Mute 4.0: Fad Gadget – Fireside Favourites (Mute album, 1980)

As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. Full details on the releases can be found here.

Released in 1980, Fireside Favourites was the third album to be released by the nascent Mute imprint and the first LP by the sorely-missed, still woefully-overlooked Frank Tovey. Tovey’s early work as Fad Gadget played an enormously significant role in the development of Mute’s creative aesthetic, beginning with the Daniel Miller-produced ‘Back To Nature’ single and continuing with this album.

The creative team behind Fireside Favourites was common to a number of early Mute releases – the album was recorded by Eric Radcliffe at his esteemed Blackwing studio, accompanied by his young protégé John Fryer; Miller added extra synth nous to a number of the track and the sleeve was designed by Simone Grant. ‘Back To Nature’ isn’t among the tracks on the album (not an uncommon thing for early Mute albums), but a radically reworked version of its B-side ‘The Box’ appears toward the end.

As an album, Fireside Favourites is a collection of contrasts. The are moments of near-pop that brim with vibrant synth-driven energy, such as the frantic opener ‘Pedestrian’, which has one foot in the evolving post-punk movement and another in the developing electronic pop scene. But even in something like ‘Pedestrian’ there’s a noisy, clattering interlude and conclusion; the brief, mewling sound of a baby in the background, along with Tovey’s distinctive half-spoken / half-sung vocal, keeps this and other more accessible tracks like ‘Salt Lake City Sunday’ from feeling too accessible.

Elsewhere there are moments of ugly, abrasive noise that aligned our Fad with the works of contemporaries like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, the processed vocal on single ‘Insecticide’ and the theme of ‘Newsreel’ being cases in point. The vivid lyrics on those songs nodded to Tovey’s physical stage performances and also carried a nihilistic, Ballardian impulse that Daniel Miller had also employed for his own ‘Warm Leatherette’ single.

What also emerges here, perhaps surprisingly, is a dark and occasionally threatening funk angle. ‘State Of The Nation’ has some solid drumming from Nick Cash and a treacly bassline from Eric Radcliffe over which are layered all sorts of sonic events, from squalling, saw-edged synth blasts to wonky melodies, to probably anything that was lying around in Blackwing at the time that could be made to make a sound. The seminal ‘Coitus Interruptus’ does the same, but its funky disposition is subsumed under unswerving, focussed synths that give this frustrated sexual paean a robotic quality, a bit like how Kraftwerk might approach Soft Cell’s ‘Sex Dwarf’; there’s an increasingly breathless, desperate, snarling quality to Tovey’s vocal here, the perfect human foil to the menacing, repetitive electronics that surround him on this weirdly anthemic track.

Tovey had a reputation for being something of a confrontational performer, but he was also a purveyor of dark humour. There’s no better example of this than the title track, bestowed with a wandering, irrepressibly joyous Radcliffe bassline and jazzy, (qu)easy listening brassy synths. It’s a lot of fun, but if you listen to the lyrics –sung with a gentle, music hall breeziness – they are unendingly grim, loaded with vivid post-apocalyptic imagery and a bit of that Crash-style perversity: “Hey now honey, open your eyes / There’s a mushroom cloud up in the sky / Your hair is falling out and your teeth are gone / Your legs are still together but it won’t be long.”

The rendition of ‘The Box’ is perhaps the most surprising of the tracks here. In the place of the original version’s insistent, over-amped synth bounce, the version here is much more subdued, with the distinctive synths being replaced by what could be a pump organ. The whole track only emerges out of its subdued, detached mood at the very end, making this almost the inverse of itself and acting as something of an oblique clue to Tovey’s later work under his own name with The Pyros.

Why this LP doesn’t seem to carry the same sort of influential weight as the synth albums that arrived en masse the following year – such as the similarly dark Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret by Tovey’s fellow Leeds Poly students Soft Cell – remains a bit of mystery to me. Perhaps Fad Gadget was too much of an outsider figure, too linked with that grubby, confrontational DIY industrial movement to appeal more broadly. The orange vinyl re-release of Fireside Favourites for the Mute 4.0 ‘anti-versary’ provides an ideal and timely opportunity to give this album the critical appreciation it always deserved.

