DISCOVERY ZONE is the new electronically focussed solo project of Berlin based New Yorker JJ Weihl who is also a member of psychedelic rockers FENSTER.
‘Remote Control’ as a title concept examines the wonder and terror of technology; are we in control of the machines or are the machines now controlling us?
Pointing towards a cerebral approach, there are sound collages like the dialogue laden ‘Sophia Again’ and conceptual introduction ‘Nu Moon’. In some respects, the album is laid out like ‘Dazzle Ships’ by OMD and there is even a speech collage called ‘Time Zone’.
But one of the album’s most accessible features is ‘Dance II’ which is wonderfully catchy, exuding an esoteric funk. Expressing a touch of ‘La Dolce Vita’ with its bright scaling synth hook and New York disco vibes, a mood of elation is captured that expresses optimism and hope as well as the joy of second chances.
The laid back mood of ‘Come True’ is more conventional, utilising jazzy six string in an almost AIR-like fashion, with Weihl’s delivery recalling Beth Hirsch’s vocal contributions to ‘Moon Safari’ while processed choral samples and bubbling synths sweeten proceedings even further. ‘Fall Apart’ is cut from a similar cloth but adds in a distorted guitar solo.
Held down by pulsating synths and incessant reverbed drum machine, ‘Blissful Morning Dream Interpretation Melody’ does exactly as the title suggests as the treated vocal sonics bolster the spacey avant pop to present a surreal out of mind experience for that otherworldly feeling.
Enjoyably sinister is the ‘Remote Control’ title track with its vocoder laden aesthetics competing with pentatonic melodies, subtle dub and the Doppler effect of ‘Trans Europa Express’ but from inside a Spiegelsaal to symbolise a robot takeover.
Taking a different turn with its forlorn reverbed drum machine, ‘Come Slow’ sets up a ‘Twin Peaks’ atmosphere as an interlude but as it disappointingly fades, there are no doubts that this segment could have been developed much further.
The closing instrumental ‘Tru Nature’ reflects on the late Andrew Weatherall’s rework of THE GRID’s ‘Floatation’ and chills around a conga backbone while the pitched up voice samples of THE ART OF NOISE gently immerse themselves into surrounding water.
‘Remote Control’ hits the spot on many occasions and as DISCOVERY ZONE, JJ Weihl has relished the opportunity for some solo artistic expression.
This is a good debut, the musical equivalent of a hologram, hazy and shimmering but with a clear field of depth and different listening experiences felt depending on the time of day.
But while there are plenty of accessible melodic moments, some may find the spoken word sections quite challenging to absorb and unnecessarily interrupting the flow.
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
It’s only April, but could ‘Diagram Girl’ by BEYOND THE WIZARDS SLEEVE be one of the songs of 2016?
The psychedelically monikered sonic brotherhood of DJ Erol Alkan and Richard Norris, who is best known for his partnership with Dave Ball in THE GRID, BEYOND THE WIZARDS SLEEVE are set to release their debut album proper ‘The Soft Bounce’ on 1st July 2016, following establishing their reputation as remixers with their series of ‘Re-Animations’. ‘Diagram Girl’ is the gorgeously enticing lead track from the album and comes over as a blissfully sequenced electronic take on M83 or MAPS, but with the twist of unisex vocals by HANNAH PEEL.
Directed by BAFTA winner Kieran Evans, the wonderful monochromatic video for ‘Diagram Girl’ is a wonderful surreal homage to Nouvelle Vague cinema, capturing a forlorn woman surreally trapped in a derelict house stalked by a ghost and assorted crow-like beings; meanwhile the delightful Miss Peel also makes a cameo appearance.
Released as a single, the bundle also contains a Re-Animation which takes off the male lead vocal and leaves just Peel’s natural dreamily breathy tones over the extended electronic workout.
The Craigavon-born songstress and composer herself has been very busy of late. As well as juggling projects such as THE MAGNETIC NORTH and MARY CASIO, there will also be the live debut of a collaborative work called ‘In The Shadows Of Steam’, celebrating the lost railways of Donegal at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on Thursday 5th May 2016.
