although popularising the motorik beat, Dinger was a manic and confrontational character who wanted to be more than just a drummer, while Rother was unassuming in his half speed guitar texturing to paint mini-cacophonies of esoteric sound.
The pair had a creative tension to produce music that was experimental, yet accessible. This was showcased on their 1972 self-titled debut with the magnificent opening salvo ‘Hallogallo’. Almost trance-like thanks to its lengthy time space, the Apache drum mantra would later be mutated into drum machines to act as backbeat for OMD. Originally released on Brain Records, the album outlined the musical manifesto of NEU! with a sound that was not derived from the Trans-Atlantic culture.
The pressure was on the duo to produce a worthy follow-up to their debut and but having spent most of their budget from Brain on ‘Für Immer’, effectively a more polished development of ‘Hallogallo’, the second self-titled album was still about five tracks short. So Dinger came up with a brainwave to fill the void with versions of their interim single ‘Neuschnee’ and its B-side ‘Super’. This included recording the 45 RPM single at 16 and 78 complete with needle drops; other variants included drilling an off-centre hole into the vinyl and replaying a tape recording on a faulty cassette player!
Was this winging it or avant-garde genius or was it as Rother thought, Dinger’s way of antagonising Brain Records following what he considered the lack of promo for the ‘Neuschnee’ single? But variations on a theme were always part of the NEU! manifesto as had been demonstrated on their cover artwork and this was taking it to a musical level.
By the time of their third album, relations between Rother and Dinger had got so bad that they agreed to conceive a side each, with minimal input from the other. But NEU! ‘75’ was to be their best record yet, with Rother directing the more sedate and thoughtful first half. Meanwhile Dinger brought in his younger brother Thomas and Hans Lampe to take over his drums as he headed to the front with his guitar for a snarling second half of proto-punk.
‘Isi’ was a wonderfully catchy synthesizer and piano instrumental while ‘Seeland’ pointed to where Rother was eventually to head with his solo career. However, the haunting ‘Leb Wohl’ with its plaintive piano and Dinger’s anguished lead vocal was the stand-out to provide the farewell; OMD were to use this template in their musical dedication ‘4 Neu’.
Dinger provided his angry masterpiece in ‘Hero’ which grooved and startled in equal measure. One person who was listening was Iggy Pop and he provided the ultimate tribute to Dinger with his recent performance of ‘Hero’ with Rother at Hamburg Stadtpark in June 2022.
David Bowie was another NEU! fan and Rother later was asked to play on the “Heroes” album sessions in Berlin, but the collaboration never materialised due to interference from Bowie’s then-management. It remains a curiosity as to what could have been…
After NEU! disbanded, Rother’s became Germany’s answer to Mike Oldfield, while Dinger continued with Hans Lampe and Thomas Dinger in LA DÜSSELDORF. The first three albums from each had their merits while Conny Plank worked with both parties, although even with his good natured demeanour, he was only to last one further recording with Dinger who never really mellowed.
Rother and Dinger entered a studio together in 1986 for a brief NEU! reunion but the continuing tensions meant that the album was abandoned. But in 1995, Dinger released the recordings as the fourth NEU! album in Japan without Rother’s consent; he later described this experience as “a rather painful disaster between Klaus Dinger and myself”. There were several standout tracks, one of which was subsequently titled ‘Euphoria’ and sounded like a lost OMD instrumental while there was a moodier variation called ‘Wave Mother’. The fourth album was eventually sanctioned by Rother after he remixed the recordings following Dinger’s death in 2008 and released as NEU! ‘86’.
Photo by Anton Corbijn
But relations were to sour further when Dinger then toured and recorded for several years as LA! NEU? with Rother angry that his former bandmate was unfairly trading off the NEU! legacy. It was to take many years for the pair to agree on how to reissue their long deleted but now heavily bootlegged albums.
An attempted reconciliation between Rother and Dinger was attempted when the first three NEU! albums were finally reissued in 2000 by Grönland Records, but during the joint promotional interviews, the pair were barely able to tolerate each other’s company, with the photographs taken by Anton Corbijn notably capturing the friction.
These first reissues gave NEU! some much deserved recognition and their influence can be heard in acts such as ULTRAVOX, U2, OMD, NEW ORDER, SONIC YOUTH, STEREOLAB, FUJIYA & MIYAGI, HOT CHIP and MOOD TAEG. And with the NEU! ‘50’ boxed set comes an album of remixes and reworkings by some of those acts by way of tribute.
Stephen Morris and Gabe Gurnsey’s take on ‘Hallogallo’ is probably more of a neu recording than NEU! remix but there are still enough original elements to attribute the source. While Yann Tiersen presents a filmic electronic take on ‘Lieber Honig’ from the second album, the best of the bunch is Alexis Taylor with ‘4+1=5’, his slowed down 13 minute version of ‘Wave Mother’ that also adds his plaintive vocal in the final quarter.
After five decades, NEU! continue to inspire a new generation, thanks to the continuing live performances of Michael Rother featuring a significant portion of material from that era. While Klaus Dinger may no longer be on this mortal coil, his spirit lives on through the music and it is fitting that it is Hans Lampe who sits in the drum stool behind his former comrade-in-arms as the surviving heroes from ‘75’ continue the mission.
NEU! ‘50!’ is released as a 5LP or 5CD boxed set by Groenland Records
Michael Rother 2022 European live dates celebrating NEU! 50! include:
Berlin Betonhalle @ Silent Green (26th October), London Clapham Grand (3rd November), Barcelona Mira Festival (11th November), Paris BBMix Festival (26th November)
“Someone sneers at all you love… this is how I learnt to hate rock-and-roll!”
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe first met in an electronics shop on London’s Kings Road in August 1981; a shared love of dance music led them to form PET SHOP BOYS, named after friends who worked in an Ealing pet retailer while also sounding like an English rap group.
Bridging the gap between Synth Britannia and acid house via HI-NRG and Italo disco, PET SHOP BOYS first found international success with ‘West End Girls’, a UK and US No1 single in 1986.
At the time of their meeting, the trombone playing Lowe had been studying to become an architect at Liverpool University while Tennant was deputy editor of ‘Smash Hits’. Known for his witty if sometimes cutting reviews as well as coining entertaining phrases such as “imperial phase”, “down the dumper”, “like punk never happened”, “pur-LEASE!”, “pass the sickbag, Alice”, “uncle disgusting” and “back, back, BACK!!!!!”, Tennant’s observations on the music business were more often right than wrong.
Tired of writing about things he could probably do better, Tennant became music’s ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper. The North London Polytechnic history graduate utilised his experiences as a journalist to plot PET SHOP BOYS’ ethos, a dialectic of “east / west. Posh / rough. Irony / sincerity. Pop / anti-pop”. Taking inspiration from SPARKS and SOFT CELL, that dialectic also became the image.
With a voice that sounded like a cross between Al Stewart and Marc Almond, Tennant was the talkative one while the moody Lowe stood behind him, scowling like Ron Mael and seemingly doing nothing apart from occasionally staring at a TV screen. Interestingly, while it was often assumed that the North Shields-born Tennant was the posh one, it was actually Lowe who was educated at the selective Arnold School in Blackpool which had also been attended by Dave Ball; its direct-grant status meant it was just shy of being a public school with fee payers and boarders while a small number of local children were selected via the 11+ grammar school system.
It was while at ‘Smash Hits’, when he was despatched to New York to interview THE POLICE, that Tennant knocked on the door of Bobby Orlando, producer of electronic disco records by DIVINE, THE FLIRTS and BOYTRONIC as well an artist in his own right. This led to the original recording of ‘West End Girls’ released in April 1984 by Epic Records in the UK and while it wasn’t a huge commercial success, it was an American club favourite while being a minor hit in Belgium and France.
‘West End Girls’ proved to be the perfect show reel and a deal was signed with EMI via Parlophone Records after their bullish manager Tom Watkins brought them to the attention of Dave Ambrose, a founder member of FLEETWOOD MAC who had become a renowned A&R man, notably signing SEX PISTOLS, DURAN DURAN and TALK TALK.
Tennant departed ‘Smash Hits’ and at his leaving party, his colleagues presented him with a mocked-up front cover which read: “HOW I LEFT BRITAIN’S BRIGHTEST MAGAZINE TO FORM MY TRAGIC POP GROUP, WENT DOWN THE DUMPER AND ASKED FOR MY JOB BACK” – little did they know that Tennant would grace their front cover within 9 months!
Tennant and Lowe presented themselves with an enigmatic Northern English contrariness that was the antithesis of WHAM! and more Gilbert & George. Tom Watkins was dismayed by his charges’ first ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance with the re-recorded version of ‘West End Girls’ in late 1985, recalling “They don’t do anything. How are people going to go for this?” – but go for it they did and in large numbers! It started an imperial phase for PET SHOP BOYS when it reached No1.
But following the success of ‘West End Girls’ which later netted a BRIT award for ‘British Single of the Year’, Tennant’s own journalistic words came to haunt him as the dumper beckoned when the wonderful follow-up ‘Love Comes Quickly’ only reached No19 in the UK singles chart. But the B-side indicated PET SHOP BOYS were going to be around for a while and not just a flash in the pan; ‘That’s My Impression’ was menacing as opposed to melancholic, combining SOFT CELL with DIVINE, establishing their reputation for quality non-album bonuses.
The debut album ‘Please’ primarily produced by Stephen Hague was impressive although not perfect and hit the UK Top3. Songs such as ‘Tonight Is Forever’ and ‘Later Tonight’ highlighted the range and quality of the Tennant / Lowe songwriting partnership from elegiac if euphoric dance anthems to melancholic but hopeful ballads, often sung from a character rather than a personal viewpoint.
Meanwhile on ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’, PET SHOP BOYS showcased irony and humour. Like with HEAVEN 17 before them, the joke passed over the heads of the yuppies who had adopted the song as a mission statement but failed to realise it was sending up their own greed, delusion and lack of ethics.
PET SHOP BOYS ended 1986 with another Top10 hit single in ‘Suburbia’, a good if slightly underwhelming album track from ‘Please’ that got transformed into a more fully realised epic in a re-recording produced by Sarm West graduate Julian Mendelson. It underlined Tennant’s clever social commentary as working class communities became marginalised under the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.
Fully embracing the creative experimentation and development allowed for by more under-the-radar B-sides, ‘Suburbia’ featured not one but two non-album extras. ‘Jack The Lad’ exuded the influence of Erik Satie and Ennio Morricone, but ‘Paninaro’ was an absorbing dance number that displayed an affinity with Italy and one of its fashionable youth movements.
Additionally, ‘Paninaro’ summed up PET SHOP BOYS’ attitude with a middle eight breakdown that featured a nonchalant Chris Lowe on the US talk show ‘Entertainment Tonight’ declaring “I don’t like country & western, I don’t like rock music… I don’t like rockabilly! I don’t like much really do I? But what I do like, I love passionately!!” – PET SHOP BOYS’ B-sides and bonus tracks would later be collected on ‘Alternative’ and ‘Format’, two double compilation sets that were equally as valid as their best albums.
To open their 1987 account, PET SHOP BOYS issued their most striking single yet in the mighty gothic disco of ‘It’s A Sin’; reflecting on Tennant’s catholic school education, the backdrop threw in the kitchen sink with Fairlight orchestral hits, Apollo 10 launch messages and an extraordinary chord change from Cm to E♭ m7 into the middle eight. A happy accident with the bassline and drums restarting provided the cavalry charge towards the lightning climax for a second No1.
But PET SHOP BOYS weren’t done yet; the follow-up ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ sounded like three songs morphed into one, because that was what it actually was. Lowe and Tennant did their respective pop art sections while Allie Willis who co-wrote ‘Boogie Wonderland’ came up with the rather blissful chorus. The song went into another sphere once Dusty Springfield was brought out of semi-retirement to add her voice and ad-libs. The smoothness of Stephen Hague’s production provided the perfect backing.
The success of ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ showed PET SHOP BOYS willingness to collaborate and there would be productions on new solo Dusty hits with ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ and ‘In Private’. Tennant and Lowe’s later involvement in ELECTRONIC with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr illustrated that work outside of the nest was not out of bounds either.
The second album ‘Actually’ opened with a new more percussive version of ‘One More Chance’, a song dating back to the Bobby Orlando sessions while ‘Shopping’ dealt with Thatcherism’s obsession with privatising publically owned utilities, hence the line “We’re buying and selling your history!”. Continuing Tennant’s social commentary on the undermining of the working class, ‘Kings Cross’ presented the railway station as a metaphor for morally questionable capitalism, although the line “Dead and wounded on either side, you know it’s only a matter of time” chillingly resonated later in the year when an underground fire claimed the lives of 31 people.
A solemn song written about a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS, the mournfully brilliant ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ adapted the Ennio Morricone composition ‘Forecast’ from the 1983 Jean-Paul Belmondo movie ‘Le Marginal’. ‘Blue Velvet’ composer Angelo Badalamenti provided an orchestral arrangement but due to scheduling issues in completing the recording before the album’s deadline, the instrumentation was eventually created on a Fairlight CMI out of necessity.
With its provocative title, ‘Rent’ presented a narrative on the kept woman and reached the UK Top10. But two successive No1s were added to PET SHOP BOYS portfolio in the frenetic cowbell dominated cover of ‘Always On My Mind’ which upset music purists when it denied a Christmas chart topper for THE POGUES and a remixed syndrum heavy version of ‘Heart’ which Tennant and Lowe had written with Madonna in mind. On a roll, PET SHOP BOYS deservedly won the 1988 BRIT Award for ‘Best British Group’.
Despite their seemingly unstoppable success and forward momentum, PET SHOP BOYS took a slight misstep with the release of their art film ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ directed by Jack Bond; an exercise in seaside surrealism and featuring Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor, Neil Dickson and Gareth Hunt, the bizarre scenes set to the music of Tennant and Lowe baffled audiences. It would be decades before it would be reissued in DVD formats.
Cracks were also beginning to show in their relationship with Tom Watkins whose view was that the next single ‘Domino Dancing’ with its AIDS narrative and sexually ambiguous promo video would stall momentum in the US. While the brass laden Latin tinged song did not hit the commercial heights of previous singles, it remained a favourite among fans. PET SHOP BOYS parted ways with Watkins when Tennant and Lowe opted not to renew his contract.
The third album ‘Introspective’ in 1988 featured a different approach with six extended length songs in the same manner as their 1986 remix collection ‘Disco’. At the time of its release, four of the six tracks had already been available including ‘I’m Not Scared’ which had been written and produced for Patsy Kensit’s EIGHTH WONDER. But of the two previously unheard numbers, the most striking was ‘Left To My Own Devices’.
Taking in acid house influences, ‘Left To My Own Devices’ was co-produced by Trevor Horn who coined the phrase “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” as a way of conceptualising what PET SHOP BOYS were all about. Incorporating a dramatic string arrangement by Richard Niles and the opera stylings of soprano Sally Bradshaw, it had been intended to programme the synthesizers and record the orchestra in one day… six months later the track was finished!
Despite their initial refusal to play gigs, PET SHOP BOYS embarked on their first tour in the summer of 1989, opening in Hong Kong. Although the show featured striking visuals directed by Derek Jarman, choreography by Geron ‘Casper’ Canidate and tightly sequenced electronic backing rather using a conventional live band, Tennant and Lowe felt they could take theatrical anti-rock live presentations further.
Decamping to Munich to work with Harold Faltermeyer, a former Giorgio Moroder apprentice who had his own soundtrack hits with ‘Axel F’ and ‘Top Gun Anthem’, their fourth album ‘Behaviour’ in 1990 presented a more reflective demeanour, despite the throbbing lead single ‘So Hard’ about an unfaithful couple catching each other out.
With the fall of The Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the beautiful soulful groove of ‘My October Symphony’ looked at the viewpoint of a Soviet composer questioning whether to opt for revolution or revelation in their upcoming work. Meanwhile, inspired musically by Bobby Brown but inspired lyrically by BROS, ‘How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously’ took a dig at the pomposity and arrogance of pop stars in their mission for validitation.
Inspired by a quotation on a Zelda Fitzgerald party invitation, ‘Being Boring’ remains one of PET SHOP BOYS most complete songs ever, reflecting on the aspirations of youth, the inevitable passage of time and the mourning of dear departed friends. Although it wasn’t a huge hit as a single, Chris Lowe later remarked “It just shows that chart positions aren’t the be all and end all”.
Rumoured to have been written as a James Bond theme, ‘This Must Be The Place I’ve Waited Years To Leave’ expressed Tennant’s dislike of school while written in 1982, the impassioned orchestrated closer ‘Jealousy’ recalled a friend of Tennant who had been unhappy about his developing friendship with Chris Lowe.
With 1991’s ‘Performance’ world tour, PET SHOP BOYS took theatrical to the next level and changed the whole concept of concert presentation by effectively removing from the stage, that one consistent element in the history of rock ‘n’ roll… the live musician! Chris Lowe kept his keyboard playing to a minimum, preferring to be part of the dance troupe and even busted his own disco moves while in a pair of boxers shorts during ‘We All Feel Better In The Dark’.
In support of the tour and continuing their penchant for eyebrow raising cover versions, PET SHOP BOYS’ HI-NRG reinvention of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ was a cheeky send-up of U2 in an attack on rock pomposity. The cause was aided by an amusing segway into ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’, a Frankie Valli song made famous by Andy Williams but also covered by acts as diverse as BOYS TOWN GANG and MUSE.
Originally to be named after the ‘Actually’ track ‘Hit Music’ until artwork concepts showed that the typography could be misread as “PET SHOP BOYS Shit Music”, the duo’s career to date was documented on 1991’s ‘Discography’. Gathering all of their singles in their correct versions, the faultless collection earned the right to be called one of the best greatest hits records ever.
Preferring to “dance to disco” because they “don’t like rock”, 1993’s ‘Very’ was the antithesis of the downbeat demeanour of ‘Behaviour’ as their most up pop statement to date, something that had been signalled on the defiantly optimistic ‘Was It Worth It?’, the closing track from ‘Discography’.
With ‘Very’ came a range of looks projecting a post-modern artifice detached from the real world. Tired of their classic naturalistic personas, the geometric digitised imagery was also a reaction to the unkempt authenticity of baggy and grunge that was rife at the time. A cyberspatial computer-generated video accompanying ‘Liberation’ shown in IMAX theatres took things to another out-of-this-world dimension.
In this freer mood, Tennant also sang of being naked in ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ and ‘Dreaming Of The Queen’, but weightier social commentary loomed on ‘The Theatre’ which discussed the plight of the homeless as a legacy of massed council house sales under Thatcherism.
Then there was the speedy techno madness of ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ with its collection of tour anecdotes and back-handed aftershow comments such as “You have a certain quality, which really is unique – expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak – it doesn’t really matter ‘cos the music is so loud – of course it’s all on tape, but no one will find out!”
Included as its closer, the utopian ‘Go West’ had been due to be released in Christmas 1992 as a single, but PET SHOP BOYS bottled it when it was pointed out a VILLAGE PEOPLE cover would look like the duo were aping ERASURE’s ‘Abba-esque’.
‘Go West’ was based on Pachebel’s ‘Canon’ and its elegiac quality was particularly poignant with AIDS still very much in the news at the time. The ‘South Pacific’ male choir styled key change and a middle eight added by Tennant gave the song a resonance that was never apparent in the original. Only Will Smith as ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’ prevented them from netting a fifth No1.
It would be fair to say that ‘Very’ is often seen as the end of PET SHOP BOYS’ imperial phase. While 1996’s ‘Bilingual’ presented an interesting diversion on ‘Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is)’ and ‘Single’ with the women’s drumming ensemble SHEBOOM providing the propulsion, ‘A Red Letter Day’ was a not entirely successful attempt to recreate ‘Go West’ while two tracks with the Brooklyn-born club DJ Danny Tenaglia fell short of expectations.
Already getting signs that ‘Bilingual’ was not selling as well as previous albums, Tennant and Lowe wrote the B-side ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ in anticipation of their first week chart position as “round the bend” was “a rocky lane”; ‘Bilingual’ entered at No4 which was a comparative disappointment after ‘Very’ had gone straight into the top spot.
1999’s ‘Nightlife’ featured collaborations with Rollo from FAITHLESS, noted orchestrator Craig Armstrong and Kylie Minogue on the duet ‘In Denial’ but it included their least convincing single to date in the David Morales produced ‘New York City Boy’ which continued the VILLAGE PEOPLE obsession and was by now was wearing thin.
With pun totally intended, 2001’s ‘Release’ was marred by the input of THE SMITHS’ famed guitarist Johnny Marr as PET SHOP BOYS attempted a collection of strummed understated songs such as the camp OASIS of ‘I Get Along’. Although ‘The Night I Fell In Love’ with an amusing story about EMINEM having a gay fling with a fan and the uptempo ‘The Samurai In Autumn’ were listenable highlights, the album’s mostly plodding six-string led numbers were devoid of the mastery that made PET SHOP BOYS great; Tennant and Lowe were wearing someone else’s clothes and they didn’t fit.
On paper, the 2006 Trevor Horn helmed ‘Fundamental’ should have ensured that PET SHOP BOYS were “back-back-BACK!” with a vengeance but other than the political satire ‘I’m With Stupid’ and the opening electro brilliance of ‘Psychological’, overall the album was below par with the Diane Warren-composed ‘Numb’ being a particular low point.
A renaissance did not come to fruition until 2009 with the XENOMANIA produced long player ‘Yes’ being a return to form of sorts as a spiritual follow-up to ‘Very’. ‘All Over The World’ lifted from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’ for some stately pomp and circumstance while ‘Pandemonium’ was a rousing interpretation of the ‘Dr Who Theme’. ‘More Than A Dream’ presented a big pop chorus that was very now and Xen, but the highlights were again the more melancholy moments.
‘The Way It Used To Be’ offered continental wistfulness à la ‘Voyage Voyage’ with its simple rhythmic pulse, but the best moment came with the ‘Yes Etc’ bonus track ‘This Used To Be The Future’, a dream trioet featuring Tennant, Lowe and Phil Oakey of THE HUMAN LEAGUE grunting in his distinctive disappointed tone that things didn’t quite turn out how Raymond Baxter predicted on ‘Tomorrow’s World’!
The rejuvenated profile netted PET SHOP BOYS an ‘Outstanding Contribution to Music Award’ at the BRIT Awards, although they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with their least satisfying album to date in ‘Elysium’. While the amusing irony of ‘Your Early Stuff’ and ‘Ego Music’ provoked a laugh, there was laughter for perhaps the wrong reasons on ‘Hold On’ which sounded like it was written for Disney! However, with LOVE UNLIMITED ORCHESTRA styled backing and bouncy Latin percussion, ‘Requiem in Denim & Leopardskin’ was the album’s standout and showed PET SHOP BOYS still had the ability to knock out a good tune.
With an appearance at the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony alongside Ray Davies to affirm that PET SHOP BOYS were now a quintessentially English part of popular culture as much as THE KINKS, the elder statesmen of danceable synthpop had a rethink and presented their Stuart Price trilogy. After an album about being old, it was time again for PET SHOP BOYS electronically. With echoes of ‘Introspective’ and the ‘Very’ bonus album ‘Relentless’, ‘Electric’ was in Tennant’s words “pretty banging” with some lengthier song constituents. ‘Axis’ took a risk by being virtually instrumental while ‘Bolshy’ exhibited the dog’s Balearics.
Best of all was ‘Fluorescent’, a powerful dancefloor makeover of VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’ attacked by synth sirens like a Martian invasion. There were songs too as ‘Thursday’ captured the vibrant excitement of the new Friday aided by Fulham rapper Example while the exhilarating club friendly ‘Vocal’ noted “I like the singer, he’s lonely and strange – every track has a vocal… and that makes a change”.
A natural progression of ‘Electric’, 2016’s ‘Super’ album was more song-based and despite their age, PET SHOP BOYS still wanted to be ‘The Pop Kids’ and ‘Twenty-something’ ones at that. However, ‘The Dictator Decides’ returned to the subject of world politics with an amusing surreal narrative of a tyrannical politician bored of his outright power and seeking a normal life.
2020 saw PET SHOP BOYS enter Hansa Studios in Berlin to record their fourteenth album ‘Hotspot’ for the final volume of the Stuart Price trilogy. The immediately appealing ‘Dreamland’ featuring YEARS & YEARS crossed generations and still plugged into the classic PSB sound while ‘Monkey Business’ got the glitterball funk while encompassing the sparkle of TOM TOM CLUB. Best of all, the astute intelligence of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe saw Medieval folk mythology referenced for ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’, a fabulous electro-disco tune with catchy hooks and a dry monologue.
Having carried on the mantle of SOFT CELL to prove that there indeed was mileage in the concept that Marc Almond and Dave Ball had pioneered, 2022 saw it all came full circle for Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe in the ‘Purple Zone’; Tennant had said to ‘Smash Hits’ in 1986: “I see the PET SHOP BOYS as one of the last surviving synth duos like SOFT CELL”.
PET SHOP BOYS’ collaborations and remixes are another story entirely but they have been very much part of the duo’s remit, including artists as diverse as Liza Minelli, Boy George, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Pete Burns, Robbie Williams, Lady Gaga and Jean-Michel Jarre over the years. Their versatility has also seen projects such as running their own Spaghetti Records which boasted a hit single ‘Love is Everywhere’ for their protégé David Cicero to composing scores for the silent film ‘Battleship Potemkin’, ‘The Most Incredible Thing’ ballet and most notably, a West End musical entitled ‘Closer To Heaven’.
PET SHOP BOYS set themselves apart and never bothered themselves with fitting in or belonging. They persisted with synthesizers when everyone else thought they were passé, they embraced the divas of the past when the industry told them they were mad to do so and said they were “pop” while the establishment considered it a dirty word.
But PET SHOP BOYS have jumped on bandwagons too; “When we started off we really did think we were going to create our own world that might reference other things” said Neil Tennant to The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis in 2020 while also joking that “the acoustic guitar should be banned, actually”. As a result, their back catalogue has featured diversions into rock, indie, folk, theatre, drum ‘n’ bass, jazz and breakbeat with varying degrees of success although thankfully, PET SHOP BOYS have avoided the dreaded dubstep!
As the most successful British synthpop duo of all time, from ‘Please’ to ‘Hotspot’, Messrs Tennant and Lowe have maintained their position as exemplary English songsmiths; as MY ROBOT FRIEND once articulated by way of a musical tribute, “I feel you touch me and it’s 1984, I know what you will say before you start in my heart, we’re the PET SHOP BOYS…”
PET SHOP BOYS 2022 ‘Dreamworld – The Greatest Hits Live’ UK tour includes:
‘Themes for Great Cities: A New History of SIMPLE MINDS’ is a new biography by Graeme Thomson on the Glaswegian band that formed in late 1977.
Childhood friends Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill had been in JOHNNY & THE SELF-ABSUSERS who famously split up the day that their debut single ‘Saints & Sinners’ was released on Chiswick Records. On hearing Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, they realised that integrating electronics into their music was the way forward.
Renaming themselves SIMPLE MINDS after a lyric in David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’, they retained Brian McGee on drums from their previous band and after specifying “synthesizer” as prerequisite for any keyboardist, recruited Mick MacNeil; Derek Forbes joined later on bass. From humble working class beginnings, SIMPLE MINDS were to become one of the biggest bands in Scottish music history.
With the biography’s focus on the band’s formative years between 1979-85, Jim Kerr said to the author: “Nobody owes us anything, but the SIMPLE MINDS story has been too condensed. After Live Aid and ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ there hasn’t been quite the credit for those first few records. I think they contain some really special music. I can hear the flaws but there’s something about the spirit and imagination in them that feels good. They draw from such a wide range of influences … but the spirit of it was always SIMPLE MINDS”.
Indeed there are several distinct phases of SIMPLE MINDS to which the wider public find unrelatable, much like with DEPECHE MODE. Just as the Basildon combo went from folk-rooted origins to synthpop to dark pseudo blues, the Glaswegians went from punk to electronically assisted art rock to stadium monsters, although Kerr quipped in 2006 to The Word magazine of his unexpected rivals “Who would’ve thought DEPECHE MODE plink-plonking away would play in stadiums?”
But in 1978, SIMPLE MINDS were establishing themselves as an exciting live prospect, with influences such as THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, ROXY MUSIC, SPARKS, KRAFTWERK, LA DÜSSELDORF, NEU! and MAGAZINE. They came to the attention of Bruce Findlay, owner of the Bruce’s Records shop chain who also ran Zoom Records, an Arista Records subsidiary; he brokered a deal with head office for SIMPLE MINDS while also signing them to his Schoolhouse Management company.
Recorded at a very low temperature in early 1979, their debut album ‘Life In A Day’ was a promising if shaky start. The first of three albums produced by John Leckie, it suffered from comparisons with MAGAZINE while SPARKS could be heard all over the title track. THE BOOMTOWN RATS also loomed in the new wave pop of ‘Sad Affair’, but the catchy ‘Chelsea Girl’ was the undoubted highlight and probably would have been a Top10 single had it been by Bob Geldof & Co; that was partly remedied in 1982 when A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS borrowed its synth line for ‘Wishing (I Had A Photograph Of You)’.
Inspired both musically and visually by Brian Eno, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ collaborative album ‘After The Heat’, the Glaswegians started experimenting with more electronics on the swift follow-up ‘Reel To Real Cacophony’; McGee purchased a Dr Rhythm drum machine in support of the new ethos. While the songs on the debut album were written by Kerr and Burchill, composition was now democratised via group jamming with Forbes often taking a lead role on bass, a legacy of ditching guitar as his first instrument on joining the band.
Adopting a much more European austere, SIMPLE MINDS were underground and pulsating through on ‘Changeling’ which became an anthem at The Blitz Club, thanks to the rhythmic interplay of Forbes’ bass with McNeil’s synths. Burchill was now thinking beyond the sound of a conventional electric guitar while the precision of McGee locked the glue. It left Kerr to throw his bizarre shapes and pontificate lyrically with his impressionistic anxiety.
Another album highlight ‘Premonition’ really was a sign of things to come while the album’s opening title song saw SIMPLE MINDS present their own take on KRAFTWERK’s ‘Radio-Activity’. ‘Film Theme’ showcased the band’s developing interest in instrumentals although the schizo sound sculpture ‘Veldt’ was frankly quite bizarre. Overall, ‘Reel To Real Cacophony’ was a stronger and more confident offering than ‘Life In A Day’.
Tours opening for Gary Numan and Peter Gabriel took SIMPLE MINDS around Europe to experience the Cold War tensions that were more apparent than back home. Their wired mood began to polarise their music into black and white for their third long player ‘Empires & Dance’. With its speedy Moroder-esque influence, ‘I Travel’ was a screeching futuristic frenzy where Kerr stated “Europe has a language problem”.
But as ‘Celebrate’ brought some industrial Schaffel to the party and ’30 Frames A Second’ took a trip down the autobahn, the cerebral rap of ‘Twist / Run / Repulsion’ accompanied by a sexy French girl monologue messed with the headspace of listeners. Meanwhile the sinister ‘Today I Died Again’ would be later sampled by TEARS FOR FEARS for the B-side ‘Empire Building’; it was a trick that would be repeated on the huge 1985 hit ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ with its bass and snare taken from 1983’s ‘Waterfront’.
Despite critical if not commercial success, Arista Records was proving to be the wrong home for SIMPLE MINDS’ wider ambitions. A label more used to dealing with Barry Manilow and Dionne Warwick, the band were dropped in the wake of the failure of ‘I Travel’ as a single. They soon found a more sympathetic home in Virgin Records who were at this point gambling their future on synthesizer based acts such as THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JAPAN.
Their first fruit of labour for Virgin was the ‘Sons & Fascination’ / ‘Sister Feelings Call’ double opus and it proved to be the start of SIMPLE MINDS’ wider breakthrough. To exploit their KRAFTWERK, NEU! and LA DÜSSELDORF influences to the full, the quintet were teamed up with producer Steve Hillage who was a big fan of the German experimental scene. He also brought a more accessible brightness that had been noticeably absent in the band’s Arista work.
The main ‘Sons & Fascination’ feature opened with the tremendous In ‘Trance As Mission’ with Kerr rambling almost unintelligibly about the “courage of dreams”. The mighty ‘70 Cites As Love Brings The Fall’ featured the horrifying noise of what sounded like a dentist’s drill while ‘Boys From Brazil’ attacked the rise of extreme right wing politics.
The flanged bass powerhouse of Forbes steered alongside the solidly dependable McGee while MacNeil came armed with his Roland Jupiter 4, Roland RS09 and Korg 770, harmonising with the guitars of Burchill almost as one. Of the singles, ‘Sweat In Bullet’ was the more frantic older brother of ‘Someone Somewhere In Summertime’ while pulsed by an Oberheim OBX, ‘Love Song’ was the hit that never actually was, until a subtle remix by Gregg Jackman in 1992.
Bursting with ideas, ‘Sons & Fascination’ spilled over into its Siamese Twin ‘Sister Feelings Call’, possibly one of the greatest freebies ever. Fusing CAN with TANGERINE DREAM in a dub echo, ‘Theme For Great Cities’ featured one of the greatest instrumental signatures ever while another single ‘The American’ was imperial in its Apache-like approach, pounding to the heart of the dance without the need for hi-hats, just triggered electronics and funky hypnotic bass.
Possibly their most under-rated body of work, although the ‘Sons & Fascination’ / ‘Sister Feelings Call’ collection provided their biggest seller yet and captured SIMPLE MINDS at their most musically inventive, the time was now right to adapt their arty fragmented approach into a more accessible clarity. But just as they were about to hit the big time, Brian McGee departed, seeking a more domestic life… strangely he now has his own tribute act EX-SIMPLE MIND featuring his brother Owen Paul on vocals to perform hit singles he never originally played on at nostalgia festivals…
Based on a synth brass riff from a funk track ‘Too Through’ by BAD GIRLS which had been taped off Kiss FM in New York by stand-in sticksman Kenny Hyslop, ‘Promised You A Miracle’ signified a more positive and colourful SIMPLE MINDS with Kerr’s vocals actually intelligible if still enigmatic. It finally gave them the hit single they had long desired, reaching No13 in the UK in Spring 1982. The sparkly ‘Glittering Prize’ followed it to No16 and set the scene for ‘New Gold Dream’ which would turn out to be the best album of their career.
Fitting in with the New Pop movement as exemplified by the chart success of ABC and ASSOCIATES, SIMPLE MINDS lost their intensity on ‘New Gold Dream’, inspired by their success touring in Australia, opening for ICEHOUSE. With lush panoramic production and arrangements by Peter Walsh, space was filled with pretty synthesized melodies, textural guitar and driving lead bass runs. Track titles such as ‘Someone Somewhere In Summertime’, ‘Colours Fly & Catherine Wheel’ and ‘Somebody Up There Likes You’ made investigation essential.
With two drummers drumming in Mel Gaynor and Mike Ogletree, as well as lashings of keyboards and a throbbing bass engine, the ‘New Gold Dream’ title song highlighted an ambitious streak in SIMPLE MINDS and its impact was felt later in 1993 when it was sampled for the basis of URSURA’s sizeable club hit ‘Open Your Mind’. With a fine perfect balance between art and pop, the glorious ‘Hunter & The Hunter’ presented a wonderful wash of sound and a guest synth solo from Herbie Hancock.
The huge success of ‘New Gold Dream’ in Europe led to invitation to play its huge outdoor festivals. Often sharing the bill alongside more rockcentric acts like U2 and BIG COUNTRY, with the heavier presence of Mel Gaynor now ensconced in the drumstool, SIMPLE MINDS began tailoring their sound to the vast open spaces in front of them.
As a result, things began to get very contrived with bombast and stadium theatrics now figuring on their 1984 long player ‘Sparkle In The Rain’. After the lush tapestries of ‘New Gold Dream’, U2 producer Steve Lillywhite proceeded to make SIMPLE MINDS sound like they had been recorded down a drain pipe. It was now quite obvious that the lure of the Yankee dollar in light of U2’s stateside success just couldn’t be resisted.
Advances in technology with sequencers, drum machines and portastudios meant Burchill and MacNeil began writing as a pair, leaving Forbes slightly out on a limb. Judging by the original ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ demos which were leaked in 2006, a musically sophisticated album had been conceived with ‘Speed Your Love To Me’ sounding more like VISAGE’s Fade To Grey than its eventual BIG COUNTRY pastiche.
But with SIMPLE MINDS now throwing in their lot with the likes of U2 and BIG COUNTRY, the more conventional ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ was a disappointment with jagged piano taking the place of crystalline synths and the bass guitar becoming more percussive rather than melodic. However, opening with ‘Up On The Catwalk’, the first side was equal in quality to anything from the first two Virgin-era albums with ‘Waterfront’ and ‘Book Of Brilliant Things’ being particular highlights, although the guitars, drums and vocals were far too loud and harsh.
Worse was to come as Kerr fell ill towards the end of the ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ UK tour and had to take an enforced break, with the final run of eight dates at Hammersmith Odeon rescheduled. When the band re-emerged, the audience were aghast at Kerr perched up rather unsteadily on a pole during the opening number ‘East At Easter’, later hectoring the audience with bellows of “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS”, “UP” and “HIGHER”!
What then followed was a ponderous 2 hour show featuring just 12 songs, an average song length of 10 minutes! The attempt at grand music led to attempts at grand gestures! As the band were plodding away, the synths barely able to be heard amongst all the bombast! The artier eloquence had been exchanged for a tedious pomposity. It was time to give the dog a Bono!
Renowned journalist and earlier biographer Adam Sweeting commented in ‘The Sony Tape 1984 Rock Review’ that those Hammersmith shows were “a heady mixture of tragedy and farce” while “the band played collectively as though auditioning for a spot on the Des O’Connor show, devoid of their usual subtlety and grace”! ‘Sparkle In The Rain’ was the start of SIMPLE MINDS’ artistic slide.
Come 1985 and SIMPLE MINDS were offered a song written by Steve Chiff and producer Keith Forsey for a John Hughes movie entitled ‘The Breakfast Club’. The song had already been rejected by Billy Idol and Richard Butler who Forsey had worked with, as well as by Bryan Ferry, so was rearranged and recorded reluctantly by the band at a studio in London.
Forsey had already co-written the theme tunes to ‘Flashdance’ and ‘Never Ending Story’ with Giorgio Moroder, so with his amiable personality and the fact that he had been the drummer on ‘I Feel Love’, he smoothed the path to his goal. With the right balance of synths and FM rock, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ became an unexpected US No1 on the back of the movie’s success; it took Kerr and Co into the sports arenas of North America.
Feeling guilty about achieving such massive success with a song they didn’t write, SIMPLE MINDS opted to record their next album ‘Once Upon A Time’ with American rock heavyweights Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain to prove they could have a US hit with one of their own songs. But along the way, Derek Forbes was asked to leave the band with concerns about his commitment and reliability, having been distracted by the trappings of rock ‘n’ roll.
Forbes was replaced by John Giblin who played much less of a lead melodic role on bass and arrived just in time for SIMPLE MINDS’ appearance on Live Aid and another international hit in ‘Alive & Kicking’. With a more commercial Trans-Atlantic sheen, the ‘Once Upon A Time’ album was what it was intended to be; an immediately enjoyable, uptempo rock pop album that successfully exploited its possibilities with a sharp radio friendly outlook.
The SIMPLE MINDS sound had changed from absorbing instrumentals with vocals to actual songs. There were also more soulful interventions thanks to guest singer Robin Clark who featured quite prominently on ‘All The Things She Said’, ‘Alive & Kicking’ and the title song while the band went on a full SPENCER DAVIS GROUP rhythm ‘n’ blues blow-out for ‘Sanctify Yourself’. There were reminders of the more understated ‘New Gold Dream’ period on the album closer ‘Come A Long Way’ but otherwise, ‘Once Upon A Time’ was made for straightforward crowd singalongs.
However, The Tube’s broadcast of their tedious 1985 concert at The Ahoy with an 11 minute version of ‘Waterfront’ was most people’s cue to get out. But to be fair, the 9 minute ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ with the entire audience joining in the elongated “la-la-la-la” closing refrain was a rousing affair and ensured that SIMPLE MINDS would be damned to play someone else’s song in their shows for the rest of their lives.
The ‘Live In The City Of Light’ document that followed in 1987 featured more manageable if not entirely successful, edited arrangements of songs that for the most part, did not outstay their welcome compared with what had been going on at The Ahoy. Had SIMPLE MINDS finally seen the light and realised that less could mean more? The answer was no, as meandering overlong arrangements dominated the 1989 album ‘Street Fighting Years’.
Lambasted for embracing stadium rock, the fragmented nucleus of Kerr, Burchill and McNeil retreated to the tranquillity of rural Scotland to inspire a more earnest, political direction. Instrumentally, the bombast and synths were replaced by the brushes, rootsy bottleneck guitar, strings, bagpipes, accordion and Hammond organ which were ubiquitous of the period.
The production skills of Trevor Horn and Stephen Lipson struggled to get the best out of what even Kerr now refers to as “a troubled record” – new technology had affected band dynamics and perceived roles again with Burchill now creating keyboard parts that led to tensions with McNeil. Meanwhile, Gaynor was side-lined with noted session drummer Manu Katché taking his place. Giblin also left the sessions, having already written ‘Let It All Come Down’ and inspired ‘Belfast Child’ after being heard playing the traditional Irish folk song ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ on the studio piano by Kerr.
Many of the songs on ‘Street Fighting Years’ meandered along at over six minutes at a time; despite being their only UK No1 single, ‘Belfast Child’ outstayed its welcome by at least four and a half minutes! Come the anti-climactic tour to support the album, although SIMPLE MINDS were now regularly playing the stadiums they craved, with so many personnel on stage, things got far too muso and self-indulgent as the audience struggled with the political nature of the new record and its lengthy understated dynamics.
Things got even stranger during those shows as Kerr stopped mid-song during ‘Ghostdancing’ to tell a short story about Elvis Presley while the band performed a formless coda jam of ‘Book Of Brilliant Things’ rather than playing the actual song! With the show almost reaching the 3 hour mark, Kerr was still hectoring the audience with shouts of “LET ME SEE YOUR HANDS” and “SINGALONG WITH ME”, as if he was trying to cover up for something…
Having looked unhappy throughout much of the ‘Street Fighting Years’ tour, Mick McNeil left just prior to the recording of the interim ‘Amsterdam’ EP which included a pointless cover of Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’; a few months later after a management reshuffle, Bruce Findlay was gone too. Now reduced to a duo for their 1991 album ‘Real Life’, Kerr and Burchill retained Mel Gaynor on drums while producer Stephen Lipson played bass and keyboards on a number of tracks. Utilising much shorter and sharper arrangements, ‘Real Life’ was better than ‘Street Fighting Years’ with the sparse minimalism of ‘Woman’ being one of the highlights, along with the U2 aping ‘See The Lights’.
The ‘Real Life’ album though was a retread of SIMPLE MINDS’ recent past with ‘Let The Children Speak’ basically an under par vocal version of ‘Theme For Great Cities’ while ‘Ghostrider’, ‘Stand By Love’ and ‘Travelling Man’ respectively owed more than a debt to ‘Ghostdancing’, ‘Sanctify Yourself’ and ‘Waterfront’. Although in concert, SIMPLE MINDS had dialled down many of their more overblown tendencies, the ‘Real Live’ tour was still very much a “let me see your hands” experience.
An exhausted SIMPLE MINDS took a 4 year break before delivering ‘Good News From The Next World’, their final album for Virgin Records. Produced by Keith Forsey and with the emphasis on guitars, only ‘7 Deadly Sins’ captured hints of former glories. It was telling that ‘Hypnotised’ was superior in its stripped down instrumental B-side guise titled ‘#4’.
Meanwhile the lead single ‘She’s A River’ with its guitar histrionics, big drums and anonymous verse had no real hooks. This turned out to be case with the rest of the album and things must have been bad because the band only featured 3 songs from it at their 1995 Wembley Arena show; the band were bereft of charisma while new drummer Mark Schulman played like he had a wooden leg.
Signing with Chrysalis Records, the return of Derek Forbes for 1998’s ‘Néapolis’ failed to reverse fortunes although the electro-kosmische instrumental ‘Androgyny’ stood out in an underwhelming collection of music. The writing on the wall and their new label declined to release the next album ‘Our Secrets Are the Same’.
While SIMPLE MINDS have continued to release albums since, with 2015’s ‘Big Music’ being hailed as the inevitable “return to form”, it is in the live arena with a revolving door of session players that Kerr and Burchill have continued to be a draw. The front man may still want to see people’s hands but SIMPLE MINDS’ ability to continue playing arenas three decades after their commercial height deserves respect and wonderment.
In comparison to U2 who brought in a new brain in Brian Eno after hearing ‘New Gold Dream’ to help continue their artistic development, SIMPLE MINDS were an exhilarating plane ride across the Atlantic where engines kept falling off but has continued gliding ever since. Their legacy can be found in dance artists such as CORPORATION OF ONE, UTAH SAINTS, MOBY and ITALOCONNECTION, along with rock and pop exponents like MANIC STREET PREACHERS, WHITE LIES and HURTS.
While they were not New Romantics, the movement’s embracement of their music made them as pioneering as ULTRAVOX and TUBEWAY ARMY in their use of electronics within a conventional band format. Interestingly, in the last 10 years, it has dawned on Kerr and Burchill that their 1979-1982 period was SIMPLE MINDS’ most glorious period and the ‘5 X 5’ tour in 2012 performing material from that first phase of the band satisfied those who had tired of the audience hectoring and hand showing.
Fast forward to 2022 and ‘Act Of Love’, a never before released live favourite from 1978, has been recorded as a new single in time for SIMPLE MINDS upcoming ’40 Years Of Hits’ world tour. Although SIMPLE MINDS can boast several double and naturally triple greatest hits collections to their name, it was the period before they had those really big hits that they were truly at their imperial and imaginative best.
While 1981 was the most important year in synth for its mainstream crossover, 1982 saw it consolidating its presence and finding itself intertwined into other genres.
A number of the school of 1981 such as OMD, KRAFTWERK and JAPAN were absent in album form during 1982 although they maintained a presence on the singles chart with KRAFTWERK getting a belated and well-deserved No1 for 1978’s ‘The Model’ while OMD scored the biggest single of the year in West Germany with ‘Maid Of Orleans’.
Meanwhile, JAPAN became chart regulars with re-issues from their previous label Ariola Hansa and their then-home Virgin Records, notching up a further six Top 40 singles including a pair of Top10s in ‘Ghosts’ and an understated 1980 cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘I Second That Emotion’, but the band split by the end of the year after a world tour.
It was very much a year much of the past catching up with the present with THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s original 1978 Fast Version of ‘Being Boiled’ reaching No6 on the back of a reissue under licence to EMI while ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ reached No1 in America, just as a remix collection ‘Love & Dancing’ maintained the band’s profile back home.
Taking a leaf out of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s book, SOFT CELL revealed what they had been doing while clubbing in New York with the remix EP ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic’ and although it didn’t hit the heights of the Sheffield combo, Marc Almond and Dave Ball continued propping up the Top3 of the UK singles chart with ‘Torch’ and ‘What’.
In their album chart absence came new acts like YAZOO, TALK TALK, BLANCMANGE, CHINA CRISIS, BERLIN and RATIONAL YOUTH as those who had made their wider breakthroughs in 1981 such as DURAN DURAN, ABC, ASSOCIATES and SIMPLE MINDS swooped in. Meanwhile as DEPECHE MODE were soldiering on, NEW ORDER found a new electronic direction on the standalone single ‘Temptation’.
Despite all this, signs of a synth backlash were coming to a head and there were those who didn’t consider the use of synthesizers as real music. Songwriters like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury publicly declared their dislike of acts who used synths while the Musicians Union tabled a motion in May 1982 to ban synthesizers from recording and live performance.
Tensions had been brewing for a while; when HEAVEN 17 performed on ‘Top Of the Pops’ for the first time in 1981 with ‘Play To Win’, singer Glenn Gregory remembered how the heavily unionised show, where MU membership was compulsory, refused to let Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh perform behind synths, insisting that they used a guitar and glockenspiel instead! There were plenty of misconceptions about the latest technology as Andy McCluskey of OMD said on ‘Synth Britannia’ in 2009: “The number of people who thought that the equipment wrote the song for you: ‘well anybody can do it with the equipment you’ve got!’ “F*** OFF!!”
But with the best selling UK single of 1982 being the more traditional ‘C’mon Eileen’ by DEXY’S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS, the public were perhaps tiring of the sound of synth and with this in mind, things were never quite the same again. In alphabetical order with the restriction of one album per artist moniker, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK lists 20 albums that contributed to the electronic legacy of 1982.
ABC The Lexicon Of Love
ABC wanted to be a far more technically polished pop proposition than their first single ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ so approached Trevor Horn to produce their debut album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. The first fruit of labours was ‘Poison Arrow’ which was augmented by some dramatic piano passages from Anne Dudley who also added strings to the smooth electronic funk of ‘The Look Of Love’ and the ballad ‘All Of My Heart’. Meanwhile, Horn planted the seed of the FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD sound on ‘Date Stamp’.
ASSOCIATES were a majestic and outlandish new pop take on Weimar cabaret in a newly emerging electronic world. Produced by Mike Hedges, ‘Sulk’ was a kaleidoscopic triumph. Featuring reworked versions of ‘Party Fears Two’ and ‘Club Country’, from the frantic instrumental ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ to the chromatic overtures of ‘Skipping’ to the evocative drama of ‘No’, the music had the basis for being more accessible, but was still inventive with the brilliant ‘It’s Better This Way’ art and pop in perfect unison.