For Mute 4.0, Fireside Favourites is being reissued as an orange LP edition.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Mute 4.0: Silicon Teens – Music For Parties (Mute album, 1980)

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As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. To celebrate this element of Mute 4.0, we’re re-posting reviews of those special albums from the depths of the Documentary Evidence archives. Full details on the releases can be found here.

After launching Mute Records with his single ‘TVOD / Warm Leatherette’ as The Normal, few would have expected Daniel Miller‘s next musical move to be an album of (mostly) covers of old rock ‘n’ roll songs. But, then again, if you believed the liner notes Music For Parties by Silicon Teens wasn’t by Daniel Miller at all. Rather, the album was made by Paul (percussion), Diane (synthesizer), Jacki (synthesizer) and Daryl (vocals) and produced by Larry Least (a pseudonym Miller would use again as a producer for Missing Scientists and Alex Fergusson). Eric Hine and Eric Radcliffe provided engineering duties for the LP, half of which was recorded at Radcliffe’s Blackwing studio in London, the location for many early Mute recording sessions.

Not having been aware of Daniel Miller, Mute or anything much when this was released (I was four years old), I’m not sure if anyone was suckered in by the ruse at the time – by the time I fell in love with Mute in 1991, the secret (if it ever was one) was already out; Biba Kopf’s Documentary Evidence pamphlet made it completely clear that Silicon Teens was the work of one man and one man alone: Daniel Miller. Apparently, at the time, actors playing the fake quartet would be deployed for interviews. A promotional photo for the group, taken by Simone Grant, included two people whose names are now lost to the mists of time standing in for Diane and Jackie, with Miller and Fad Gadget’s Frank Tovey taking the roles of Daryl and Paul, all four sporting some very Velvet Underground shades.

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Anyone familiar with ‘Daryl’s particular brand of singing (nasal, a definite punk-informed delivery) would detect that this was a Miller project from the first lines of opener ‘Memphis Tennessee’; anyone familiar with his electronics work before and after would spot his unique synth work in the chirpy sounds and harsh dissonant interruptions. Anyone who didn’t, but was listening closely to the lyrics of one of the four Miller compositions here, ‘TV Playtime’, may have finally got the connection with the line ‘TV OD, video breakdown‘ delivered in a wobbly voice during one section of that track, while behind the watery voice malfunctioning synths not dissimilar to those deployed on Fad Gadget’s ‘Ricky’s Hand’ flutter and bleep.

To my shame, I only bought this in 2011, though I had bought the album’s three main 7″ singles years before that. I picked up a CD copy of the album from Rough Trade East and happened upon it in the ‘punk’ section; I scoffed at first, until I remembered that when I’d played the version of ‘Memphis Tennessee’ to my dad – an avowed Chuck Berry fan – he screwed his face up in disgust, as if the generally polite sounds of Miller’s version were somehow abrasive on the ears or that making an electronic facsimile copy of a rock ‘n’ roll track was like sacrificing a holy cow; it’s how I’d seen footage of people in punk documentaries reacting to the Sex Pistols, so perhaps Music For Parties was punk after all. Certainly, in ‘TV Playtime’ there is a dimension which evokes the uncompromising sound of Suicide and in turn the pre-Dare sound of Human League at their most uncompromising.

One of my favourite tracks here is Miller’s take on The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, where the proto-punk / garage rock central riff is replaced with a buzzing synth delivered over a simple motorik beat. If this had been released as a single it could potentially have been chart-bothering, compared with the slightly more bouncy ‘Just Like Eddie’ which apparently did reasonably well as a single. ‘Do Wah Diddy’ and ‘Do You Love Me’ again are brilliant; these were two tracks that I absolutely detested as a child when they cropped up on radio. The latter is frankly among the most manically joyous songs I own, even if it doesn’t start out that way. The album version of ‘Let’s Dance’ sounds like Depeche Mode‘s ‘Photographic’ in its Some Bizarre Album incarnation; like Soft Cell did with their 12″ version of ‘Tainted Love’ mixed with ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, you almost long for someone to hitch the Teens and Mode tracks together. Irrespective, it’s very danceable, with some quite tasty big fat synth notes as well. The Ramones also covered ‘Let’s Dance’ for their début; when rendered on Ramones as amphetamine-fuelled speed-punk it made complete sense alongside their own ‘Beat On The Brat’, ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker’ and ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’; here too, as a piece of high-energy synthpop, it likewise makes complete sense and the link to The Ramones’ version comes in as Miller snarls the ‘1, 2, 3, 4‘ intro.

Aside from the abrasive ‘TV Playtime’, Miller also contributes three other compositions to Music For Parties. ‘Chip ‘n Roll’ is an insanely upbeat synth pop gem, lots of handclaps and hissing hi-hats, as well as a gloriously twee main riff. It’s like Martin Gore‘s ‘Big Muff’ only way more poppy. ‘State Of Shock (Part Two)’ begs the question as to whether the Mute archives will ever turn up, or indeed if there ever was, a part one; this is a clanking, vaguely dark instrumental track with a stuttering rhythm and some squelchy sounds muttering away in the background. I’m not entirely what party you’d play this at; probably some dark, moody place where you’d be as likely to hear Kraftwerk nestled up alongside Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. Miller’s ‘Sun Flight’, originally a B-side to the ‘Just Like Eddie’ 7” and included here as a bonus track, is again reasonably dark and mysterious, the distorted chorus intonation of ‘Come to the sun‘ and some snatched radio conversation sounding like a course of action filled will danger, even if the main keyboard riff is singularly both captivating and entirely of its time.

Would an album like this ever get released today? Hardly likely. Music For Parties taps into a sense of kitsch excitement surrounding the relatively (then) untapped potential of the synth in a pop context. Prior to this, and other albums released at around the same time, the synth was mostly deployed by po-faced Progsters with lavish budgets to spend on huge modular synth behemoths. Music For Parties‘ most punk achievement was to take these songs from yesteryear, remodel them as cheeky pop tunes and inject some tradition-baiting lightheartedness.

For Mute 4.0, Music For Parties is being reissued as a vinyl LP.

First posted 2011; edited 2018. With thanks to Simone Grant.

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(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Alan Burnham – Music To Save The World By (Cherry Red single, 1981)

Alan Burnham 'Music To Save The World By' artwork

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Alan Burnham’s ‘Music To Save The World By’ was released by indie stalwart Cherry Red in 1981. As well as being something of an electropop obscurity, its interest to Mute fans is that it was produced by Daniel Miller and engineered by early Mute studio guy, Assembly member and Blackwing Studio owner Eric Radcliffe. The two tracks on this solitary release from Burnham were recorded at Blackwing, Mute’s studio basecamp for a good few years, which was based in All Hallows Church in South London. Hold on, apologies… I called this an electropop track didn’t I? Apparently we call that minimal wave these days, proof yet again that I’m not down with the kids these days at all.

Around this time, Miller was to be found producing the odd track here and there for non-Mute acts like Soft Cell, Missing Scientists and Alex Fergusson. I like to think that it was for aesthetic reasons or to help promote his nascent label, but the reality it was probably to make ends meet. Until Depeche Mode signed to Mute, the label nursed a small roster of acts and one-off singles that were unlikely to make Miller much money, so picking up the odd production job might well have helped pay some of the bills.

Could synth music save the world? Somewhat unlikely, but Alan Burnham’s single suggests it could. His vocal has a subtle, whispered quality that sits somewhere between completely captivated and slightly saddened, as if the observations catalogued on the lead track both intrigued and depressed him. Around his quiet delivery is wrapped a backdrop of ponderous bass synths, atmospheric whooshes and echoing bleeps that recall satellite signals being broadcast into space. In a blind listening test you might consider ‘Music To Save The World By’ to be a very early I Start Counting track. With distinct echoes of Miller and Radcliffe’s later work, this is a Mute record in all but name, aiming toward the radio-friendly pop that early Depeche Mode and later Yazoo would call their own, mixed in with a sci-fi sensibility that had inevitably surrounded music made with synths the decade before.

B-side ‘Science Fiction’ continues the spacey vibe with an enquiring bassline that gently nudges its way through the track. Hissing synths, bleeping melodies and live drums from Cam Findlay give this a more organic feel than ‘Music To Save The World By’, a throwback to a slightly proggier vibe with vaguely apocalyptic portents of a technologically-driven life on the horizon in Burnham’s lyrics. ‘Are we living at all?’ asks Burnham of a populous living in fibreglass domes. Maybe he hoped synth music would save us from that fate rather than being a contributing factor to the decline of mankind.

First published 2013; re-edited 2014.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence