Iv/An – Transmute (0.5 EP, 2018)

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To celebrate Mute‘s 40th anti-versary, electronic musician, 0.5 label owner and Small Doses publisher Iv/An has issued a unique tribute to the formative years of Daniel Miller‘s label.

Iv/An has previously released a carefully-hidden cover of The Normal‘s ‘Warm Leatherette’ – spliced with Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ – on a CDr that came with an issue of Small Doses that coincided with the 35th anniversary of Miller’s debut single. For its 40th, he has issued a highly limited handmade object in a private edition of just twenty copies, containing a CDr with a new version of ‘Warm Leatherette’ interspersed with sections recognisable from Depeche Mode‘s ‘I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead’ and Nitzer Ebb‘s ‘Join In The Chant’.

The CD also includes a new track ‘FG/FT’ based on Fad Gadget‘s ‘Ricky’s Hand’, ‘New Jerusalem’ by Frank Tovey and another early Ebb track, ‘Violent Playground’; taking the concept of documentary evidence to an obsessive level that I could only ever dream of, the lyrics on ‘FG/FT’ are derived from Biba Kopf’s liner notes to The Fad Gadget Singles, a snippet of Fad’s own ‘Insecticide’ and an old Mute LibTech article about Fad / Frank. The final track on the EP is a cover of Yazoo‘s ‘Bad Connection’ containing sections of ‘Back To Nature’, ‘Salt Lake City Sunday’ and ‘Lady Shave’ by Fad Gadget, and Yazoo’s own ‘Goodbye 70s’. The effect is like listening to an Eric Radcliffe and John Fryer DJ set at a Blackwing Mute staff party, with exclusive invites to just a handful of twenty fortunate souls.

The cardboard sleeve quotes J.G. Ballard’s seminal and controversial 1973 novel Crash, one of the primary influences on Miller’s lyrics for ‘Warm Leatherette’, along with still life photocopied images of Ballard and two of the novel’s narrator’s main muses, both of whom died in car accidents – James Dean and Grace Kelly.

The new version of ‘Warm Leatherette’ is available at 0.5’s Bandcamp page as a free download and can be streamed below. Iv/An has also created a video for the track, which you can also find below.

Link: 0.5 on Bandcamp

 

With thanks to Iv/An for making me one of the fortunate twenty.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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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

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

Frank Tovey & The Pyros – Grand Union (Mute Records album, 1991)

1991’s Grand Union should by rights be lauded as a masterpiece of alternative rock, however Frank Tovey’s reclusive persona ensured that this overlooked gem has slipped through the net. Produced with PK (Paul Kendall), the album is both musically and lyrically enveloping. Something of a ‘concept’ album, Grand Union is ostensibly a collection of skiffly, folksy and vaguely country tracks accompanied by Tovey’s East End stories of the old, the new and the salient. There are many themes here, but one gets the impression that Tovey’s vision of a re-developing East End, with Canary Wharf’s landscape-altering construction in full swing, and the docks that made Britain what it once was turned into luxury restaurants and appartments invoked in him some sort of passion to head back in time and preserve the dirty Docklands spleandour of old in song.

At times melancholy (the WW2-recounting tale on ‘Bethnal Green Tube Disaster’), at others joyful in a ramshackle fashion (the opener ‘Bad Day In Bow Creek’), the album is largely subtle and blissfully easy on the ear. Semi-acoustic guitars, banjos and clever percussion evoke all manner of moods, and when they head into indie-rock territory, as on the Morrissey-esque ‘Cities Of The Vain’, The PyrosPaul Rodden (banjos and guitars), John Cutliffe (bass and acoustic guitars, plus strings on the closing track ‘The Great Attractor’) and Charlie Llewellyn (drums, percussion) – more than prove their adaptability around Tovey’s poetic lyrics. Additional contributions come from Steve Smith on various keyboards, Tracey Booth (bodhran on ‘IKB (RIP)’) and Elliot Carnegie, who plays Jew’s harp on the opener, ‘Bad Day In Bow Creek’. Somewhat more unusual, Tozie Lynch is credited with ‘bones’ on the same track. One imagines those bones may be among the detritus dredged up by the great Thames on a daily basis.

It is actually quite fantastic to hear just how well some primitive music forms lend themselves so well to Tovey’s Cockney vocals. His vocal is somewhere between Wreckless Eric and James’ Tim Booth, both folk and punk at the same time. His hero-worship of the great pioneering British engineer Isembard Kingdom Brunel on ‘IKB (RIP)’ is one of this album’s many high points, a time-travelling trip that leaves the grey towerblock-dominated modern London skylines far behind to witness at first hand the master engineer’s many achievements. And while we’re on the subject of masterful achievements, Paul Kendall’s excellent productions deserve a special mention. Best known for his electronic production for many Mute artists, PK brings a depth and precision to these tracks, using occasional effects with considerable restraint, but pushing the rhythm high up in the mix in an echo of his work with Nitzer Ebb.

With Grand Union, I continue to be impressed by the quality of songwriting, playing and production on display here. Intensely captivating and wonderfully unique, it is difficult to hear it without feeling some great sadness over the fact that the erstwhile Fad Gadget is no longer with us. A truly emotive gem, filled with grief, joy and a yearning for simpler times. Ironically, I wrote this while heading glumly toward my own shiny modern City offices on a train wildly rushing through some of the tunnels that Brunel’s colleagues were famed for.