Inspired by ULTRAVOX and KRAFTWERK, BERLIN’s independent mini-LP ‘Pleasure Victim’ was one of the first occasions of an American pop act embracing the synthesizer which had changed the face of music in Europe, exemplified by brilliant songs such as ‘The Metro’ and ‘Masquerade’ with their motorik drum machines and Teutonic pulses. It led to a deal with Geffen Records and notoriety with the deviantly fuelled breakthrough single ‘Sex (I’m A…)’.
With the blistering opening of Linn Drum and elastic synth bass, the aggressive ‘I Can’t Explain’ opened ‘Happy Families’ and set the scene for an impressive debut album from BLANCMANGE. ‘Feel Me’ crossed TALKING HEADS and JOY DIVISION while the haunting melancholy of ‘I’ve Seen The Word’ fused the sombre lyricism of the latter with textures of OMD. Featuring tablas and sitar, breakthrough hit ‘Living On The Ceiling’ headed to towards mystical East.
CHINA CRISIS Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms, Some People Think It’s Fun To Entertain
Of CHINA CRISIS’ debut, frontman and synth player Gary Daly said: “I love all the songs, I love the way Ed and me from the off were not a ‘band’ and we made the most of every musician who contributed to our songs”. Making use of four producers, the songs ranged from the tribal mantras of ‘African & White’ to eveocative ballads such as ‘Christian’, with catchy synthpop like ‘Some People I Know To Have Fantastic Lives’ and the ambient closer ‘Jean Walks In Fresh Fields’ part of a fine collection.
The last of the Conny Plank produced album trilogy, ‘Für Immer’ maintained the industrial standard of its predecessors and featured a minimal electro body re-recording of their 1980 Mute single ‘Kebab Träume’. Transformed into something much heavier, the memorable if controversial line “Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei!” threw more wood onto the provocation bonfire. But despite the fame, all was not well within DAF with Gabi Delgado and Robert Görl falling out under a haze of sex, drugs and sequencer…
While Eric Radcliffe was holed up working on the first YAZOO album at Blackwing Studios on the night shift, during the day Daniel Miller was working with DEPECHE MODE on their second. With a catchy melodic theme, ‘Nothing To Fear’ made the most of Miller’s programming expertise to signal an optimistic future while ‘My Secret Garden’, ‘See You’ and ‘The Sun & The Rainfall’ utilised pretty ringing tones courtesy of a newly acquired PPG Wave 2. But ‘Leave In Silence’ pointed to darker climes.
‘The Golden Age Of Wireless’ was a real ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure of an album featuring the singles ‘Airwaves’, ‘Radio Silence’ and the percussive ‘Europa & The Pirate Twins’ featuring XTC’s Andy Partridge on harmonica. The UK hit breakthrough came with the tremendous ‘Windpower’ which ended with a BBC shipping forecast from John Marsh. For his intellectual approach to modern pop, Thomas Dolby adopted a boffin persona which came to its zenith on the US hit ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ which was later appended onto the album.
On the Colin Thurston produced ‘Rio’ album with its iconic Patrick Nagel cover image, DURAN DURAN achieved the perfect balance between art and pop. “A dialogue between the ego and the alter-ego”, ‘New Religion’ was a highlight capturing a schizophrenic tension while ‘The Chauffeur’ threw in a drum machine, synths, treated piano and an ocarina alongside a closing monologue about insects. ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’, ‘Save A Prayer’ and the title song provided the hits… and no, ‘Rio’ is not about a girl!
With a sound that combined enough conventional rock guitar to have mainstream appeal while adding a spacey sheen with prominent synths, Liverpool’s A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS had winning formula to break America. Produced by Mike Howlett, their long playing debut was a concept album of sorts about an alien invasion that featured ‘I Ran’, ‘Space Age Love Song’ and ‘Telecommunication’. In an America still drunk on TOTO and JOURNEY, their greatest achievement was winning a ‘Best Rock Instrumental Performance’ Grammy Award for the album track ‘DNA’.
“The most creative experience I’ve ever had in my life” was how THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s producer Martin Rushent described ‘Love & Dancing’, an album of remixes from ‘Dare’. Pre-sampling, the material was reworked from the mixing board using a multitude of effects with vocal stutters created by cutting up small portions of tape and splicing them together with the aid of his custom-made ruler. The percussive dub laden barrage of ‘Do Or Die’ was one of the highlights, along with a largely instrumental ‘Don’t You Want Me’.
LUSTANS LAKEJER are the unga moderna trailblazers once described as Sweden’s answer to DURAN DURAN. Their third long player ‘En Plats I Solen’ was produced by Richard Barbieri of JAPAN while Mick Karn also played sax. One of the first pop albums is use an Emulator, it featured prominently on ‘Den Glöd Som Aldrig Dör’ and ‘Något Måste Brista’. With international ambitions, an English version was recorded first and later released as ‘A Place In The Sun’ with the band changing their name to VANITY FAIR.
After the downtempo nature of ‘Dance’, Gary Numan got more energetic again with the single ‘Music For Chameleons’ and the subsequent ‘I Assassin’ album. Still under the spell of JAPAN, Numan brought in Pino Palladino to take over from Mick Karn on fretless bass which provided the dreamy focus next to crashing Linn Drum programming. Songs like ‘We Take Mystery’ (To Bed), ‘War Songs’ and ‘This Is My House’ were more rhythmical, signalling Numan’s desire to return to the live circuit having announced his retirement in 1981.
Montreal’s RATIONAL YOUTH comprised of Tracy Howe, Bill Vorn and Kevin Komoda; their debut album ‘Cold War Night Life’ captured the fraught tensions of two opposing ideologies and living under the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction. A tense vision of how young Poles might have spent their down time in underground clubs under martial law was captured in ‘Saturdays In Silesia’, while observing “Checkpoint Charlie’s social climb”, there was the possibility of ‘Dancing On The Berlin Wall’. When the wall came down at the end of 1989, the trio’s work was done.
Following the promising ‘Sons & Fascination’, SIMPLE MINDS lost their intensity and recorded a magnificent album filled with pretty synthesized melodies, effected textural guitar and driving lead bass runs. The titles like ‘Someone Somewhere In Summertime’, ‘Colours Fly & Catherine Wheel’ and ‘Hunter & The Hunted’ made investigation essential and the luckily, the music reflected that. Jim Kerr’s lyrics were enigmatic gibberish but the vocals were fairly low down in the mix to produce a wonderful wash of sound.
Being the main vocalist for YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA did not necessarily mean Takahashi-san was a great singer and indeed, its Bryan Ferry / David Bowie cross very much had a Marmite effect. With his solo albums of course, his voice took centre stage although on his fourth offering ‘What Me Worry?’, ‘This Strange Obsession’ written by Zaine Griff featuring vocals from the Kiwi and Ronny provided one of the highlights. Meanwhile complimented by Bill Nelson’s blistering E-bow, the frantic ‘It’s Gonna Work Out’ signalled where YMO were heading.
‘The Party’s Over’ was an impressive synth flavoured collection devoid of guitar that very much captured the sound of the era with its thundering Simmons drums and fretless bass. While very much of its time, it still retains much of its charm. Despite being generally glossed over in TALK TALK history, the album is an excellent under rated jewel that has aged well, thanks to the quality of its songs such as ‘Today’, ‘Talk Talk’, ‘It’s So Serious’, ‘Have You Heard The News’ and its epic title track.
For the ‘Quartet’ album, ULTRAVOX worked with George Martin who produced THE BEATLES. The sound was brighter, more structured and stripped of the density that had characterised the albums with Conny Plank, perhaps coinciding with the use of more digital hardware like the PPG Wave 2.2 and Emulator. The catchy ‘Reap The Wild Wind’ opened proceedings with an immediacy that was less angular and experimental that anything before although ‘Hymn’, ‘Visions In Blue’, ‘Mine For Life’ and ‘The Song (We Go)’ provided some neo-classical pomp.
‘The Anvil’ is possibly the most under rated album of the period. There was still neu romance in songs such as ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ and ‘Again We Love’ but influenced by the New York club scene, the title song offered heavy metronomic beat sans hi-hats in a soundtrack to hedonism. But VISAGE got the funk on ‘Night Train’ resulting in the two founder members Midge Ure and Rusty Egan falling out over the drummer’s insistence that John Luongo remixes were needed for the US market, with the Glaswegian bidding adieu…
Disillusioned by the pop circus, Vince Clarke departed DEPECHE MODE in late 1981 and formed YAZOO with Alison Moyet. The debut ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’ was a perfect union of passionate bluesy vocals and pristinely programmed synthpop. Songs such as ‘Only You, ‘Don’t Go’, ‘Tuesday’, ‘Midnight’, ‘Goodbye 70s’ and ‘Winter Kills’ set a high standard but while Clarke and Moyet eventually parted ways, the talent that was apparent on ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’ has meant both have maintained musical careers that continue to this day.
“Change – I don’t care what other people say, I know everything will be okay…”
The legacy of American sibling duo SPARKS has been celebrated in ‘The SPARKS Brothers’, a new documentary film directed by Edgar Wright. As can be expected from the man behind ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘The World’s End’, Wright’s delightful film captures the deadpan wit and sarcasm of the Mael Brothers, while illustrating their serious but artistic pursuit of fun.
Born in Los Angeles of Austro-Russian Jewish heritage, Ron and Russell Mael excelled at sports but opted for more artistic studies at UCLA while harbouring ambitions in music, driven by their love of British bands such as THE BEATLES, THE KINKS and THE WHO.
In a 50 year recording career that has taken in art rock, operatic glam, nouveau swing, electronic disco, new wave, Eurodance, orchestrated pop, theatrical indie and soundtracks, SPARKS have an array of musicians who cite them as an influence. So it is no surprise that the cast of contributors to ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ include Vince Clarke, Andy Bell, Rusty Egan, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Martyn Ware, Nick Heyward, Steve Jones, Alex Kapranos, Bernard Butler, Jack Antonoff, Thurston Moore, Björk, Flea, Beck, Jane Wiedlin, Weird Al Yankovic and many more
Featuring the Maels themselves and previous producers Todd Rundgren, Muff Winwood, Tony Visconti and Giorgio Moroder alongside former bandmates like Christi Haydon, Ian Hampton, Earle Mankey, David Kendrick, Les Boheme, Tammy Glover and Steve Nistor, humorous animations by Joseph Wallace visualise the stories not captured in the magnificent archive footage assembled for the documentary.
SPARKS had originally been HALFNELSON whose Todd Rundgren produced debut was released on the Warners subsidiary Bearsville Records, founded by Bob Dylan’s former manager Albert Grossman. Despite containing the lyrically prophetic ‘Computer Girl’, the album had not sold well but keen to exploit the Maels image, Grossman suggested they should rename themselves ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ after the comedy siblings Marx. Ron and Russell hated the idea but compromised and changed their name to SPARKS.
The HALFNELSON album was repackaged and reissued in 1972, with ‘Wonder Girl’ lifted as a single and gaining a prestigious TV slot on ‘American Bandstand’. This led to interest from UK promoters and a Warners sponsored tour which included a residency at The Marquee in London.
But following an appearance on BBC2’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ performing ‘Wonder Girl’, presenter Bob Harris was unimpressed and said SPARKS were the worst thing he had ever seen… this was the same esteemed music expert who had poured scorn on ROXY MUSIC a few months earlier and later called NEW YORK DOLLS “mock rock”!
However, this ultimately provoked even more fascination in the quirky brothers among British youth with queues around the block for their shows at The Marquee. One of the support acts was QUEEN who were undoubtedly taking notes from the side of the stage, particularly with Russell Mael’s bursts of falsetto within a traditional rock format.
The first SPARKS album proper was 1973’s ‘A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing’ and included ‘Girl From Germany’ with its narrative about a Jewish boy taking his new Mädchen to meet his shocked parents, perhaps reflecting the brothers’ own lives and conflicts. But the continuing indifference towards Ron’s Dadaist expressionism and Russell’s unusual vocal articulation in their homeland led to the Maels leaving America and uprooting to the UK to find fame and fortune after extracting themselves from the Bearsville deal.
Signing almost immediately to Island Records thanks to championing by Muff Winwood (brother of Steve), SPARKS recruited a new British backing band where the audition adverts required: “a really good face that isn’t covered by a beard”; one of those who did not pass the audition was Warren Cann, later to join ULTRAVOX. But eventually recruiting Dinky Diamond (drums), Adrian Fisher (guitars) and Martin Gordon (bass), the newly configured quintet recorded the now classic album ‘Kimono My House’ which included ‘Here In Heaven’ and ‘Falling In Love With Myself Again’ among its highlights.
Inspired by Ron Mael’s love of Westerns and playing out the breakdown of a relationship as a histrionic Bach-driven gunfight, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ was chosen as the album’s launch single and a now iconic appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in May 1974 sent the single stratospheric.
One of those enthralled was Glenn Gregory of HEAVEN 17: “Obviously ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ was and still remains one of the quirkiest and best songs ever… and the 1974 Top Of The Pops appearance was truly sublime, Russell, preening and looking beautiful, his older brother Ron looking like it was his first trip outside his bedroom in several years, it was mesmerising and I loved it”.
Rob Dean, guitarist of JAPAN recalled: “I first saw SPARKS on OGWT in ’72. They were interesting, quirky and certainly different but it wasn’t until ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ was on TOTP that their true focus and talent shone through. Here was a song (and a band) so unique and undeniably fresh that it was just irresistible-it still is. It just exploded out of the TV”
Who wasn’t frightened to death by the snarling stares of Ron Mael with his Charlie Chaplain moustache sitting motionless behind his RMI Electra-piano? But while his facial hair had been a feature for a number of years, the cutting of his naturally curly locks, now greased back, presented something a lot more sinister with possible references to The Third Reich. With the Maels being of Jewish descent, this was unlikely to have been a deliberate act of provocation; Ron Mael was to state his naivety in adopting such a look and years later would reshape his moustache accordingly.
But with stories circulating that John Lennon phoned Ringo Starr to tell him that “Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler!”, they surely would have been aware of the outrage that had been caused with 15 million people watching on that Thursday evening. However, with Russell’s good looks and animated stage presence, SPARKS gained themselves a screaming teenybopper audience and the appealing ‘Amateur Hour’ followed ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ into the UK Top10.
To maintain the upward momentum, SPARKS were quickly despatched to record the next album ‘Propaganda’, but discontent was already brewing with Adrian Fisher and Martin Gordon leaving the band. Brian May was invited to join but with QUEEN making progress having had a hit with ‘Killer Queen’, he declined and the void was filled by Trevor White and Ian Hampton from the band JOOK.
From ‘Propaganda’, ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ and ‘BC’ provided thrilling staccato stomps, but the beautiful synth laden ballad ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ pointed to environmental concerns and was later covered by Mary Hopkin, Martin Gore and Billy MacKenzie.
This was all at the height of SPARKS-mania and superbly documented at what was to be the final British concert of their Island period at Croydon Fairfield Halls in September 1975. The show turned into exuberant chaos when girls rushed the stage and tackled Russell to the ground while Ron, who trying his best to maintain his stoic stance, was even accorded an embrace.
This was undoubtedly the end of an era as the Tony Visconti-produced ‘Indiscreet’ released in October 1975 proved. Those girls who had rushed the stage in Croydon were undoubtedly peeling their posters off the wall as they were treated to this bizarre collection of songs such as the strident marches of ‘Hospitality On Parade’ and ‘Get In The Swing’. Meanwhile ‘Looks Looks Looks’ with its backing by elderly jazz swing musicians and the string quartet laden ‘Under The Table With Her’ may have been the final straw.
Getting homesick, the Maels dissolved their British band to move back to the US in 1976 and delivered the AOR focussed ‘Big Beat’. Working with Rupert Holmes, he of ‘The Pina Colada Song’ and producer of Barbra Streisand, it was largely met with indifference. This period in the artistic doldrums was summed up by SPARKS’ appearance performing ‘Fill-Er-Up’ and ‘Big Boy’ in 1977’s ‘Rollercoaster’, a disaster movie starring George Segal. It was a disaster in more ways than one and the ironically titled ‘Introducing’ album did little to change fortunes.
In a creative rut and seeking a new direction, the Maels opened their ears to the burgeoning electro-disco sound as heard on Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ and were put into contact with its producer Giorgio Moroder by a journalist in Los Angeles.
The idea of fusing electronics with the neo-operatic songs of SPARKS was intriguing, so Moroder set to work with them immediately, the tremendous propulsive result being ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’. Released in March 1979, it reached No14 in the UK charts, actually a few months before TUBEWAY ARMY’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’ which is often been seen as the cultural turning point for the synthesizer.
Having worked with Moroder himself, Rob Dean recollected: “After two disappointing albums, hearing that they had recorded with Giorgio Moroder was welcome news as I was already a fan through the brilliant ‘I Feel Love’ and the ‘Midnight Express’ soundtrack. When I heard ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’, it was gratifying to hear that the band’s integrity had been left completely intact, and it was another high watermark in their career. It was a more successful collaboration both commercially and artistically than JAPAN’s own ‘Life In Tokyo’ I think.”
Featuring just six tracks, the parent album ‘No1 in Heaven’ released on Virgin Records featured an embarrassment of riches including an even bigger hit in ‘Beat The Clock’ and the cosmic ‘Tryouts For The Human Race’, while ‘Academy Award Winning Performance’ would have made a great single.
“My favourite SPARKS track is, well actually, two songs together really, ‘My Other Voice’ segued into ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’” said Glenn Gregory, “I have a fantastic memory of a bonfire night in 1979. Martyn Ware and I had taken some magic mushrooms and walked around a fairground immersed in colour and light, embraced by voices and sounds, a wonderful experience. Then as the fireworks climaxed, we were stood by the waltzer and ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’ was blaring out through the speakers… we both saw God at the same time, we went back to Martyn’s flat and had that album on repeat for the rest of the night.”
“The ‘No.1 In Heaven’ period is my SPARKS” explained Peter Fitzpatrick of CIRCUIT3, “They’re like Doctor Who aren’t they? Everyone has their version of them. Pirate radio in Dublin played SPARKS constantly in the spring and summer of 1979. With Gary Numan appearing around the same time, it became normal to have these odd looking people on TOTP playing electronic keyboards”
It was during their TV appearances promoting singles from ‘No1 In Heaven’ that SPARKS invented the synth duo. While Russell’s flamboyant falsetto fitted in well with the electro-disco sound and inspired movement, the throbbing programmed backing meant Ron could maintain the impression he was “doing nothing” and appearing unhappy about it. As Vince Clarke put it in ‘The SPARKS Brothers’: “There’s myself, the guy from the PET SHOP BOYS, and DURAN DURAN… we’re all miserable f*ckers; it’s a look which we just stole from SPARKS!”
Virgin Records pulled out all the stops with releases pressed in different colour variations. But despite the artistic rejuvenation and chart hits for SPARKS, the ‘No1 In Heaven’ album did not sell well. The Maels had perhaps been overshadowed by the success of Gary Numan, but it was possible that the singles focussed disco audience who had crossed over felt those were enough. To add salt to the wound, SPARKS were branded as “disco traitors” by the music press which now seems bizarre in hindsight for such a pioneering work.
Undeterred, SPARKS were despatched by Virgin Records to record the follow-up ‘Terminal Jive’. Although Moroder was still nominally at the helm, it was Harold Faltermeyer who took up most of the production duties as the Italian started to lose interest, distracted by more lucrative soundtrack work such as ‘American Gigolo’ which hit paydirt with the BLONDIE collaboration ‘Call Me’.
With Ron forbidden from actually playing his own keyboard parts, the ‘Terminal Jive’ songs featured more guitar and less of the throbbing sequencer magic with ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll People In A Disco World’ reflecting the confused state of mind on a record that was lacking the Maels’ personality.
Intended to appeal more to American ears, ‘Terminal Jive’ was not actually issued in the US on its eventual release in January 1980. Paradoxically, ‘When I’m With You’ was a massive hit in France and even covered by NEW ORDER in concert.
During this period, the brothers relocated there for a few years, appearing on ‘L’Académie Des Neuf’ (the French equivalent of ‘Celebrity Squares’) as “LES SPARKS” and writing with Belgian neighbours TELEX during their sojourn.
Licensed to RCA in the US via a deal brokered by Moroder and recruiting Californian combo BATES MOTEL as a backing band, SPARKS recorded their 1981 album ‘Whomp That Sucker’ with QUEEN producer Reinhold Mack in Munich as a much more rock orientated affair.
Channelling a cathartic aggression, the ‘Whomp That Sucker’ cover depicted Russell and Ron as boxers. “I went to a SPARKS album launch party at the Grosvenor Hotel on Park Lane where they had a full size boxing ring” remembered Glenn Gregory amusingly, “they came out and fought a few rounds, I stood talking to Vivian Stanshall of BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND… or maybe I was tripping!”
Songs from ‘Whomp That Sucker’ and their next two long players on Atlantic Records ‘Angst In My Pants’ and ‘In Outer Space’ like ‘Funny Face’, ‘I Predict’ and ‘Cool Places’ with Jane Wiedlin from THE GO GO’S were playlisted by KROQ-FM. An influential Pasedena-based radio station, it specialised in what Americans termed New Wave with acts such as DEPECHE MODE, YAZOO, NEW ORDER, OMD, THE PYSCHEDLEIC FURS, BERLIN, DURAN DURAN, PET SHOP BOYS, SIMPLE MINDS, THE CURE, ABC and A-HA on regular rotation during its imperial phase.
This support from KROQ-FM assured SPARKS of some West Coast success for a period, although 1984’s ‘Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat’ with DURAN DURAN producer Ian Little saw SPARKS become too immersed in new digital technology, with the album’s lead single ‘With All My Might’ sounding more like HEAVEN 17.
The Mael Brothers had another rethink and used the Fairlight to accentuate their more eccentric and provocative side again with ‘Change’ on what turned out to be a one-off single with London Records in July 1985. Returning to Europe to record with Dan Lacksman of TELEX, the middle eight featured a sonic passage that would have made Trevor Horn proud and reminded audiences of how enthralling SPARKS could be.
However, London Records were not happy with one A&R muttering “why can’t you make music that you can dance to?” – from criticism comes inspiration and this led to the next SPARKS album ‘Music That You Can Dance To’ released on MCA in September 1986, although the energetic similarities of the title song to ERASURE’s ‘Oh L’Amour’ did not go unnoticed while Russell got to impersonate Gene Pitney on ‘Rosebud’.
1988’s ‘Interior Design’ did not halt the downward trajectory although a French version of the album closer ‘Madonna’ possessed some Gallic charm and this ongoing affinity with the country saw a superb collaboration with the Parisian avant pop couple LES RITA MITSOUKO with ‘Singing In The Shower’, a track later used in the 1989 film ‘Black Rain’ starring Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia.
With ambitions in cinema, SPARKS turned their attention to an adaptation on the Japanese anime comic ‘Mai The Psychic Girl’ to be directed by Tim Burton. The lead was to have been played by Christi Haydon who had been a regular extra on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. But when the film project floundered, she became an important aspect of their video and live presentations for their next album ‘Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins’ released in November 1994.
Now working as a duo, SPARKS’ new material was picked up by the German based Logic label, then home to trendy dance acts like COSMIC BABY and SNAP! And just when people least expected it, Russell and Ron Mael returned like a phoenix from the flames.
With a superb vintage styled sibling rivalry video directed by Sophie Muller, the brilliant ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ became a smash in Germany and gave them an unexpected career renaissance with a brand new young audience. The song had everything; atmospherics, subtle rhythmical infections and an anthemic uplifting chorus. And as if to repay their debt for SPARKS paving that path for synth duos, Vince Clarke and Dave Ball of SOFT CELL (in his new guise of THE GRID with Richard Norris) provided remixes.
Meanwhile ‘(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing’ was very much in the frantic Eurodance vein of the period, sounding like PET SHOP BOYS ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ being covered by Freddie Mercury! Russell Mael brought his obviously more quizzical character into the cutting ‘I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car’ with its Arabic overtones and unsettling multi-tracked chants. ‘Now That I Own The BBC’ humorously imagined the Maels returning to the fame game, but best of all was the chilling ballad ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil’, now with the passage of time sounding like MUSE gone synthpop!
However, the Maels lost it all again with the rather pointless 1997 reworkings collection ‘Plagiarism’ featuring special guests ERASURE and FAITH NO MORE, and then capped it all with the poorly received ‘Balls’ in 2000. After the lush synths of ‘Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins’, ‘Balls’ was more jagged with the title track and ‘Bullet Train’ rhythmically attempting to ape THE PRODIGY, although songs such as ‘More Than A Sex Machine’ and ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ showed SPARKS could still do catchy electronic pop when it took their fancy. But ‘Balls’ was the Maels trying to emulate others rather than being themselves.
As always, SPARKS bounced back again in 2002 with the acclaimed classical concept album ‘Lil Beethoven’, described in the original CD booklet as “Nine scintillating works of seduction and self-delusion…” – the bookends ‘The Rhythm Thief’ and ‘Suburban Homeboy were immediate highlights while ‘What Are All These Bands So Angry About?’ was a wry baroque observation on self-destructive egos in the music biz.
‘Hello Young Lovers’ in 2004 developed on the template further but adding conventional band augmentation with the prog pop opus ‘Dick Around’ and the orchestrated swing rock of ‘Perfume’ released as singles, although the former earned itself a BBC radio ban.
Using photos featuring Susie the baby chimpanzee on the cover, 2008’s ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ with songs like the buzzy ‘I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All the Cr*p In This Song’ and the playful dig ‘Lighten Up, Morrissey’ showed SPARKS still had it as far as sardonic lyricism went. To launch the new album, they undertook their ‘21×21’ adventure, performing each of their 20 previous albums in full during a London residency at Islington Academy over 20 nights, before culminating in the live premiere of ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ at Shepherds Bush Empire.
But there were signs that another jolt was needed creatively. First came the radio musical ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ in 2009 while the Maels undertook two stripped down duo tours under the ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ banner.
The 2015 union of FRANZ FERDINAND and SPARKS was a visceral project centred around a six piece band together in a room, unlike many modern collaborations which are distant and detached. The resultant FFS album could easily have been titled ‘Art School Musical’ with the Glasgow art rockers particularly invigorated by their spiritual godfathers. Snatching back the intellectual artistic high ground, the Mael brothers found themselves in the mainstream again for the fourth time in their multi-decade career.
From ‘FFS’, ‘Call Girl’ and ‘So Desu Ne’ revisited SPARKS’ past electronic adventures while ‘P*ss Off’ was the ultimate two fingered anthem, grabbing the vibrancy of the ‘Kimono My House’ and ‘Propaganda’ era with its joyful multi-track phrasing and vitality. Contradicting its title, ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ combined operatic rants and country with buzzy synthpop, spacey jazz, a showtune and a classical mini-symphony! It was bonkers and brilliant with the sorcerer and the apprentice working in unison to double the magical power!
SPARKS returned as themselves in September 2017 and it was zoo time again on ‘Hippopotamus’ with the Maels are waxing lyrical about amphibious mammals, French culture, flat pack furniture, presidential widows and The Scottish Play. Featuring a whopping 15 tracks, there was the orchestrated rock eccentricity of ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’, the frantic electronically assisted storm of ‘The Amazing Mr Repeat’ and the poperatic ‘Life With The Macbeths’. Meanwhile the fascination for all things Gallic continued with ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ and ‘When You’re a French Director’ featuring Leos Carax on guest vocals and accordion.
Heading into the fifth decade of their career and with their weird and wonderful sense of humour still intact, SPARKS showed no signs of waning in their zest for idiosyncratic adventure on 2020’s ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’. If the album had a key track, then it was the glorious ‘One For The Ages’ with its narrative about craving artistic longevity.
The baroque synth classical of ‘Stravinsky’s Only Hit’ was a light hearted reflection on serious artistes while paradoxically ‘Self-Effacing’ was an anthemic song about modesty in the ‘Kimono My House’ vein but sans Ron’s electric piano. Returning to the lyrical gist of their 1975 hit ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’, there was the profound closing plea of ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’.
Still remaining as enjoyably oddball as ever, after numerous aborted film projects, Russell and Ron Mael recently fulfilled their cinematic dream with the musical film ‘Annette’ starring Adam Driver and directed by Leos Carax.
After watching ‘The SPARKS Brothers’, Rob Dean said: “This is a well-deserved, successful and exhaustive overview of the brothers’ chequered career so far that somehow manages to still keep their enigma intact. Undoubtedly a must see for any fan such as myself, anyone else with the curiosity to explore can expect to be richly rewarded and surprised too.”
“The documentary reminded me I wish I’d been an art school boy. SPARKS let you in on the joke, never too smart for their own good and not excluding the listener” Peter Fitzpatrick thought, “Reviewers comment on the humour of course but the message it’s sending to artists is choose your own path and don’t follow convention; stick it out because what you create is all that matters. I dove back into their catalogue before the documentary came out and rediscovered how similar to XTC they are in that sheer bloody mindedness, but in a good way. Some current bands are like that for dumb reasons with notions about themselves. Artistic bloody mindedness is an admirable trait. SPARKS have it in spades.”
As far as legacy is concerned, apart from synth duos and any act with a static keyboard player, bands such as SIMPLE MINDS and ASSOCIATES mined the poise of SPARKS’ glam period for their earlier post-punk records, while the eccentric sound of SPARKS continues to be heard in modern female-fronted acts such as MARINA & THE DIAMONDS and GOLDFRAPP. But Paul McCartney choosing to impersonate Ron Mael in the ‘Coming Up’ video in 1980 was the ultimate symbol of worldwide cultural impact.
“I have some very happy memories of SPARKS” Glenn Gregory surmised, “genuinely one of the most innovative, interesting bands ever”, but as Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff put it succinctly in the documentary: “All modern pop music is rearranged Vince Clarke and rearranged SPARKS, that’s the truth…”
While SPARKS were not easy task masters in their pursuit of the unconventional, their unwillingness to compromise and determination to remain accessibly intelligent has to be admired in a world that has lowered itself to ignorance and complacency over the past few years.
“They’re clever but not impenetrable” concluded Peter Fitzpatrick.
With thanks to Glenn Gregory, Rob Dean and Peter Fitzpatrick for their contributions