And this is without Peel’s own upcoming second solo album ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’, contributing her vocals to a new JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS song ‘A Man & A Woman’ which will feature on a new compilation ‘21st Century: A Man, A Woman And A City’ and a South Coast tour of eight record shops in support of her ‘Rebox 2’ mini-album release on gold vinyl for RSD2016 on Saturday 16th April.
Meanwhile, promising an album of “pleasure and pain, doubt and transcendence” with other guest such as Blaine Harrison of indie rockers MYSTERY JETS, Euros Childs from GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI, Jane Weaver and Holly Miranda, BEYOND THE WIZARDS SLEEVE launch ‘The Soft Bounce’ with a 4 hour DJ set at The Moth Club in London on the evening of its release.
Dave Ball is best known as the musical genius of SOFT CELL.
Together with Marc Almond, they recorded ‘Tainted Love’, a marvellous hybrid of Northern Soul and KRAFTWERK that was possibly Synth Britannia’s first true crossover song.
It started a run of hit singles that ensured SOFT CELL would be Top 40 chart fixtures for the next three years.
Their self-released ‘Mutant Moments’ EP in 1980 came to the attention of DJ Stevo Pearce, who had been compiling “futurist” charts for the music papers Record Mirror and Sounds.
Stevo gathered a number of fledgling acts like DEPECHE MODE, BLANCMANGE, B-MOVIE and THE THE who appeared alongside SOFT CELL on the independently produced ‘Some Bizzare Album’ compilation in 1981. This eventually led to SOFT CELL signing to Phonogram Records.
After ‘Tainted Love’, a cover of a Northern Soul favourite by Gloria Jones, became a UK No1 in September 1981, Ball and Almond became unlikely pin-ups with poster spreads in ‘Smash Hits’. The follow-up single ‘Bedsitter’ reached No 4 and proved SOFT CELL could have hit singles with their own material.
Meanwhile, a further three Top 3 hits came with ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, ‘Torch’ and ‘What’ during what could be now considered as SOFT CELL’s imperial phase, a period which undoubtedly broke down barriers and paved the way for many of the acts who followed, like PET SHOP BOYS, ERASURE, BRONSKI BEAT and FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD.
However, as former art students who had met at Leeds Polytechnic, commercial success and pop stardom did not sit well with Ball and Almond; inevitably, the pair began to implode. SOFT CELL disbanded in 1984 but while Almond went solo, Ball eventually found solace in the burgeoning house scene.
With his new musical partner Richard Norris, he found success as THE GRID. Their debut album ‘Electric Head’ proved to be quite influential, with Canadian DJ TIGA probably one of the artists who owe a debt to its timeless musical template.
Around this time, Ball began collaborating with Marc Almond again. The results ended up on ‘Tenement Symphony’, possibly the most mainstream recording of Almond’s career.
This eventually led to a full SOFT CELL reunion in 2001 and the album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ in 2002.
Following an impromptu meeting at a recent Wolfgang Flür gig Under The Bridge in Chelsea, Dave Ball kindly agreed to a chat with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about his career with SOFT CELL, THE GRID and more.
What inspired you to adopt synthesizers as your tools of expression, rather than guitars?
I first started out as a guitar player but I wasn’t good enough and after hearing ‘Autobahn’ by KRAFTWERK, I decided I was more interested in the possibilities of synthesizers, so I part-exchanged my Fender Telecaster for a second hand synth.
Which were your first couple of synth and drum machine purchases?
My first synth was a Mini Korg 800DV, followed by a Korg Synthe-Bass SB-100 and I had Rhythm Master drum machine that played presets like Bossa Nova, then I got a Boss Dr Rhythm which was programmable.
One of the key instruments in the SOFT CELL sound was the Korg Synthe-Bass SB-100, a little two octave synth which no-one else appeared to use.
The SB-100 was great because it was specifically a bass instrument, although the twangy topline on ‘Bedsitter’ is made on that instrument using the two pitchbend buttons. The B52s are the only other group I know of that also used that keyboard.
I’ve always been interested in how you connected your love of Northern Soul with your rhythm structures for SOFT CELL, particularly once you’d acquired the Roland TR808?
I would say the only similarity was to do with the tempo of Northern Soul and our faster numbers. On ‘Tainted Love’ I used a Roland Compurhythm CR78 drum machine, I first used a TR808 on ‘Bedsitter’, the follow-up single. I think that was possibly the first record in the UK Top 10 to use an 808.
Photo by Fin Costello
SOFT CELL self-released ‘Mutant Moments’ which brought you to the attention of Some Bizzare and the inclusion of ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ on the subsequent era defining compilation. Do you have any key amusing memories of that period and those ‘Some Bizzare Evenings’ playing live alongside DEPECHE MODE, BLANCMANGE, THE THE and B-MOVIE etc?
They weren’t amusing at the time I assure you although I can laugh about them now. When we played with DEPECHE MODE, it was at a club called Crocs in Rayleigh and they were the house band so they were our support act, believe it or not. They were really tight and played really well and I was very nervous about going on after them as various members of ULTRAVOX, VISAGE, SPANDAU BALLET had come down from London to check us out. We played maybe the worst gig of our careers, the crowd were chucking pennies at us and laughing at us. That was when we realised we had to get our shit together or think about getting day jobs.
‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ is still much talked about and certainly was a better debut than say, DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Speak & Spell’. How do you yourself look back on it today in the pantheon of classic synthpop?
I think it was the result of working on loads of songs together for two years solid and we seemed to catch the zeitgeist – it was very of its time and I think the S&M references helped. It was quite dangerous imagery for a pop band. It took DEPECHE MODE a few years before they got into the black leather and druggy stuff that we were into from day one.
Photo by Peter Ashworth
By ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’, you had expanded the instrumental palette to include guitar and bass plus early samplers and digital drum machines.
I think we were trying to sound heavier and slightly rockier. In retrospect I actually prefer the TR808 drum machine on the previous album, as opposed to the Oberheim DMX and Linn Drum MkII on ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’.
The sampler we used was a Synclavier MkII that belonged to our producer, Mike Thorne. I only used the sampler for the bass guitar on the track ‘Martin’ on the bonus 12” single.
You recorded a solo album ‘In Strict Tempo’ and produced VICIOUS PINK PHENOMENA. What did you find creatively by doing these that perhaps you hadn’t done with SOFT CELL?
My solo album was really just me wanting to work with some different people and experiment with the studio. It was more like a sketchbook than a fully realised album. VICIOUS PINK were good friends and were on the first SOFT CELL album and I desperately wanted to become a producer, as I was never really into the live performance thing.
After SOFT CELL disbanded, you took an interest in acid house and met Richard Norris to form THE GRID. How did that and then the subsequent availability of the Akai samplers and other equipment become a game changer for you?
I first met him a mutual friend, Genesis P. Orridge of THROBBING GRISTLE / PSYCHIC TV fame when we were working on an album called ‘Jack The Tab’.
What was really crazy about the tech at that time was the affordability. When I first used a Synclavier, they cost £120,000. Then I used a Fairlight III, they cost £60,000! Suddenly you could buy an Atari computer and an Akai sampler and still have change out of £2,000.
It made the whole thing available to many more people and people started sampling records and creating a whole new kind of loop based music. It was a totally new thing and I found it incredibly exciting.
THE GRID’s debut album ‘Electric Head’ stills stand up and a track like ‘One Giant Step’ hasn’t dated at all. Why do you think that might be?
To be quite honest, there’s a lot of electronic music out there that hasn’t dated because a lot of it is timeless; also because we often tried to sound futuristic.
The single versions of ‘A Beat Called Love’ and ‘Floatation’ featured recognisable musical elements that could be linked back to SOFT CELL. Had that been a conscious thing or was it proof that the rave scene was a natural progression from the ecstasy fuelled recording sessions for ‘Non-Stop Cabaret’?
Regarding ‘A Beat Called Love’ and ‘Floatation’ – we were under pressure to have hit singles, so in that respect you could make a link to SOFT CELL, albeit slightly tenuously. There was a link in terms of the ecstasy / dance music progression I guess.
What inspired the move to the now infamous “cow-punk techno” sound of ‘Swamp Thing’ and ‘Texas Cowboys’?
I’ve never heard it called “cow-punk techno” before. “Swamp Thing” was inspired by a guy I saw playing sort of Bluegrass with an Irish band in a pub in Marylebone and it occurred to me that the tempo and feel would work with a 4/4 dance beat. Unfortunately it became a bit of a novelty record. We sold a million copies worldwide and it got synched on a John Waters movie, ‘Pecker’ and on Robert Altman’s film ‘Pret A Porter’ – so it’s not all bad. ‘Texas Cowboys’ was inspired by the Andy Warhol / Paul Morrisey film, ‘Lonesome Cowboys’.
THE GRID became in-demand remixers / producers for people like BILLIE RAY MARTIN, SPARKS, ERASURE, PET SHOP BOYS, DAVID SYLVIAN and ROBERT FRIPP. Do you have a particular favourite remix that you did?
I like our mix of ‘Am I Right’ by ERASURE, I was pleased they included it on their recent anthology that got to number 9 in the UK charts. I like the mixes we did for HAPPY MONDAYS, ‘Bob’s Yer Uncle’ and ‘Loose Fix’.
How did you come to be writing again with Marc again for ‘Tenement Symphony’?
I think it was after we’d done a mix of his track ‘Waifs & Strays’. We hadn’t spoken for some time and that got us working together again on a few tracks.
What was the process in composing and recording ‘Meet Me In My Dream’, a song which many regard as a SOFT CELL song in all but name?
I think anything I’ve ever done with Marc sounds like SOFT CELL really. It’s hard not to. My process is always I’ll work out a few chords and sketch out a topline then pass it to him.
This eventually led to a full SOFT CELL reunion and the ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ album in 2002. Had SOFT CELL been unfinished business for you?
Well, as the saying goes “Never say never again”. We were originally trying to write songs for other people, there was no plan to reform SOFT CELL, but when we did the demos in my studio it just sounded like SOFT CELL… so we just said, “OK, it’s SOFT CELL”.
Photo by Piers Allardyce
Did you and Marc achieve all you had hoped for artistically in getting back together?
I’m glad we did one more album, I can’t say I had any hopes or expectations but I like the album.
You were one of the last people to work in the studio with the late Martin Rushent with your NITEWRECKAGE project?
Yes, Martin was a lovely man and a total genius in the studio. I wish I’d worked with him earlier in both our careers. He is sadly missed.
Which five tracks from all aspects of your career have you felt the most satisfaction from?
‘Baby Doll’ – SOFT CELL off ‘The Art of Falling Apart’ – it reminds me of a very special time in New York.
‘Floatation’ – THE GRID – I was pleased when it was recognised as an Ibiza chill out classic.
‘Your Loving Arms’ – BILLIE RAY MARTIN– it was our first GRID production to get in the UK Top 10 and in the Billboard 100 in the US.
‘My Hand Over My Heart’ – MARC ALMOND off ‘Tenement Symphony’- I love Trevor Horn’s epic production and Anne Dudley’s arrangement.
‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ – SOFT CELL – I think it’s become an anthem.
Are there any projects you are working on at the moment?
Yes, I’m producing an album for Gavin Friday and another one for Anni Hogan with my production partner, Riccardo Mulhall.
What floats your boat musically these days?
Messing about with modular synths.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to DAVE BALL
Although electronic pop only forms a part of MARC ALMOND’s repertoire, he is forever associated with SOFT CELL’s recording of ‘Tainted Love’, possibly the first true crossover record from the Synth Britannia era.
A fan of T-REX and DAVID BOWIE, Southport-born Almond started attending Leeds Polytechnic in 1979 to study Fine Art.
One fellow student there in the year above was Frank Tovey, soon to become FAD GADGET.
Specialising in performance art, Almond met Dave Ball, a seasoned clubber who explored his artistic musings through the new medium of affordable synthesizers from Japan. Together, they formed SOFT CELL. Their first product was the self-released ‘Mutant Moments’ EP in 1980.
It came to the attention of DJ Stevo Pearce, who had been compiling futurist charts for the music papers Record Mirror and Sounds, which covered the new wave of home grown electronic music that had emerged after the success of GARY NUMAN.
Stevo gathered a number of these acts for the independently produced ‘Some Bizzare Album’ compilation in 1981. SOFT CELL appeared alongside young hopefuls such as DEPECHE MODE, BLANCMANGE, B-MOVIE and THE THE. With DEPECHE MODE opting for Mute and BLANCMANGE eventually heading for London, Stevo signed B-MOVIE, THE THE and SOFT CELL to his Some Bizzare label and began courting the major record companies for a licencing arrangement.
Photo by Paul Cox
Phonogram had been particularly desperate to sign B-MOVIE in order to compete and SPANDAU BALLET and DURAN DURAN. Legend has it that Stevo sent his demands to their A&R chief Roger Ames on a cassette carried by a teddy bear dressed as Robin Hood; it stipulated that SOFT CELL had to be part of the deal!
Produced by Daniel Miller, SOFT CELL’s first recording for Phonogram was ‘Memorabilia’. While not a hit, it was critically acclaimed and become a cult club favourite.
However, the encore of their live set was the one to capture the public’s imagination. A cover of ‘Tainted Love’, it reached No1 in the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada while also eventually entering the US Top 10.
Written by Ed Cobb, ‘Tainted Love’ was originally recorded by Gloria Jones and became a Wigan Casino favourite on the Northern Soul scene. As a fan of that scene, David Ball knew the song and took it into haunting electronic torch territory. Segued with a Motown cover ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ on the extended version, it was to become one of Sire Records’ biggest selling 12 inch singles in America. But it was to be a double edged sword as the coupling of two covers made SOFT CELL minimal money, despite the record selling millions.
The follow-up ‘Bedsitter’ proved SOFT CELL could have a hit single with their own material. Amusingly after the release of the ‘Some Bizarre Album’, a disgruntled rival musician had poked fun at Almond and told him: “You couldn’t make a decent dance record if you tried”.
However, the disgruntled rival musician faded into obscurity and gig no-shows with his deluded combo, while ‘Bedsitter’ made it three decent dance records in a row for SOFT CELL following the club popularity of both ‘Memorabilia’ and ‘Tainted Love’. Thus began a run of hit singles that ensured Almond and Ball would be Top 40 chart fixtures for the next three years.
Almond though was looking at a life outside of SOFT CELL, having already been involved in THE IMMACULATE CONSUMPTIVE with Jim Foetus, Lydia Lunch and Nick Cave. So he formed MARC & THE MAMBAS, a loose collective that at various times included Matt Johnson, Anni Hogan, Martin McCarrick, Billy McGee, Audrey Riley, Anne Stephenson, Lee Jenkinson and Dave Ball’s wife Gini.
It set the tone for the artist that he would eventually become. Almond was certainly channelling his venom with aplomb, especially on delightful ditties like ‘Catch A Fallen Star’. However, it was an indication that Almond’s drug fuelled paranoia was getting to him… he later threatened a Record Mirror journalist Jim Reid while brandishing a whip, for the scribe’s slating of his Mambas opus and temporarily retired!
Photo by Andrew Catlin
The pressure and criticism that came from the success of SOFT CELL was proving too much for Almond, as he went into a well-documented public meltdown. The duo turned into SUICIDE and strove to drive away what was left of their pop oriented audience.
Those that remained would become The Gutter Hearts, Almond’s fan club who Boy George had generally described as “people who wear black and hate their parents”. The duo disbanded in Spring 1984 just as the third album ‘This Last Night in Sodom’ hit the shelves. Almond’s first solo album ‘Vermin in Ermine’ released in late 1984 and embraced a classic European cabaret style with almost exclusively traditional instrumentation, often with dynamic orchestral arrangements.
There was a one-off collaboration with BRONSKI BEAT in 1985 but continuing in the orchestrated vein, Almond unexpectedly hit No1 again in 1989 with ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’, a spirited cover with the late Gene Pitney. But despite the recognition as an artist in his own right, the spectre of SOFT CELL continued to haunt Almond.
“Synthesizers and the bands or artists that used them weren’t taken seriously at first especially by so-called serious music critics. They were ridiculed…” he remembered in a recent interview with Advocate. But with the success of Acid House and the rave scene, electronic music was now being re-evaluated.
So in 1991, Almond re-voiced a number of SOFT CELL’s best loved numbers for the ‘Memorabilia – The Singles’ collection. He also began collaborating again with Dave Ball, who was now having success with his new musical partner Richard Norris in the dance oriented combo THE GRID. The results ended up on 1991’s ‘Tenement Symphony’, possibly the most mainstream recording of Almond’s career.
The follow-up ‘Fantastic Star’ should have been the record to consolidate Almond’s position as a pop artiste. But instead, it got lost in record company politics; while Almond remains dissatisfied with the overall album, it did lead to him working with guitarist Neal X of SIGUE SIGUE SPUTNIK fame, who today continues to be his right hand man.
Looking back, SOFT CELL were probably ahead of their time. Between 1981 and 1982, they were actually a much stronger proposition than the fledgling DEPECHE MODE. Ultimately, the duo set the blueprint as the proto-PET SHOP BOYS. And although far grittier both musically and lyrically, they also smoothed the path for acts like ERASURE. Almond once said that for an artist to be “truly subversive”, they had to have “access to the mainstream” and subvert he did. So when Almond and Ball came back in 2001 for a full SOFT CELL reunion, there was a welcome acknowledgement of their ground breaking legacy.
In 1993, Almond toured Russia at the invitation of the British Consul and began of his love affair with the nation’s folk songs which continues to this day. But in October 2004, Almond was seriously injured in a motorbike accident near St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Photo by Mike Owen
He began a slow recovery but remained determined to get back on stage and into the studio. 2007 saw Almond return with ‘Stardom Road’, a covers album including songs made famous by Dusty, Sinatra and Bowie. The concept had largely been prompted by him being unable to write new material since his accident.
But in 2010, Almond released ‘Varieté’ his first studio album of self-written material since 2001. It was a move towards more vintage theatrics and paved the way for his future projects like ‘Pop’pea’ and ‘Ten Plagues – A Song Cycle’.
Immersing himself in a variety of work since then, Almond recently re-entered the pop sphere with ‘The Velvet Trail’. Meanwhile his current crowd-funded venture is an interpretation of Joris-Karl Huysman’s ‘À Rebours’, scored by Othon with lyrics by poet Jeremy Reed and set for release later this year.
So with such a vast and diverse career, what would a Beginner’s Guide to MARC ALMOND look like? Primarily focussing on his electronic, or at least, technologically assisted work and with a restriction of one song per album or project, here are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s twenty choices…
SOFT CELL The Girl With The Patent Leather Face (1981)
With Almond credited with “vocals/ effects / energetics”, ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ was one of the stand-outs from the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ showcase. Creepy and unsettling, Almond told the JG Ballard inspired story of a ”two-faced baby” who “tampers with machinery so other beauties crash their cars”. Ball’s gloriously out of tune Korg synths were a fine example of how electronics were maintaining Punk’s ethics of do-it-yourself minimalism.
SOFT CELL’s fine debut album was recorded and mixed in the more liberal setting of New York. It captured the edginess of minimal synth arrangements while married to an actual tune. With a magnificent arrangement by Ball that allowed Almond to indulge in his Scott Walker aspirations, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ is possibly SOFT CELL’s crowning achievement. Certainly, the line “We’re strangers meeting for the first time, OK?” has become one of the most memorable of the era…
Punctuated by John Gatchell’s flugelhorn, ‘Torch’ came in the middle of SOFT CELL’s imperial pop phase and the eight minute version was a piece de resistance. By now, Almond and Ball had got heavily into MDMA while partying on the New York club scene. They were introduced to the drug by the singing dealer Cindy Ecstasy, who soon featured on several SOFT CELL recordings! In an amusing spoken middle section, her nonchalant off-key vocal counterpointed Almond’s fabulously forlorn romanticism.
The MARC & THE MAMBAS project had begun with a limited edition mail order only 12 inch release featuring ‘Sleaze’ and ‘Fun City’. With a revolving door cast of collaborators away from a traditional band format, it was rare that all the members of the collective would perform on the same recording. ‘Untitled’ was a co-write with THE THE’s Matt Johnson that had distinct European overtones. With its Roland TR808 backbone and melodic chorus, ‘Untitled’ could have easily been mistaken for a SOFT CELL song.
Available on the MARC & THE MAMBAS album ‘Untitled’ via Phonogram Records
SOFT CELL Forever The Same (1983)
John Gatchell returned, this time with his trumpet on ‘Forever The Same’ from the appropriately titled difficult second album ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’. However, Phonogram’s proposal for it to be a single release was vetoed for the less immediate ‘Numbers’. Not becoming the hit the label was hoping for, in a bid to hype it up the charts, the 12 inch was twinned with a free copy of ‘Tainted Love’. Dismayed, this incident set off an already edgy Almond and Stevo to trash the record company’s offices in a destructive rage!
Co-written with SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES’ Steve Severin, the precise digital drum machine and eerie organ stabs of ‘Torment’ were offset by the gorgeous Bohemian string arrangements and the chromatic allure of Almond’s dramatic refrains. Co-produced by a young Flood, ‘Torment & Toreros’ had been an adventurous double album indulgence, but the tracklisting could have easily been streamlined into a more cohesive single long player.
If ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ was SOFT CELL’s difficult second long player, ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ was an even more challenging proposition; the duo’s final hit in their first phase was this thundering percussive cover of ‘Down In The Subway’, an obscure Northern Soul song by Jack Hammer was, undoubtedly a metaphor for Almond’s mental breakdown.
Adopting a back-to-basics approach as a reaction to SOFT CELL, Almond produced many fine songs in his trilogy of albums with THE WILLING SINGERS comprising of musicians who had been involved in ‘Torment & Toreros’. Free of the mechanical limitations of SOFT CELL, he was more melodramatic than ever before. Produced by Mike Hedges who worked with ASSOCIATES and SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES, ‘Tenderness Is A Weakness’ was a remarkably passionate song, regardless of genre.
While Almond was continuing on his path of orchestrated European cabaret torch songs, an electronic element was starting to creep back in, particularly in the club remixes of ‘Tears Run Rings’ and ‘Bittersweet’. A pulsating electronic bassline formed the backbone of the emotive ‘These My Dreams Are Yours’, a song which owed its existence to ‘No Regrets’, made famous by Scott Walker in 1976. Featuring the vocals of Victoria Wilson-James, this string laden drama showed Almond was opening up to technology again.
Produced by Bob Kraushaar who had worked with PROPAGANDA, ACT and PET SHOP BOYS, the success of the ‘The Stars We Are’ meant its follow-up ‘Enchanted’ was allowed a bigger recording budget by EMI. The ethos behind pop production in this CD age was “bigger is better” and the epic album opener ‘Madame De La Luna’ was a fine example of the marvellous fusion between the Fairlight CMI programmed by co-producer Gary Maughan and the cinematic orchestrations of Billy McGee.
Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘Enchanted’ via EMI Records
MARC ALMOND Meet Me In My Dream (1991)
While ‘Tenement Symphony’ is best remembered for the mighty Trevor Horn produced covers ‘Jacky’ and ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’, it also hosted a writing reunion with Dave Ball. The magnificent ‘My Hand Over My Heart’ was given an epic reworking by Mr Horn and closed the collection. But starting the album was the more minimal, but no less emotive ‘Meet Me In My Dream’. A classic SOFT CELL song in all but name, it was a reminder of the undeniable magic that Ball and Almond together possessed.
The original ‘Fantastic Star’ album sessions had seen Almond reunited with Mike Thorne who had produced SOFT CELL’s first two albums. But at Mercury Records behest, numerous other studio personnel were brought in. It also led to managerial strife which eventually ended his relationship with Stevo. Produced by Martyn Ware, who was fresh from steering ERASURE’s ‘I Say I Say I Say’ album, ‘Brilliant Creatures’ reflected the uptempo club friendly electronic pop of the times.
