Richard Barbieri releases a new album ‘Under A Spell’, but despite beginning his recorded career in 1978 with JAPAN, it is only his fourth full-length solo offering.
Preferring a collaborative format, when JAPAN disbanded after five albums, Barbieri continued working with his former band mates David Sylvian, Steve Jansen and Mick Karn. It was while he was in JBK with the latter two that he met Steven Wilson of NO-MAN and PORCUPINE TREE who recorded and performed live with the trio.
This led to Barbieri joining PORCUPINE TREE and playing on nine of their albums. During this period, Barbieri also recorded an album with Tim Bowness of NO-MAN and two albums with Steve Hogarth of MARILLION.
His most recent release was the five part ‘Variants’ EP series that comprised of unreleased tracks, new material, live versions including his JAPAN composition ‘The Experience Of Swimming’ and the aural curio ‘1979 Rehearsal Room’ which was based around an atmospheric cassette recording made in rehearsals for the band with which he made his name.
Inspired by strange dreams that Barbieri was having triggered by the anxiety and isolation caused by the pandemic, sombre atmospherics are very much the dominant template for ‘Under A Spell’, capturing dark textures, introspective moods and cerebral downtempo rhythms over its nine tracks.
The unsettling demeanour of ‘Serpentine’ is a particular case in point, inspired by a nightmare that Barbieri had and aurally illustrated by sinister piano, jazzy vibes, schizophrenic cries and the fretless bass of Percy Jones.
While there are no conventional vocals, previous collaborators Rylander Love and Steve Hogarth have their voices manipulated and treated by Barbieri as if they were another instrument, with the phrase “Wake up, wake up, come back alive…” making its eerie presence felt on the album closer ‘Lucid’.
Had the “clearing of the vaults” for the ‘Variants’ series helped with focussing on a direction for ‘Under A Spell’?
Not really. The ‘Variants’ series of EPs was a way of staying creative without having the pressure of making a follow-up to ‘Planets & Persona’.
When I was finally ready to make another album, the Covid virus began to take hold in Italy and the UK. From that point on, I had to make a quite different album to the one I intended.
How does ‘Under A Spell’ differ from ‘Planets + Persona’ in terms of concept, sound design and additional musicians?
It’s more introspective and essentially a home recording, though it does feature a good amount of musical performances from the same group of musicians on my recent works.
Some performances were recorded remotely and some I derived from past recording sessions and used them again, but in different contexts. The concept and working process of ‘Planets…’ was outward looking and expansive in nature. ‘Under A Spell’ is informed by vivid dreams and a strange and surreal exterior atmosphere due to the first strict lockdown in the UK.
Photo by Carl Glover
With everything going on outside, had this affected your approach to ‘Under A Spell’?
Definitely. It also changed the compositional process because I focused even more on the atmospheric and textural elements. I let things evolve and tried to make it a very immersive listening experience.
Is there more use of software this time around or are your vintage synths still very much present?
I use a bit of everything. For the first time, I have a dedicated work room / studio so I have all my gear to hand. I used the usual old analogues (Roland System 700 Lab series, Prophet 5, MicroMoog, Yamaha CS-01) and some newer analogues like the Dreadbox Medusa and NYX. Also the Roland SE-02 mono synth. I used some Arturia software instruments, especially the CS80 emulation.
What is your favourite track on ‘Under A Spell’ and how did it come together?
Although it’s probably the hardest listen, I managed to completely achieve the atmosphere I wanted on the opening title track. It has a full complement of performances, some improvised and some heavily processed and mangled. The basis hinged around a jazzy vibraphone progression that I had wanted to use for a long time, combined with muted acoustic guitars and trumpets and whispering voices. I think it sets the scene very well.
Photo by Fin Costello
JAPAN’s ‘Quiet Life’ album gets the deluxe boxed set treatment in March 2021, how does it stand up for you 41 years on and how do you look back on your own contributions?
I’ve heard the remaster of the album and it sounds wonderful. It’s my favourite JAPAN album and that particular period represents the happiest time for me as a musician. My contributions became an integral part of the band sound for the first time really. I love the textural elements, the orchestrations and how the electronics blend with it all. It’s very much an album of that time but it stands up well and I think it has a beautiful organic quality. It’s a sophisticated work made by kids.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Richard Barbieri
The current global pandemic has highlighted across the board differences between many modern recording artists.
For some this has meant not sticking their head above the parapet and beyond what was already on the release schedule, they haven’t done anything to support their fan base through lockdowns and social distancing.
Others have given swathes of material away on platforms like YouTube in the form of remastered concert footage, acoustic lockdown sessions and unexpected collaborations.
This has been the approach of the likes of PINK FLOYD and GENESIS who have also no doubt picked up a few more sales along the way. A third group have used the lockdown to produce. From this, we will have a new CABARET VOLTAIRE release by year end which irrespective of the circumstances is a good thing and, amazing as it may seem, we have more from the non-stop musical mind of Tim Bowness.
With ‘Late Night Laments’, we are presented with what is his second solo album in just over a year. This is in conjunction with the release of the excellent NO-MAN album ‘Love You To Bits’ at the tail end of last year, running the eclectic Burning Shed AND producing hours and hours of entertaining podcast material with bandmate and fellow music polymath Steven Wilson, who hasn’t been sitting at home himself watching re-runs of ‘The Professionals’ on Netflix during this time.
And it’s ‘The Album Years’ podcast that points to the content of ‘…Laments’. Anyone who has listened will be taken by the variety and depth of both Bowness and Wilson’s influences and many of them are on show here.
If you are coming to this solo work from the ‘Love You To Bits’ album, be aware this is more like the organic work on NO-MAN releases such as ‘Schoolyard Ghosts’ than the driving electronica of last year’s gem. Not that this should put you off as there is much to love with this album.
Performed and co-produced alongside long-time collaborator Brian Hulse, opener ‘Northern Rain’ sets out the stall clearly.
This work wears its influences on its sleeve and when those influences are the likes of THE BLUE NILE, that isn’t a bad thing. The atmosphere created by the interplay between electronic instrumentation and the more traditional vibraphone and acoustic drums counterpoint the main reason you should give this album “ear time” and that is Bowness’s vocals.
Simply put, he is in possession of one of the best voices in the UK at the moment. It foregoes the modern bombast of gymnastics and over production and goes down the more downbeat route favoured by the likes of the late Mark Hollis (TALK TALK are another clear influence here). What this means is we have a set of performances that are dripping with intimacy and allow the frequently dark lyrics to come through. This is a voice you listen to.
The laidback ‘I’m Better Now’ is as darker as anything you would get from a modern DEPECHE MODE album and musically more rounded too. Next track ‘Darkline’ is a personal highlight. Again Bowness delivers a staggeringly effective vocal against instrumentation that features a keyboard solo from Richard Barbieri who also provides additional synths on this and later cut ‘The Last Gateway’.
What is notable is none of the tracks outstay their welcome, which from someone that is associated with the dreaded Prog word is commendable. There are progressive elements on many of the cuts here, but they are restrained so as not to frighten the horses.
The vocal arrangement on ‘The Hitman That Missed’ tips the hat to Bowness favourite Donovan. ‘Never a Place’ is another highlight, building, as many Bowness songs do, on a repeating and falling motif this features more of that most rock and roll instrument, the vibraphone played by Tom Atherton. His work across the album has brought a new and unexpected appreciation of the instrument only previously associated with a certain Mr Hitler and his guest appearance with the BONZO DOG DOO DAH BAND. ‘Hidden Life’ is infused with the same sadness that made the best ASSOCIATES tracks so memorable and features some of the best playing on the album.
Closer ‘One Last Call’ is equal to anything Bowness has released either solo or across his collaborative work. The sparse instrumentation allows everything to breathe and highlights the excellence of the production from Bowness and Hulse and the mastering work of Calum Malcolm. It’s no surprise that Steven Wilson is involved on mixing duties which he probably fitted in between the forthcoming ‘Vienna’ remaster and his lunchtime Pot Noodle…
This is an album in the old school sense of the word. It is crafted by musicians and following Bowness’ own mantra, doesn’t go on longer than is required to get the point across. Though billed as a late night release, this is one that deserves to be heard irrespective of the time of day. It is heartening we still have artists like Tim Bowness, more power to his elbow.
Oh and if you love music do yourself a favour and sub to ‘The Album Years’; as a grumpy old man, it’s the most fun you can have listening to grumpy old men out with Waldorf and Statler.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK celebrates its tenth birthday and it really has been synthly the best.
At the HEAVEN 17 aftershow party for their triumphant gig at The Magna Science Park on 6th March 2010, following chats with Glenn Gregory, Martyn Ware, Paul Humphreys and Claudia Brücken, interview opportunities opened up. It was obvious there was gap waiting to be filled for a quality web publication that featured the best in new and classic electronic pop without having to lower itself to using the dreaded “80s” label.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK was it and became reality on 15th March 2010. Electronic pop music didn’t start in that Thatcher decade and certainly didn’t end there either. So there was even an editorial diktat which banned ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s writers from using the lazy”80s” term as a reference. Tellingly, several PR representatives said that one of the site’s main appeals was that it avoided the whole nostalgia bent that had been presented by both virtual and physical media.
At the time, kooky female fronted keyboard based pop like LA ROUX, LITTLE BOOTS, LADYHAWKE, LADY GAGA and MARINA & THE DIAMONDS were among those touted as being the future at the time. But it proved to be something of a red herring, as those acts evolved back into what they actually were, conventional pop acts.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK preferred the sort of innovative synthpop as outlined in BBC4’s Synth Britannia documentary.
Meanwhile, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s portfolio expanded swiftly with key personalities such as Rusty Egan, Sarah Blackwood, Richard James Burgess, Warren Cann, Chris Payne, Thomas Dolby, John Foxx, Andy McCluskey, Neil Arthur, Alan Wilder, Mark Reeder, Gary Langan, Jori Hulkkonen, Howard Jones, Mira Aroyo, Sarah Nixey and Hannah Peel among those giving interviews to the site during its first two years.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has always prided itself in asking the questions that have never usually been asked, but which fans want to know the answers to. And it was with this reputation for intelligent and well researched interviewing that in March 2011, the site was granted its biggest coup yet.
Speaking to Stephen Morris of the then-on hiatus NEW ORDER, the drummer cryptically hinted during the ensuing chat that Manchester’s finest would return by saying “I never say never really”.
And that is exactly what happened in Autumn of that year and the band have been there since, as popular as ever and still making great music with the release of ‘Music Complete’ in 2015.
Monday 21st March 2011 was an interesting day that partied like it was 1981 when it saw the release of albums by DURAN DURAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS. Also in 2011, Mute Records celebrated their influential legacy with a weekender also at London’s Roundhouse which culminated in ERASURE, YAZOO and THE ASSEMBLY performing in the same set.
Despite the ‘Brilliant’ return of ULTRAVOX, 2012 paled in comparison after such a fruitful year and several acts who were featured probably would not have gained as much coverage in more competitive periods. With pressure from outsiders as to what was hot and what was not, this was the only time ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK felt it was obliged to support a domestic scene.
But realising acts like HURTS and STRANGERS were actually just jumping on an apparent synth bandwagon and possessing more style than substance, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK decided to change tact and only featured acts it felt truly passionate about, even if it meant upsetting the wider synth community. The reasoning being that just because a band uses a synthesizer doesn’t mean it is good.
During this time, MIRRORS sadly disbanded while VILLA NAH mutated into SIN COS TAN. But the year did see the launch of CHVRCHES who stood out from the crowd with their opening gambit ‘Lies’.
With their Taylor Swift gone electro template, Lauren Mayberry and Co managed to engage an audience who didn’t know or care what a Moog Voyager was, to listen to synthpop!
2013 turned out to be one of the best years for electronic pop since its Synth Britannia heyday. What ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK achieved during this year would take up a whole article in itself… there were high profile interviews with Alison Moyet, Gary Numan and Karl Bartos while OMD released the album of the decade in ‘English Electric’. PET SHOP BOYS made up for their ‘Elysium’ misstep with ‘Electric’ while there was finally a third volume in BEF’s ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction’ covers series.
Although 2014 started tremendously with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK being invited to meet Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür in Cologne, the year suffered next to quality of 2013.
The interviews continued, particularly with key figures from the Synth Britannia era including Midge Ure and the often forgotten man of the period Jo Callis who was a key member of THE HUMAN LEAGUE during their imperial phase.
But the year saw grandeurs of delusion at their highest. There was the clueless Alt-Fest debacle which saw the organisers play Fantasy Festival with no cash to underwrite the infrastructure to enable it to actually happen!
Sadly today, there are still egotistic chancers organising events with zero budget and the money from ticket sales being fleeced to fund their holidays. But these artificial factors are rarely considered and so long as there are lower league artists desperate to play for nowt and a misguided enhancement in profile that is often on a platform that provides minimal exposure anyway, then the confidence tricks will continue.
2015 saw the local emergence of Rodney Cromwell and Gwenno, while the majestic Swedish duo KITE proved that they were the best synth act in Europe with the ‘VI’ EP and their impressive live show.
It was also the year when ERASURE front man Andy Bell gave his first interview to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK to offer some revealing insights.
Making something of a comeback after a recorded absence of nearly eight years, Jean-Michel Jarre presented his ambitious two volume ‘Electronica’ project which saw collaborations with a varied pool of musicians including Pete Townsend, Lang Lang, John Carpenter, Vince Clarke, Hans Zimmer, Cyndi Lauper, Sebastien Tellier and Gary Numan.
VILLA NAH returned in 2016, as did YELLO with Fifi Rong as one of their guest vocalists while APOPTYGMA BERZERK went instrumental and entered the ‘Exit Popularity Contest’. Riding on the profile generated from their ‘A Broken Frame’ covers album, MARSHEAUX released their biggest-selling long player to date, a two city concept in ‘Ath.Lon’. This was also the year that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK first became acquainted with the analogue synthesizer heaven of Johan Baeckström, a modern day Vince Clarke if ever there was one.
However DEPECHE MODE unleashed their most dire record yet in ‘Spirit’, a dreary exercise in faux activism bereft of tunes. Salt was rubbed into the wound when they merely plonked an underwhelming arena show into a stadium for their summer London show.
The trend was to continue later in 2019 as DEPECHE MODE just plonked 14 albums into a boxed set, while OMD offered an album of quality unreleased material in their ‘Souvenir’ package.
And with DEPECHE MODE’s sad descent into a third rate pseudo-rock combo during the last 15 years to appease that ghastly mainstream American institution called The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame with guitars and drums, Dave Gahan in particular with his ungrateful dismissal of the pioneering synth-based material with which he made his fortune with, now has what he has always coveted.
And don’t get ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK started on the 2019 Moog Innovation Award being given to Martin Gore, a real insult to true synth pioneers if ever there was one, including Daniel Miller, Vince Clarke and Alan Wilder, the three men who actually did the electronic donkey work on those imperial phase DEPECHE MODE albums! Gore may have been a very good songwriter during that time, but a synth innovator? Oh come on!?!
With regards Synth Britannia veterans, new albums in 2017 from Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen saw a revived interest in JAPAN, the band with which they made their name.
Despite releasing their final album ‘Tin Drum’ in 1981, as a later conversation with one-time guitarist Rob Dean proved, cumulatively from related article views, JAPAN became the most popular act on ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK.
The return of SOFT CELL dominated 2018 with a lavish boxed set that was not just comprised of previously released long players, new songs, new books, a BBC documentary and a spectacular farewell show at London’s O2 Arena.
EMIKA was ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’ and Swedish songstress IONNALEE showcased one of the best value-for-money live presentations in town, with a show that surreal imagined Kate Bush at a rave!
But from China came STOLEN, one of the most exciting bands in years who were then later rewarded for their graft with a European tour opening for NEW ORDER.
2019 was the year when synthwave graduates Dana Jean Phoenix and Ollie Wride were coming into their own as live performers, while electronic disco maestro Giorgio Moroder embarked on a concert tour for the first time with his songs being the true stars of the show.
Gary Daly of CHINA CRISIS gave his first interview to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK to tie in with his solo album ‘Gone From Here’, while a pub lunch with Mark White and Stephen Singleton mutated into an extensive chat about their days in ABC. Lloyd Cole adopted a more synthesized template on ‘Guessworks’ and Britpop went synth as GENEVA’s Andrew Montgomery formed US with Leo Josefsson of Swedish trio LOWE.
If ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK does have a proudest achievement in its first ten years, then it is giving extensive early coverage to VILLA NAH, MIRRORS, VILE ELECTRODES, METROLAND, TINY MAGNETIC PETS and SOFTWAVE, six acts who were later invited to open on tour for OMD. Partly because of this success, some of those who were less talented felt aggrieved despite feeling an entitlement to be featured. If an act is good enough, the fact that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK hasn’t featured them should not matter, especially as other electronic and synth blogs are available. After taking its eye of the ball once before in 2012, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK maintained a trust of its own gut instinct.
Meanwhile, its stance has been tested by those shouting loudest who instantly champion what they perceive as the next big thing like sheep, without really looking ahead at a wider picture. However, TRAVIS on VSTs is just not ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s thing frankly…
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s participation in the annual ELECTRI_CITY_CONFERENCE in Düsseldorf for on-stage interviews with Rusty Egan, Chris Payne, Mark Reeder and Zeus B Held was another high profile engagement to be proud of. Then there were six live events and five rounds of hosting ‘An Audience with Rusty Egan’ in one of the most unenviable but highly entertaining refereeing assignments in music 😉
Other highlights over the last ten years have included ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s 2015 career retrospective on German trio CAMOUFLAGE being edited and used as booklet notes for the Universal Music sanctioned compilation CD ‘The Singles’.
As 2020 settles in, highly regarded artists within the electronic community continue to engage with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK. Neil Arthur recently gave his seventh interview as BLANCMANGE and his tenth interview overall, taking into account his side projects FADER and NEAR FUTURE. Not far behind, Martyn Ware has also been a regular interviewee having spoken to the site on six occasions while Paul Humphreys has been interviewed no less than five times.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is still pushing the envelope, continuing to reflect the interests of people who love the Synth Britannia era and have a desire to hear new music seeded from that ilk.
It may be perhaps surprising to learn that one-time JAPAN sound designer and synth technician Richard Barbieri has only released three solo albums.
However, Barbieri was always preferred the collaborative process, be it with Messrs Sylvian, Karn and Jansen, Steve Hogarth of MARILLION or as a member of PORCUPINE TREE.
But since JAPAN disbanded in 1982, he has composed and recorded a large amount of material that until recently has remained unreleased.
So the five volume ‘Variants’ series has gathered together new compositions, improvisations, live performances and re-workings of older material; “It presents a chance to put together disparate pieces of music from past and current works that wouldn’t fit easily with new album plans or concepts but which I feel deserved a release.” said Barbieri in October 2017 when the first volume was issued.
With ‘Variants.5’ having come out in the Autumn and now a double vinyl edition combining ‘Variants.1’ and ‘Variants.2’ about to be released on KScope, it continues a renaissance that has taken place in the career of Richard Barbieri since his 2017 album ‘Planets + Persona’, one that has seen him invited to join TANGERINE DREAM on stage in London, as well as playing solo concerts abroad and touring as part of LUSTANS LAKEJER in Sweden.
Bright and layered, ‘Showered In White Light’ starts ‘Variants.5’ and is almost flutey in texture.
With manipulated voice samples of regular collaborator Lisen Rylander Löve throughout the track, the building percussive tension mutates into something quite dramatic.
Performed recently with Steven Wilson at one of the PORCUPINE TREE leader’s solo Royal Albert Hall concerts, ‘New Soul 2018’ is a sparse electronic piano piece that originated as a PORCUPINE TREE improvisation initiation bookended by a thunderstorm recorded during the RAIN TREE CROW album sessions in the South of France.
Embroiled in shimmers and harmonics, ‘Run Lola’ was inspired by THE BAYS, a group that have never released a record or rehearsed, who Barbieri improvised with to showings of the film ‘Run Lola Run’. Its delicate sweeps are laced with trumpet from Luca Calabrese and reversed violin by Gill Morley, but as the hypnotic bass sequence permeates over ten minutes like classic TANGERINE DREAM, it makes for a trance inducing moment, especially as the abstract voices of Lisen Rylander Löve drop in.
‘Unholy Live 2017’ captures the original recording’s initial airy ambience although this is offset by more unsettling voices through Lisen Rylander Löve’s Soviet submarine microphone before a deep synth bass rumble, Löve’s soprano sax and Barbieri’s pulsating sequence kick in. The concluding ‘Shut Down’ is a drone piece and possibly a sign of things to come from Barbieri. Constructed during recuperation following an operation using a compact mini analogue modular set up by his bedside, it is sinister in tone and bereft of any true melody.
But the series started with ‘Variants.1’ beginning with ‘Hybrid’, a noirish track derived from the ‘Planets + Persona’ sessions and a live variation on spacey avant jazz of ‘New Found Land’ where Barbieri amusingly credits himself with “bad timing”. Melancholically piano shaped, ‘Only Passing Through’ was poignantly titled, a reflection of life in the wider context of generations. Still very much into his vintage Roland System 700 Laboratory Series, ‘Spacing Of Strands’ was based on a step sequence improvisation where the analogue module was triggered by an Arturia Beat Step Pro Sequencer.
Interestingly on ‘Variants.1’, Barbieri revisited his JAPAN days with a 2009 solo interpretation of ‘The Experience Of Swimming’, his composition which was on the B-side of ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ single from 1980, now boosted with some new counter melodic enhancement. The piece reappeared as a longer live rework on ‘Variants.4’ recorded at the St Margaret’s of Anitioch Church in Liverpool featuring a different intro, sax , trumpet, percussive loops and a coda improvisation based on ‘Nightporter’.
Indeed on ‘Variants.3’, other JAPAN related material was unveiled. The marvellous ‘Ballerina’ while new, harked back to 1982 when Barbieri was approached to commission music for the Ballet Rambert following the end of JAPAN. The resultant music was suitably ghostly with ethnic overtones and subtle electro-percussive textures offered a ringing ambience as gentle cascading sequences circled.
And on a earthy cassette recorded timepiece recalling Brian Eno’s ‘2/2’ when the ‘1979 Rehearsal Room’ was quiet, Barbieri happily programmed and played away… also on ‘Variants.3’ and uptempo by Barbieri’s standards, ‘Vibra’ featuring the fretless bass of Percy Jones and violin by Gill Morley recalled Ryuichi Sakamoto, while with a drum machine assisted backbone and jazzier overtones, ‘Dahlia’ saw the development of another PORCUPINE TREE track written with Steven Wilson.
Containing mostly live recordings including a one-off live improvisation piece ‘Antioch’ and an extended version of ‘Hypnotek’ with an introduction echoing Jon Hassell, the highlight of ‘Variants.2’ was the lengthy ‘Frozen Hearts Of Hollywood’, a composition with orchestration potential inspired by the soundtrack of the film ‘Chinatown’ which starred Faye Dunaway.
The progressive nocturnal electronica of ‘Broken Codes’ opened ‘Variants.4’, inspired by Barbieri’s memories of listening to a transistor radio in bed as a teenager deep into the night, while largely piano based, the soothing ‘Snow Bed’ allowed room for trumpet and synths too. The appropriately titled ‘Slink’ featuring dissonant piano by Fredrik Hermansson was according to Barbieri “an oddball piece of music” came before ‘Orphan 5’, a pretty tune with a four chord progression sketched during the JAPAN days featuring the haunting monologue of Sophie Worthen.
One track that would have been an interesting inclusion is Barbieri’s live rendition of PORCUPINE TREE’s ‘Idiot Prayer’ which often finishes his shows
But over five volumes, ‘Variants’ is a fascinating journey into the thoughtful creativity of Richard Barbieri. There is a lot of music to get through, but free of artistic restrictions and concepts as to what constitutes an album, the beauty of the ‘Variants’ series is as the concept title suggests, the variation, the range of colours, textures and atmospheres emanating from one artist. And that’s how things should be.
As long as there has been a music business, artists and producers have been forever tinkering with their work.
While often, it’s the single version made for mass consumption through radio play that remains superior and best loved, there are occasions when the album take reigns supreme.
Often there’s a track that is the obvious standout on the long player, but sometimes it can be of a structure that is considered too long for peak time radio where instant gratification is the key. On other occasions, the vision of the track for album consumption is reconsidered following an earlier short form release produced on a more limited budget.
Despite being a hit single, ‘From Here To Eternity’ was actually something of a disjointed disco medley, throwing in a section of the album track ‘Utopia – Me Giorgio’ halfway through. The full six minute ‘From Here To Eternity’ from the long player of the same name was a futuristic slice of electronic dance perfection, with Giorgio Moroder steadily building on his throbbing synth backbone and layers of vocoder punctuated by the steady beats of drummer Keith Forsey.
The original Fast Product single version of ‘Being Boiled’ from 1978 had its own charm, recorded as mono demo which was subsequently released. However, having signed to Virgin Records and with a budget behind them, Messrs Marsh, Oakey and Ware took the opportunity to update their calling card with producer John Leckie for the ‘Travelogue’ album to more fully realise its funky overtones inspired by FUNKADELIC. The end result was fuller and more dynamic.
Available on THE HUMAN LEAGUE album ‘Travelogue’ via Virgin Records
‘Ghosts’ had been an unexpected singles success for JAPAN in 1982 and Virgin Records wanted more of the same with ‘Nightporter’, despite it being already two years old and with the previously unreleased song ‘Some Kind Of Fool’ in the vaults. Trimming the solemn seven minute ivory laden Satie homage was always going to be difficult and the horrific radio edit butchered out the lengthy if vital instrumental climax of melancholic Oberheim OBX strings. Less really does mean less…
The album version of ‘I Travel’ was only four minutes in the first place, yet original label Arista Records felt the need to chop the track on both single edits it released and neuter its impact. SIMPLE MINDS never fully realised their potential until they signed to Virgin Records and ‘I Travel’ heralded a futuristic art rock phase where the band’s Germanic influences, coupled to synthesized disco aesthetics of Giorgio Moroder, found favour at clubs like The Blitz.
Whether ‘Autobahn’, ‘Radio-Activity’, ‘Showroom Dummies’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’, ‘Neon Lights’ or ‘The Robots’, the sheer average length of a KRAFTWERK track made them difficult to apply to the single format and ‘Computer Love’ was no different. A beautifully melodic piece that predicted internet dating and stretched to just under seven minutes with its glorious second half synth solo in its album version, it was like the reel of the film was missing in its edited form.
A UK Top 20 single for BLANCMANGE in 1983, ‘Waves’ was remixed and given an orchestral treatment arranged by Linton Naiff, but it strangely detracted from the bare emotion of the song. Sounding like Scott Walker fronting OMD, with a more basic synthesized construction and a sombre detuned brass line allowed to breathe at the song’s conclusion, the album version sans orchestra was much better. However, the original cut has yet to be reinstated on reissues of the parent long player ‘Happy Families’.
Originally recorded for a 1980 single on Mute Records in more of a band format featuring guitar and hand-played synths, ‘Kebab Träume’ was subsequently reworked by DAF in a more superior fashion under the production supervision of the legendary Conny Plank for their third and final Virgin-era long player ‘Für Immer’. Transforming into something much heavier, the memorable if controversial line “Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei!” had more bite on this album version also issued as a single.
Sweden’s LUSTANS LAKEJER came to international attention when their third long player ‘En Plats I Solen’ was produced by Richard Barbieri of JAPAN. With its synthesized atmospheres and art funk aspirations not that far off DURAN DURAN, ‘Läppar Tiger, Ögon Talar’ was one of the album’s highlights. But for the later single version produced by Kai Erixon, the band opted for a more laid back swing arrangement punctuated by a brass section, which frankly was not as good as the original.
The single version of ‘We Take Mystery’ which was Gary Numan’s last UK Top 10 hit was too short and the extended 12 inch version was too long, which left the album version from ‘I, Assassin’ as the best take of the song. With its crashing Linn Drum snap and fretless bass with live percussion syncopating on top, this was a dancefloor friendly excursion which concluded with a marvellous additional rhythm guitar breakdown from fretless bassist Pino Palladino.
Available on the GARY NUMAN album ‘I, Assassin’ via Beggars Banquet
Remixed by John Luongo for single release, ‘The Anvil’ ended up as a B-side but while the sound of metal-on-metal was added, it somehow had less presence than the original album version. Possessing far Teutonic tension with some superb guitar work from Midge Ure, metronomic drumming courtesy of Rusty Egan minus his hi-hats, Billy Currie’s superb screaming ARP Odyssey and Dave Formula’s brassy synth riff completed Steve Strange’s tale of debauchery for one of the best ever VISAGE tracks.
Available on the VISAGE album ‘The Anvil’ via Cherry Pop
By 1982, John Foxx has rediscovered his love of early PINK FLOYD, THE BEATLES and psychedelia which manifested itself in ‘Endlessy’. Based around a tom heavy Linn Drum programme, deep cello samples and sitars, it was an interesting if messy experimental romp. Come his third album ‘The Golden Section’ recorded under the helm of producer Zeus B Held, the new version, also released as a revisionist single, was much more focussed with an accessible uptempo electronic euphoria.
A sub-ten minute progressive epic was never going to work as an edited single and with ‘And That’s No Lie’, that’s exactly what happened. The original album version was HEAVEN 17’s ambitious adventure in sound and fusion that threw in everything from abstract sonic experiments, jazz piano, Fairlight samples, the gospel voices of ARFRODIZIAK and an orchestra, plus some excellent live bass and guitar work from John Wilson and Ray Russell respectively.
Available on the HEAVEN 17 album ‘How Men Are’ via Virgin Records
ARCADIA was Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor’s attempt to be JAPAN during the DURAN DURAN artistic hiatus, but many of the songs from the short-lived side project were smothered in a pond of self-indulgence. One of the highlights though was ‘The Flame’, basically ‘A View To A Kill Part 2’. However for its single release, a neo-acapella intro was applied rather than the frantic percussive beginning of the album version which robbed the song of its tension and impact.
Having got DIVINE into the UK charts, Stock Aitken & Waterman gave the same treatment to DEAD OR ALIVE, scoring a No1 with ‘You Spin Me Round’. The resultant album ‘Youthquake’ had a number of excellent tracks including ‘My Heart Goes Bang’ which was ripe single material. But the single remix by regular PWL associate Phil Harding was horrible, throwing in the kitchen sink with voice cut-ups and an overdriven rhythm section which drowned out any merits the song originally had.
Available on the DEAD OR ALIVE album ‘Youthquake’ via Sony Music
Inspired by a News Of The World headline, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ is one of the best loved NEW ORDER tunes. The rugged self-produced original version that appeared on the ‘Brotherhood’ album was a glorious electronic number with a slight mechanical offbeat and space for Hooky’s distinctive bass. But the version released for 45 RPM consumption was a frustrating, four-to-the-floor remix by Shep Pettibone which took all the character out of the song with a barrage of overdriven percussive samples.
Available on the NEW ORDER album ‘Brotherhood’ via Warner Music
Although ‘Living In Another World’ was the best song on ‘The Colour Of Spring’, it was always going to be a tall order to successfully cut its seven minutes in half for single consumption! A fine progressive combination of synthetic strings, piano, Hammond organ, hypnotic bass, acoustic and electric guitars, percolating percussion and harmonica, the TALK TALK sound would have been nothing however without the anguished vocals of Mark Hollis and the production skills of Tim Friese-Greene.
German trio CAMOUFLAGE had a hit with ‘The Great Commandment’ all over the world including the US, with only Britain remaining ambivalent to their industrial flavoured synthpop. As with many singles of the period, it clocked in at just over three minutes but sounded rushed. Come the debut album ’Voices & Images’ and ‘The Great Commandment’ was more fully realised, allowing space to prevail in the one of the best DEPECHE MODE tracks that the Basildon boys never recorded.
Enigmatic Glaswegian trio THE BLUE NILE were never an easy sell to the wider marketplace and the Bob Clearmountain single remix of ‘Headlights On The Parade’ was hopeless, with over a third of the emotively atmospheric number absent for the sake of radio play. The centrepiece of the brilliant ‘Hats’ album, its haunting piano, swaths of synths and a collage of modulated sequences needed a full six minutes to truly convey its solemn drive and rainy cinematic melodrama.
Available on THE BLUE NILE album ‘Hats’ via Epstein Records
Subsonically remixed by Andrew Weatherall with a distinct chilled-out flavour and an additional vocal from Sacha Souter for single release, the brilliant album version of ‘Floatation’ had a more rigid KRAFTWERK feel echoing elements of ‘Tour De France’. And as the track drew towards the home straight, Julian Stringle’s clarinet brought to mind the aesthetics of Dave Ball’s previous residency in SOFT CELL. But while those woodwind textures were present in the single, they were less effective overall.
Partly inspired by a quote about Zelda Fitzgerald, novelist and wife of author F Scott Fitzgerald which stated “she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring”, ‘Being Boring’ is one of PET SHOP BOYS’ best songs, reflecting on Neil Tennant’s youth and the loss of a friend who died of AIDS. While the single itself was almost five minutes long, the superior album version featured a fabulous intro that steadily built with a lilting synth bassline and wah-wah guitar that made the most of the song’s elegiac aura.
Available on the PET SHOP BOYS album ‘Behaviour’ via EMI Records
A tedious rockist statement by DEPECHE MODE when reworked by Butch Vig for single release, the lengthy original album version of ‘In Your Room’ was widescreen magnificence with a tense percussive drive courtesy of Alan Wilder who only played what was needed, adding a second simplistic drum passage in the final half for extra weight. A fine example of how feel is more important technique, current DM drumhead Christian Eigner managed to mess up his opportunity to shine on this during the ‘Global Spirit’ tour.
The second LADYTRON album ‘Light & Magic’ is probably best known for its lead single ‘Seventeen’, but opening its second half was the brilliantly propulsive ‘Evil’. An obvious single, when remixed by noted dance producer Ewan Pearson, it was filled out with extra string synths and made more contemporary. This lost the track its appealing spatial dynamics and grunt while the way in which the vocals of Helen Marnie were mixed more than muted her charm.
ARTHUR & MARTHA were Adam Cresswell and Alice Hubley; their debut single ‘Autovia’ was the first release on Happy Robots Records in 2008 but when it came to recording the album ‘Navigation’, the incessant Doctor Rhythm drum machine was given a more hypnotic Motorik makeover which ironically gave the track more drive. Meanwhile, there was an extended end section which allowed for some cosmic Theremin and synth wig-outs between the pair not unlike STEREOLAB meeting NEU!
Available on the ARTHUR & MARTHA album ‘Navigation’ via Happy Robots Records
From MESH’s best album ‘Automation Baby’, the wonderfully metronomic ‘Adjust Your Set’ with its personal relationship commentary in a technology dominated world was one of its many highlights. Given a more orchestrated remix by Nico Wieditz for the MaBose Radio-Edit with a much busier electronic bassline along the lines of ‘Enjoy The Silence’, while this single version had more obvious presence, it lacked the eerie cinematic Morricone-esque air of the album original.
‘Ocean’ was already dramatic perfection as the best track on the seventh GOLDFRAPP album ‘Silver Eye’, but for the single version, it was felt a contribution from a former member of the Mute family was needed. While Devotees were wetting themselves over Dave Gahan appearing on a more obviously electronic sounding track again, his faux bluesy drawl was something of a mismatch next to the breathy angelic tones of Alison Goldfrapp. Gahan may be from Essex but he was certainly no Alison Moyet.
Available on the GOLDFRAPP album ‘Silver Eye’ via Mute Artists