First published 2003; re-posted 2018

(c) 2003 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Fad Gadget-inspired Licence Plate?

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Fad Gadget-inspired Licence Plate?

Spotted in Orlando, FL April 2012.

(c) 2012 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Fad Gadget – Back To Nature (Mute Records single, 1979)

Fad Gadget 'Back To Nature' 7" artwork

mute records | 7″ mute2 | 01/09/1979

If The Normal’s punk-inspired DIY single ‘Warm Leatherette / TVOD’ launched Mute Records then Fad Gadget truly made Mute a label, rather than a clever moniker attached to a one-off cult indie single: Frank Tovey was Daniel Miller‘s first signing to his label, with ‘Back To Nature’ the first single. Tovey, studying at Leeds Poly alongside the likes of Marc Almond, was a performance artist looking to integrate sound into his antics; he bought a Korg synthesizer, recorded a demo, sent it to Miller and launched Mute along a trajectory of signing uncompromising, inventive artists that continues to this day.

‘Back To Nature’ shares some of The Normal‘s bleak Ballardian reference points. Notwithstanding the dark tones that run through the track, Tovey’s lyrics have a whiff of the dystopian about them, with references to burning bodies under ozone-depleted skies, fake trees, people being high on sugar and kissing on the beach in amongst all of that… But then, perhaps it’s just a series of wry observations on what a typical British beach would have looked like back then (the references to it raining all night is probably the tell-tale signal there), headlines on tabloids insisting that ‘It’s a scorcher!’ while using showing some slightly sun-burned beauty in a bikini, eating rock or ice cream, memories of kiss-me-quicks at the Kursaal and over-priced inflatable water floats in the beach shop. So it’s either a nuclear-blasted wasteland or Tovey’s postcard from a mundane family holiday he didn’t want to be on; sadly, we don’t have the opportunity to ask Frank now.

Musically, ‘Back To Nature’ is formed of a generally polite, dry, almost funky electronic rhythm, offset by a menacing bassline and a simple melody that could soar majestically but which is so distorted that it almost growls in your ear whenever it comes to the fore. There are also drones, small synth shapes and interjections, what sounds like (but isn’t) distorted guitar feedback fuzz and electronic manipulations that sound like seagulls circling overhead. It’s cloying and unpleasant, sonically arresting and nasty at the same time, and proof that you didn’t need banks of electronic equipment to create electronic music. If Suicide had summered in England, this is probably how it would have sounded.

B-side ‘The Box’ takes together the same elements – pulsing, steady rhythm and angular, robotic Düsseldorf sparseness mixed in with harsh drones and grainy, oscillating electronic texture – and adds a increasingly-desperate lyric about needing to be let out of a metaphorical box, along with detached observations on overweight people and their pets, feeling like your life is a film, poisonous gases, Tovey feeling like he’s stuck inside a machine or industrial production line, and a bunch of other politically-charged vivid scene changes. The track’s final moments feature what sounds like electronic static moving uncontrollably toward you, reaching out talons of enveloping electricity, even that feeling like a welcome respite from the allusions to desperation and mental claustrophobia on the non-chorus.

Although he’s not credited as such, according to the liner notes that accompanied The Best Of Fad Gadget confirmed that Daniel Miller produced these two songs, and played synth on ‘Back To Nature’. The rear sleeve lists out the economy of equipment deployed to realise these two tracks – ‘Fad’s Gadget’s [sic.]: synthesizer, voice, electronic piano, rhythm generator.’ It was a statement of a fundamentally new approach, the essence of 1976’s Punk Year Zero realised through electronics. Like ‘Warm Leatherette’, the sleeve for ‘Back To Nature’ was designed by Simone Grant.

In the second line of ‘Back To Nature’, Tovey sings about a caravan at Canvey Island in Essex, legendary birthplace of pub rock and only a few miles from Southend-on-Sea where members of Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet were studying. Now a faded seaside resort, Canvey was once Britain’s fastest-growing holiday destination until a devastating flood prompted the construction of huge ugly concrete walled sea defences in the Fifties and foreign package holidays in the Seventies just kicked the body when it was already terminally ill; an unlikely bomb attempt from the IRA later in the decade disposed of the corpse. On a wet mid-Eighties evening while we were on holiday in Southend, my family and I took a trip to Canvey. It was one of the most uniformly terrifying experiences of my young life, starting with the drive past numerous deserted amusements, crazy golf courses and the like, and on onto those concrete walls, where we didn’t see a single person despite it only being early evening; a nihilistic young guy on a 50cc motorcycle emerged out of nowhere and was riding precariously on the top of the wall, a gust of wind or minor adjustment of his balance the only thing preventing him from crashing onto the concrete several feet below; a lone tractor raked over the sand, needlessly given the absence of any holidaymakers. And then there was the smell and looming presence of the island’s oil storage facilities. A solitary tanker, far out to sea, was causing huge waves to crash onto the beach. It is tempting to see how such a bleak, industrial wasteland might have inspired the young Tovey.

Canvey Island seawall. Photo courtesy of beatifulengland.net. Photo by Alison Avery.

courtesy: beautifulengland.net / photo: Alison Avery – permission requested

Track listing:

7″:
G. Back To Nature
F. The Box

First published 2013; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence. Canvey Island photograph (c) Alison Avery / beautifulengland.net