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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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