MARC ALMOND & SIOUXSIE SIOUX Threat Of Love (1999)
Under new manager Vicki Wickham who had looked after Dusty Springfield, Almond signed to Echo Records in 1998, but almost straight away, record company politics intervened. The eventual album ‘Open All Night’ was issued on Almond’s own Blue Star label and a more downbeat electronic based excursion than he had previously attempted. A feisty trip-hop electro fusion with the Queen of Goth, ‘Threat Of Love’ was orchestrated with an amorous, but sinister Middle Eastern tone.
SYSTEM F featuring MARC ALMOND Soul On Soul (2001)
Ferry Corsten had a huge international hit in 1999 with ‘Out Of The Blue’ under his SYSTEM F moniker. It highlighted the spiritual connection between synthpop and trance. So substantiating the link further, the Rotterdam based producer recruited Almond to guest on the blinding ‘Soul On Soul’. It was a spirited, club friendly workout, with Almond giving an exuberant performance over the frantic dance beats and swirling arpeggios.
Despite the parallel SOFT CELL reunion, Almond recorded another solo album ‘Stranger Things’. ‘Glorious’ was an appropriately titled electronic torch ballad that combined his unique vocal histrionics with a big sound production that had not been heard since his work with Trevor Horn for ‘Tenement Symphony’. Icelandic producer Jóhann Jóhannsson did a fine job with the song’s widescreen dynamics, adding some vintage ARP Odyssey textures along the way as well.
Available on the album ‘Stranger Things’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records
SOFT CELL Desperate (2002)
Almond and Ball’s comeback album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ saw a return to the kitchen sink dramas that the pair were famous for. The launch single ‘Monoculture’ was an attack on modern society’s acceptance of the bland. And with ‘Desperate’, reality talent shows were where Almond chose to vent his spleen. Narrating the thoughts of a young hopeful seeking fame and fortune at whatever cost, with its Bond Theme styled brass inflections, ‘Desperate’ was a great example of the satirical social commentary.
T-TOTAL featuring MARC ALMOND Baby’s On Fire (2005)
A danced up cover of Brian Eno’s cult favourite from ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’, Almond always saw himself as a fan of the ROXY MUSIC synth dandy, rather than the more suave singer Bryan Ferry. He relished the opportunity to cover one of his favourite songs and saw the collaborative adventure as a good way to ease himself back into the recording process after his accident in 2004. This reworking still retains much of the mad swirling spirit of the original, while updating the song for a new audience.
Available on the T-TOTAL featuring MARC ALMOND single ‘Baby’s On Fire’ via Pure Mint
STARCLUSTER featuring MARC ALMOND Smoke & Mirrors (2008)
Following his ‘Stardom Road’ covers project, Almond continued with his one-off collaborations. Maintaining his varied portfolio and willingness to try different styles, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ was a Hi-NRG octave shifting dance anthem in the vein of Giorgio Moroder. Produced under the auspices of Anglo-German duo Roland Faber and Kai Ludeling, there was even a sweeping VANGELIS rooted synth solo thrown in for good measure towards the conclusion.
With a buzzing cacophony of synths, ‘Worship Me Now’ was Almond’s most overtly electronic work in quite a while. Written by PULP’s Jarvis Cocker, it saw Almond having fun with interpreting the lyrics and sending himself up with the passion of his own classic torch songs. Apart from suggesting the female backing vocals, he had very little to do with the track other that sing, preferring to leave himself in the competent hands of producers Jason Buckle and Tris Penna.
Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘The Dancing Marquis’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records
MARC ALMOND Bad To Me (2015)
With the aftermath of his accident and acknowledged as a fine interpreter of other people’s songs, it was understandable that Almond was content with just being able to perform and record. But when producer Chris Braid heard Almond had say “the songwriting muse had all but left me”, he spun into action and sent Almond a number of songs that successfully re-inspired the tainted soul. ‘Bad To Me’ was a wonderfully glitzy, Schaffel stomper that announced Almond’s welcome return to the mainstream.
Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘The Velvet Trail’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records