Chart for stowaways – 20 August 2016

These are the best singles this week, apparently. Nice to see Pet Shop Boys occupying the entire top three here.

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Inner Sanctum
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Twenty-Something
  3. Jean-Michel Jarre & Pet Shop Boys – Brick England
  4. Massive Attack – The Spoils / Come Near Me
  5. Shit Robot – End of the Trail
  6. Clarke Hartnoll – Better Have a Drink to Think
  7. I Monster – The Bradley Brothers realise…
  8. New Order feat. Elly Jackson – People on the High Line
  9. Wolfgang Flür – I Was a Robot
  10. Wolfgang Flür – Cover Girl

Peel Sessions – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 14 April 1980

Just six months after their first session, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark returned to the John Peel show for another session, this time with another selection of songs from their debut eponymous album, released a couple of months before the session was recorded, plus a couple of hints of the second album, which wasn’t due to arrive for a while yet.

It opens with Pretending to See the Future, the closing track on their first album, and having done most of the best songs on the previous session they were mainly left with second rate ones this time. So, while this is pretty good, it’s far from amazing.

Having said that, Enola Gay must have come as a bit of a surprise given that it wouldn’t be released for another six months or so. There was even a release of Messages in between, so some listeners must have wondered where on earth this fantastic song was hiding. It is good though – much more raw sounding than the final release, with a live bass line and many fewer synth parts, but you definitely get more than just a vague idea of how good this will sound when it’s finished.

Having got that out of the way, OMD present us with one of the ropiest tracks on the first album, the distinctly questionable Dancing, presented here with some extra avant garde warblings. There’s always an experimental side to the Peel Sessions, and I suspect that’s what they’re trying to explore here. But it still isn’t really any good.

Finally for this session, we get Motion and Heart, another unreleased track, which would later appear on the second album Organisation, and was considered as that album’s second single (before they decided not to bother at all). Here, it sounds raw and a bit empty, but you definitely get the idea that there’s a good song there. But unlike Enola Gay, you probably wouldn’t fight your way into the record shop to find out what you had heard and why on earth it wasn’t available yet.

We previously covered the first session, and we’ll cover the remaining two sessions in future articles. You can read more about OMD‘s relationship with John Peel‘s radio show here. This session is available on the CD Peel Sessions 1979-83, available here.

Heaven 17 – Bigger Than America

Poor Heaven 17. By 1996, nearly two decades into their careers, they really hadn’t produced anything new of note under that name in over a decade. After their fame subsided with the reasonable How Men Are album (1984), just two studio albums and a couple of compilations had followed, and so Bigger Than America was truly a comeback.

But Dive is brilliant. It starts with some subtle analogue warbles, and builds into something that’s every bit as good as Let Me Go. The line that mixes “hear” with “here” could easily be tacky and awful, but somehow it works perfectly here. What a great opening track!

First single Designing Heaven follows. Unsurprisingly when you hear it, it wasn’t an enormous hit, but it’s reasonably good, and probably deserved a place somewhere in the Top 40. If you’re ever bored, track down the single to hear the laughably bad German version Den Himmel Designen.

Second (and final) single We Blame Love comes next, actually perhaps a better choice of single than the first, but it didn’t get any attention outside of Germany, where all your favourite eighties acts went to die.

Another Big Idea is next, and is largely fantastic. It might have been a while since Heaven 17 were this good, but they definitely had the right idea. In fact, the first reminder that they had been lost in the wilderness for over a decade at this point is on track 5, the pointless Freak! It contains the lyric “You’re an X and I’m a Y / Just take a look into the sky”. Which is pretty much all you need to know.

Changes are definitely afoot at this point in the album. You might have been wondering what exactly the title was about, but it isn’t until the title track that you really get a clue. Bigger Than America seems to be an attempt to poke fun at the USA, but a fair proportion of the lyrics don’t really make sense unfortunately. The chorus is good, though (despite rhyming “car” with “Ameri-car”), and the analogue squawks are fully in attendance.

From here onwards, my memory was suggesting the tracks would all start to merge into one, but that isn’t really true. Unreal Everything is a nice track, if somewhat forgettable – the only thing you’ll really remember here is the pleasant theremin (or portamento?) line that makes it sound like something out of a 1950s science fiction film. The Big Dipper takes some more cracks at the USA, this time hitting harder and arguably hitting the target more accurately.

Do I Believe? is really brilliant – fueled primarily by enormous analogue noises, but there’s a great song in there as well. Resurrection Man is a bit misguided, but towards the end things become pleasantly mellow, with the sweet and gentle Maybe Forever and then the uplifting An Electronic Prayer. The electronic howl that closes the album is an exemplary way to finish matters.

So this was Heaven 17‘s contribution to the 1990s. It was good, but was largely irrelevant and went ignored by most people. What it does seem to have done is spurred them to start playing live for the first time in their career, and so, a decade or so later, they finally came to be seen as the legends they are. As long as they stick to playing tracks from their better albums, anyway.

The CD version of Bigger Than America has long since fallen out of print, but you can still find digital downloads and second hand copies in most places.

Chart for stowaways – 13 August 2016

Here are this week’s biggest albums:

  1. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
  2. Clarke Hartnoll – 2Square
  3. I Monster – Bright Sparks
  4. Wolfgang Flür – Eloquence
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Super
  6. Shit Robot – What Follows
  7. New Order – Music Complete
  8. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine
  9. Chicane – Twenty
  10. David Bowie – Best of Bowie

Peel Sessions – The Shamen, 12 February 1991

The Shamen‘s fourth and final John Peel session was recorded in February 1991 and broadcast several times that same year. The Shamen had long been featured on Peel’s radio shows, and he seems to have even stuck with them once they transitioned from psychedelic eighties “alternative rock” to the rave-pop-dance that they were so fond of in the early 1990s.

The session opens with a pretty good version of En-Tact‘s Hyperreal, already available in the shops for a year or so at this stage. It seems to have gained some slightly daft sound effects which weren’t there on the quite brilliant original version, and it’s notably lacking the input from William Orbit that made the US album and subsequent versions so good, but it’s still pretty strong.

Make it Mine had already been a single in 1990, and this version seems to have undergone a slightly ill-advised reworking, with a pointless middle section and a length rap from Mr. C. It’s interesting to see them exploring some slightly different directions, but they really don’t seem to know what they’re doing. The input of The Beatmasters that would characterise the next album seems long overdue.

Possible Worlds is a nice inclusion – definitely one of the best tracks from En-Tact, it offers them a chance for some musical exploration without going completely off the rails. There’s a bit more freestyle rapping (including rhyming “brain pattern” with “Saturn”), which is definitely unnecessary, but in general it’s pretty good. Just not quite as good as the original version.

Then comes In the Bag, which I think I’m saying was never released anywhere else. It’s a pretty nice ambient piece which is entirely lacking in melody, but it’s a strong inclusion nonetheless. In a way it’s pieces like this rather than the better known singles and album tracks that make it worth hearing these sessions.

You can read more about The Shamen‘s relationship with the John Peel show here. This session is available on The Shamen‘s 1993 compilation On Air, which is still widely available.