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

A.C. Marias – One Of Our Girls (Mute Records album, 1989)

A.C. Marias 'One Of Our Girls' LP artwork
mute records | lp/cd/c stumm68 | 29/08/1989

A.C. Marias was the alter ego of Angela Conway, long-time Wire collaborator, artist and now video director. Although her only album for Mute, Conway previously released records on Bruce Gilbert and (Edvard) Graham Lewis‘ sadly defunct Dome imprint. This 1989 album was recorded at the ubiquitous Blackwing Studios, the location of many great Mute recording sessions, with a veritable supergroup of Mute producers – John Fryer, Paul Kendall, Gareth Jones and Bruce Gilbert.

The album is characterised by a number of distinctive elements – Conway’s echoing, haunting and ethereal vocals, Gilbert’s deft yet subtle textural guitar, and liberal helpings of electronic accompaniment. It’s one of my favourite Mute albums ever, certainly a collection of songs that I return to time after time. In truth, it is also an extremely different proposition than one would initially expect from a Gilbert collaboration, as this is often a very different proposition to the noise-scapes that Bruce has perfected on his solo releases.

The album kicks off with very atmospheric track, the quirky ‘Trilby’s Couch’, a jazz-referencing melange of walking bass, highly spare percussion and flute / pipe sounds framed by occasional, fleeting flurries of analogue-esque synths. All the while, Conway delivers a mysterious lyric that seems to suggest bizarre hypnosis and psychiatric discussions in a Freudian analysis session. The lyrics are strewn with word pictures, bizarre events and nonsensical actions. ‘Just Talk’ is an outstanding minimalist sonic adventure, with repeated, processed stereo-spanning guitars providing the rythmic undertow over which Conway delivers a floating vocal which manages to sound more textural than the guitar layers. A two-note guitar melody and an echoing, icy percussion sound offer a counterpoint, with held synth chords urging this song to an eerie close.

The mystery quota continues on ‘There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air’, which is built around a slow rhythm constructed of nothing more than either a deeply-processed cymbal or piston; a deep bass drone dominates the low end while Conway’s reedy voice phases in and out in the high end, and Gilbert provides a seasick, scratchy guitar scribble with what sounds like meditative ease. What sounds like a distorted handclap loop comes in at around the halfway mark, just as Conway’s voice begins to loop and echo upon itself. ‘Our Dust’ predates some of the beat-driven near-‘pop’ on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, evoking the same reverb-laden bass and beat, and similar icy cool melodies. Conway’s vocal is offhand, casual, the repeated vocal of ‘I don’t care’ sounding like she couldn’t care less. The taped sound of a noisy restaurant or bar concludes the song. The sub-two minute ‘So Soon’ is driven by a quiet, tapped beat and swathes of analogue filtered guitar layers, and leads straight into the strident pop of ‘Give Me’. I first heard the track on the International compilation (and even sampled a section of Conway’s deeply processed vocal from the fading seconds of the song for one my own compositions). It’s got a heavy On-U esque beat (presumably Fryer’s creation) and an edgy Gilbert guitar loop, but it’s the randomised, processed vocal snatches – wrapped around Conway’s pretty lyric – that are the most captivating, and the stereo swirls require this to be listened to on ‘phones.

‘To Sleep’ is just a beautiful song, a carefully-crafted piece of moving electronica and euphoric guitar drifts which is mesmerising; it’s a suitably pastoral accompaniment to Conway’s poetry, which comes and goes like waves onto the shore. Entrancing and enchanting – you get the idea. ‘Looks Like’ is delivered in warped waltz time and, with its simple melodic synth pad swells could be a Vince Clarke composition were it not for the occasional intrusion of rippling guitar sounds. ‘Sometime’ is dark and edgy, a throbbing bass pulse and a ratchety sound culled straight from Wire’s ‘Advantage In Height’ offset by a pleasant strummed melody and a divine layered chorus of Conway’s voice(s). ‘One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing’, released as a single, concludes the cassette and vinyl editions, while the CD includes the warped cover of Canned Heat’s ‘Time Was’, also released as a single.

Track listing:

A1. / 1. Trilby’s Couch
A2. / 2. Just Talk
A3. / 3. There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air
A4. / 4. Our Dust
A5. / 5. So Soon
B1. / 6. Give Me
B2. / 7. To Sleep
B3.  / 8. Looks Like
B4. / 9. Sometime
B5. / 10. One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing
11. Time Was

First published 2004; edited 2014

(c) 2004 – 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence