Fad Gadget – The Best Of Fad Gadget

fadgadget_thebestoffadgadget

The Best Of Fad Gadget was originally released in 2001 to accompany Frank Tovey bringing his Fad Gadget alias out of retirement for a support slot with Depeche Mode. It was a moment of electronic music history repeating itself, albeit in reverse and on a massive, stadium-friendly scale: Depeche had supported Gadget in 1980, back when they were all a bunch of callow, synth-loving young chaps, Frank Tovey being the first artist to join Daniel Miller’s nascent Mute Records.

Twelve months after the compilation was issued, Tovey was dead from a heart attack. It’s hard not to listen to these tracks, hand-picked as they were by Fad himself, without mourning the fact that he left behind such a brief legacy – a clutch of singles, four Gadget albums and a challenging performance art repertoire that was already honed back when he was fighting over Leeds Polytechnic’s studio space with fellow students Dave Ball and Marc Almond.

Mute’s pressing of the album on vinyl for the first time coincides with the fortieth anniversary of ‘Back To Nature’, Fad Gadget’s first single. Recorded with Daniel Miller, ‘Back To Nature’ nodded to the Ballardian tropes of Miller’s own ‘Warm Leatherette’ statement, but also highlighted Tovey’s wry humour: while its gloomy industrial electronics sounded like a post-apocalyptic world of extreme temperatures, it was in fact Tovey ruminating on sun-loving folk enjoying the beach at Canvey Island.

Its B-side, ‘The Box’, was yet more subversive, its desperate lyrics reading like the stage directions for a macabre one-man show with a performer stuck in a box. After the dry ‘Ricky’s Hand’ single – the sinister counterpart to Depeche Mode’s similar-sounding ‘Photographic’ – Tovey gently moved Miller’s producer’s hand to one side and forged his own path, his 1980 debut album Fireside Favourites dealing with everything from cosy nights around the hearth during a nuclear meltdown on its memorable title track to bedroom frustration, each track a symbiosis of Tovey’s synths and whatever potential sound-making objects were lying around the studio at the time.

Through his ensuing albums – Incontinent (1981), Under The Flag (1982) and Gag (1984) – Tovey developed his songwriting craft, initially through getting to grips with kit like an MC-4 sequencer and then developing a full-band aesthetic at precisely the same time as pop music was dispensing with traditional instruments in favour of keyboards and drum machines. But even as his music matured, anticipating the series of folk and rock-inflected albums released under his own name with the band The Pyros, Tovey was still covering himself in tar and feathers on stage, or stripping off his clothes and spraying shaving foam all over his body, memorable images of which Anton Corbijn captured for Gag and the harrowing cover of this compilation.

His songs never once lost that slightly disturbing potency that had made his earliest singles so insistent. ‘Lady Shave’ made a song about the quotidian act of removing hair a seedy, voyeuristic, perverted show; ‘Saturday Night Special’ dealt with guns and the right to bear arms; ‘Love Parasite’s sleek electronic shapes detailed a sexual predator; ‘Life On The Line’ and ‘For Whom The Bells Toll’ were dour pop songs that betrayed Tovey’s paranoia at having become a father for the first time; ‘Collapsing New People’ took industrial percussion and the looped mechanical sound of a printing press to offer a vivid anthropological assessment of the dispossessed, wasted, vampiric youths he observed while recording the track in Berlin. The compilation ends with the leftfield proto-electro and howling baby sounds of ‘4M’, sounding somewhere between clinical fascination and the soundtrack to the end of the world, but was in fact a tender piece of sound art using the sampled voice of his baby daughter.

It would, perhaps, be too easy to look back on Frank’s wild Fad Gadget years as a kind of grim novelty cabaret sideshow schtick, a product of an anything-goes, disaffected, post-punk British society, his effect on the development of electronic music in the early 1980s easily dismissible in favour of dark-hued works by Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Soft Cell and others. Observed in hindsight, no other musician managed to fuse art school theatrics and dystopian social commentary so fluidly within the emerging constructs of electronic technology as Frank Tovey did, and the likelihood of another artist like Fad Gadget emerging in these supposedly super-liberal times is unimaginable; we’re all trapped inside the metaphorical cage of ‘The Box’, and no one dares try – like he did – to break out.

Frank Tovey: 8 September 1956 – 3 April 2002

The Best Of Fad Gadget by Fad Gadget was originally released in 2001 by Mute, and reissued as a double vinyl LP in 2019.

Words: Mat Smith.

Note: this review originally appeared in Electronic Sound issue 57 and is used with the kind permission of the editors. Thanks to Neil, Zoe and Paul.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith for Electronic Sound

 

Depeche Mode – The Singles 81 – 85 (Mute compilation, 1985)

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ original artwork.

The Singles 81 – 85 was Depeche Mode‘s first UK compilation album, gathering together all their singles up to that point in sequential order, tacking on the new tracks ‘It’s Called A Heart’ and ‘Shake The Disease’, the latter of which has become something of a live staple for the band and a firm favourite among fans. Both tracks were released as singles to support the compilation.

The Singles 81 – 85 was also the first of a sporadic series of artist compilations issued by Mute, the catalogue codes for these albums ditching the familiar STUMM tag in favour of MUTEL. The idea was to cheekily reference the K-Tel budget collections of yesteryear but most people didn’t get Mute’s in-joke. The track list on the reverse reflected each track’s success in the singles charts rather than being in the order they were released in, a strategy Mute used again on the first Inspiral Carpets collection ten years later.

Even if you’re familiar with the Depeche Mode journey from Basildon synth-pop boyband to the stadium-conquering electronic rock act they became toward the end of the Eighties, listening to the singles in order, the band’s rapid progression still feels remarkable. There are just two years between the trio of Vince Clarke-penned singles and the ambitious recording techniques and early sample experiments that birthed songs like ‘Love In Itself’.

While you could argue that the band simply benefited from having access to some seriously cutting-edge technology and talented, forward-looking producers in Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller, that would fully ignore the huge leaps forward in terms of arrangements and Martin Gore‘s songwriting.

Gore’s lyrical development from ‘See You’ (a cutesy, endearing single penned as a teenager) to the harrowing introspection of ‘Shake The Disease’ showed a dizzying level of maturity in the briefest of timeframes. ‘Somebody’ (excluded from the LP edition, presumably because of space) remains Gore’s most powerful, fragile ballad, his tender lyrics interspersed with darker considerations and ruminations; elsewhere, tracks like ‘Everything Counts’, ‘People Are People’ and ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ were casually and effortlessly cynical, the latter getting the band into hot water with the Church of England given its pondering about the existence of a cruel God.

The Singles 81 – 85 was re-released in 1998 with a different sleeve to tie in with the the branding of the follow-up singles collection, the LP edition restoring ‘The Meaning Of Love’ and ‘Somebody’ to the collection and making it a double, rather than single, album. That new version tacked on the extended Schizo Mix of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and the version of ‘Photographic’ from the Some Bizarre compilation. The newer version might look more modern, but for me I still prefer the slightly garish and simplistic T+CP sleeve from the 1985 edition. Mute also released a three CD boxset containing both compilations in 2001.

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ reissue artwork.

Over in the US, Sire had released a compilation of Depeche Mode tracks the year before called People Are People, while a compilation using more or less the same sleeve as the UK Singles 81 – 85 album was issued in 1985 as Catching Up With Depeche Mode, featuring a totally different tracklisting. That edition also included the old photos of the band from the gatefold sleeve of the UK LP (something the UK CD didn’t include) and in among those are some lovely, candid – but too small – photos from the formative years the original band members spent at Southend Tech.

Personal recollections

The Singles 81 – 85 has a special place in my memory for a couple of reasons.

I first came upon the CD in my local library in Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 1992, right at the start of my exploration of the Mute back catalogue. Up to this point my only interest in Depeche Mode was with the early Vince Clarke years. I hated Depeche Mode at that point, detested ‘Personal Jesus’ and the band’s image, resplendent on the folder of a girl in my English class called Sarah.

If it wasn’t for the Documentary Evidence brochure that fell out of my 12″ copy of Erasure‘s ‘Chorus’ the year before, I may never have bothered borrowing The Singles 81 – 85 from the library. Given how much I detested the band, finding out through that pamphlet that Vince had been a member of Depeche Mode in their early years made me groan, as all of a sudden I felt obliged to listen to a band that I had decided I didn’t like. Looking back, it’s no surprise to me that I started my collecting of Vince’s other music with a copy of Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric’s, bought on cassette from my local Woolworths, instead.

So The Singles 81 – 85 represented my first real exposure to the music of Depeche Mode and for a while I’d deliberately only play the Vince Clarke singles; I couldn’t bring myself to put on the other tracks. When I eventually did, I wanted to be cynical (I initially sneered in agreement with the self-deprecating display of journo quotes included in the sleeve against each song), but I more or less instantly fell in love with those songs and kickstarting the process of building up a collection of Depeche Mode albums that meant, by the time of Songs Of Faith And Devotion the following year, I considered myself a fan. My bedroom walls were quickly adorned with posters bought from Athena of the band circa the Violator era – something of an irony given how much I’d loathed the similar images on Sarah’s folder.

The other reason I have fond memories of this compilation is because of a girl. In 1992 I was a shy, unconfident 15-year old besotted with a girl called Katie that I couldn’t even talk to, let alone ask out.

I was listening to The Singles 81 – 85 in my dad’s favourite armchair one evening during the two week hire of the CD and Katie walked past my lounge window with another girl I knew from school. Katie lived way out of town, so her appearance outside my window was sort of strange. I don’t think it was intentional, as I don’t think she knew where I lived, but that didn’t stop me thinking that it was. For days after, I resented myself for not rushing outside as she walked past to say hello and talk to her.

From that moment, I began to latch onto Martin Gore’s lyrics to help me understand myself to some degree. Through his introspective words I was able to accept that it was perfectly okay to be the quiet kid at school, and from then on I found inspiration in his lyrics whenever it felt like events or people (or just my own thoughts) were conspiring against me.

First published 2013; edited and re-posted 2019.

With thanks to David McElroy.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Can – The Singles (Spoon / Mute compilation, 2017)

can_thesingles

Last week Spoon / Mute released The Singles, a collection of all of Can‘s singles and selected B-sides, which serves as a great entry point into the musical genius of this band.

I reviewed the compilation for Clash – read my thoughts here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Various – The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970 – 1983 (Cultures Of Soul book + album, 2016)

Just lately, I’ve found myself delving further and further into jazz music of all forms. I haven’t fully worked out yet how I came to persue this genre so avidly, but it’s become a major musical passion for me over the last five years. Caitlin Moran wrote recently in The Times about how your music taste atrophies in your thirties; in my case, as I race toward the conclusion of my thirties, the burning quest to still find new things to get excited about hasn’t diminished at all, but whereas at the start of this last decade of my life I was listening primarily to Mute, now I find myself more and more playing and buying jazz records.

One of the reasons it’s become so important for me is because I rarely ever write about it. Instead it’s become music I can just listen to without feeling compelled to document it in some way. Opportunities to review jazz records only come up at Electronic Sound if they stray into adventurous synth territory, and Clash never covers jazz – so I jumped at the chance to cover this book and album when it appeared on the monthly reviews list for the latter. 

This album covers the under-surveyed Boston avant-garde jazz scene of the Seventies and early Eighties via an authoritative book written by one of the scene’s central figures, accompanied by a CD featuring some of the artists whose careers the book highlights. For anyone who thinks that developments in jazz were confined to New York and Chicago, it’s an illuminating proposition.

My review can be found here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Larry Levan – Genius Of Time (Universal compilation, 2016)

  
Larry Levan was a major figure in the New York club scene of the Eighties, and The Paradise Garage on NYC’s King Street where he had his residency was the day-glo decade’s answer to Studio 54. As a DJ Levan was legendary; as a remixer he applied his dancefloor nous to his work in the studio, developing mixes that focussed on the groove but emphasised soulfulness over alien electronics and overly-regimented 4/4 beats. 

Universal have released a compilation of 22 mixes, edits and extended versions by Levan. I reviewed the album for Clash. You can read my review here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Various Artists – Fly : Songs Inspired By The Film ‘Eddie The Eagle’ (Universal album, 2016)

  
I reviewed the soundtrack to the film Eddie The Eagle for This Is Not Retro. Fly features a who’s who of Eighties music, including everyone from Martyn Ware‘s Heaven 17to Paul Young, most of whom have recorded exclusives for the album.

Erasure‘s Andy Bell delivers the title track, while Nik Kershaw’s ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ (from his 2012 album Ei8ht) steals the show as perhaps the best song ever written about following your dreams. Kershaw said he wrote this song to his child to show that you really can be whatever you want, and as a father to two growing little girls, I can’t listen to this song without getting emotional.

My review can be found here

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence 

Various Artists – Straight To You – The Gothic Country And Blues That Inspired Nick Cave (Uncut covermount album, 2010)

  

Uncut put together this covermount CD of tracks that purportedly inspired Nick Cave, covering blues and country tracks by the likes of Leadbelly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

I’m always a little dubious of these types of things, especially where the artist in question wasn’t actually involved, particularly since a lot of the tracks and artists here are ones that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds covered during their career (mostly on Kicking Against The Pricks) – while it may be possible to conclude that they were therefore an influence, I’m not so sure about all of them. The one artist that Cave frequently spoke about as being a major formative influence on him was The Man In Black, Johnny Cash, who Cave would have the nerve-racking opportunity to work with during Cash’s twilight years. Cash’s nihilistic ‘I’d Rather Die Young’ is one of the tracks included here.

Certainly you can hear a certain Birthday Party-era wildness in Gene Vincent’s ‘Cat Man’, there’s the ‘grinderman’ lineage in Memphis Slim’s ‘Grinder Man Blues’ and Cave displayed a healthy interest in the mystical aura of Elvis Presley on ‘Tupelo’. Defining precisely what has influenced a person, given that life is an entire summation of experience – recognised or otherwise – is a fool’s game. When I interview an artist and feel duty-bound to ask them about their influences, it is invariably greeted with a sigh or an awkward silence. We nevertheless are obsessed with such details, on the basis that it helps us rationalise a person via certain reference points, and that will never change.

This is one for the Cave completist only. I’m not sure now whether the magazine that this came with included a feature on Cave or some sort of explanation about how these tracks had been selected, or maybe it tied in with a Bad Seeds release that month. I certainly don’t have it any longer. If you surrender the notion that this is intended as some sort of definitive listing of what made Nick Cave who he is today – ignoring the fact that to do that justice would involve everything from church choir music through to The Stooges – what you are left with is a decent album of some very important blues and country songs.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence