Electronic – Getting Away with It

When they first appeared, three decades ago this week, Electronic must have been a bit of a revelation. True, New Order had been steadily evolving from rock to pop over the preceding decade, but a collaboration between Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, the extraordinary guitarist from The Smiths, must have conjured up ideas of something guitar-heavy. It wasn’t – Getting Away with It was, in a way, both Sumner and Marr’s first experiment with true pop.

The single version is, as I’m sure you know by now, exceptional. It’s a pop song, with synth strings and sweet acoustic guitar work. There’s something a little quirky with it, of course, but it still holds together beautifully. On vocals, Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant – neither of them particularly accomplished vocalists, but both great in their own way – harmonise perfectly, bringing a delightfully humanist quality to the song. It’s definitely nothing like New Order or The Smiths, and although it is a lot like Pet Shop Boys, the pop lyric doesn’t feel like something that Neil Tennant would have come up with on his own.

The definitive track listing appears to be the digital reissue, pulling all the different tracks together in one place, and that takes us next to the lead track on the 12″, the Extended Mix. This is an extended version very much in the 1980s style – take the first verse and strip it back a bit, add an extra instrumental verse, and mix original elements in, one by one. It’s a worthy version, but to a modern ear, there’s surprisingly little new here until the long breakdown section in the middle, which could honestly be dispensed with.

By 1989, artists were already sending tracks off for a multitude of weird and wonderful remixes, but Electronic seem not to have been especially aware of this, so the various singles of Getting Away with It are largely peppered with alternative versions. The extended Instrumental is lovely, and unusually for an instrumental version, it stands well alone. This includes the longer orchestral ending that would appear on later versions of the single mix.

There is a b-side, though – and this is perhaps a surprise, given that it seems to have since flown completely under the radar. Maybe this was intentional, as it was omitted altogether from the CD release. Lucky Bag is a beatsy, early house instrumental that provides occasional echoes of Bobby Orlando‘s huge bass lines. It’s hard to know exactly what Electronic would have been thinking with this, to tell the truth – it’s nice, but also instantly forgettable. Maybe it’s an extended experiment, or maybe it was always intended to be a b-side. Either way, it’s a nice diversion.

There are remixes here, but there’s nothing particularly great. For whatever reason, the common trend at the time with remixes was to cut the original back, add beats, add a few cheesy synth lines, and a bit of a calypso arpeggio, and call it done. So it is with Graeme Park and Mike Pickering‘s remixes. The Nude Mix is an uninspired dub version with weird down-tempo, almost rave-inspired synth lines dropping in all over the place. The Vocal Remix is, I would assume, their attempt to add the vocal back in for a more radio-friendly version, and while there’s plenty to enjoy here, both mixes really seem to fail on most levels. They’re nice, but just not quite good enough, and while the final fade on the second mix comes a little suddenly, it really can’t come too soon.

It’s nice to get another version of Lucky Bag to close the release, but the Miami Edit is a curious version – slightly more beat-driven than the one on the 7″, but far from different enough to really be noteworthy. On the UK release, this was hidden away on the second 12″, which seems appropriate – it’s a nice treat, but nothing particularly special.

So Getting Away with It is a bit of a mixed bag – a great track, but not, perhaps, such a great single. Electronic, for the time being, showed all the signs of being a one-off experiment, but perhaps inevitably, given the success of this release, they got back together for the 1991 Electronic album, which then inexplicably went on to skip Getting Away with It from its original track listing altogether. But with Getting Away with It, they assured us that there was something special about this collaboration.

We reviewed the US CD single. The five versions of the original track from here can be found on this digital release.

Piney Gir – Peakahokahoo

Following her brief cult success as half of Vic Twenty, singer Piney Gir reappeared with the delightfully lo-fi Peakahokahoo, released fifteen years ago this week. It’s a short album – so short, in fact, that it’s difficult to review, as each track disappears before you’re really able to start writing anything.

Vic Twenty had been a wonderful act, for the short time that they lasted. A couple of years earlier, they supported Erasure, wore Russian military outfits, and released delightful short electronic pop music. Sometimes verging on chiptune, at other times just dark, grimy, simplistic synthpop, their little-known album Electrostalinist is well worth a listen, if you ever find a copy.

This, though, was Piney Gir‘s first solo album. It opens with Boston, carrying on the theme of absurdly fast synth lines and choruses that started in Vic Twenty. Good, but not entirely convincing yet.

Next is Que Cera Cera, a hilariously bouncy Casio keyboard version of the first verse of the classic, which leads us into the dark but chirpy Girl. It’s clever – atmospheric but still very lo-fi. It’s also long enough to be able to write more than a sentence while it lasts. If there were any obvious singles on here, this is probably where I would begin.

Creature is good too, though – its slow, crunchy beats and processed vocals are evocative and intriguing. There’s an element of teenage angst here, which is captured beautifully. Other things aren’t quite as clear – the semi-shouty rendition of My Generation just about works, but seems a little misguided. Same for the short and somewhat sweet La La La.

A couple of years on, Piney Gir was asked to play country versions of the songs on here, and thus the follow-up album Hold Yer Horses became an alt-country version of this album. That might have been an odd choice at the time, but it was extremely successful, at least in underground circles, and seems to have gained her a cult following and cemented her career since then.

But there were already hints of this direction on Peakahokahoo, and Greetings, Salutations, Goodbye is probably the first of these. It would open Hold Yer Horses, and several of the other key tracks from here made it on there too. It’s quirky and clever, and while the guitar work comes as a bit of a surprise after all the 8-bit hits, it’s a good song.

K-I-S-S-I-N-G is another sweet song, although the rhymes are a bit odd. The instrumentation is what makes this work, honestly, but it’s an impressive reminder of just how varied this album is – we’ve come from fast, frantic, synthpop to this somewhat haunting piece.

It is a little impenetrable at times, though – there seems to be a bit of a journey going on through this album, and so probably by this stage we’re hanging out with an angsty teenage Piney Gir, who is wondering why everyone else seems to be kissing in trees except her. In that context, Sweet maybe makes sense, but it’s difficult to be sure – it seems to be a dreamy love song for someone that the singer doesn’t really know, but you probably had to be there to be certain.

Nightsong sees Simple Kid turn up for an oddly moonlit jazz piece, again unlike anything else that we’ve heard on here so far. This is definitely an album that’s full of surprises. But Piney Gir is also not afraid of bringing elements back when they’re needed, and so Ruth is Coming to America takes us back to those catchy Vic Twenty countermelodies with a full-on Casio rhythm. It’s bizarrely great, and yet at the same time a little bit unlistenable. Intriguing, though.

Jezebel sees things turn a bit dark. Maybe this isn’t an autobiographical album, after all. This is a grimy glam rock piece in a sense, but with an absurdly laid back vocal that really shouldn’t fit, but somehow works well. I don’t think anyone has ever recorded a glam track that was this gentle.

Finally, the closing track is Janet Schmanet – it’s actually the thirteenth track on here, although barely forty minutes have passed. It’s probably the cheesiest of all the tracks on here – the vast majority of sounds on here come from a portable keyboard, but that’s intentional. The lyrics are entirely daft, but hey, why not? The “get your adverbs here” line is weird, but inspired.

For good measure, we get a theremin version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow to close. Because of course we do.

So that’s Peakahokahoo. It’s every bit as eccentric as the title would suggest, but for all its oddities, it’s definitely never boring. You can see how the simplistic synthpop of Vic Twenty must have seemed a little boring to Piney Gir – she clearly doesn’t like being pigeonholed, and probably likes being in control too. So why not let her take control of your listening for a few minutes, and hear what she has to say for herself? Just accept that she might be a little bit strange at first.

You can still find Peakahokahoo at all major retailers.

Preview – Sparks

This is an odd thing that artists keep doing – it would be perfectly possible to release albums a year or two apart and keep the enthusiasm flowing, but instead they choose to pile everything together. Just a couple of years ago, we learned about Sparks‘ new greatest hits album, and this week, it’s a lovely-looking 3CD / LP version of 1993’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. Well, never mind – here’s an original performance of their new single, Let’s Go Surfing:

Heaven 17 – How Live Is

Heaven 17 famously never used to play live. It just wasn’t what they did. But somehow, in 1997, well over a decade since anyone remembered hearing anything new from them, they decided to tour, supporting Erasure. Released a couple of years later, the budget live album that recorded the first date on that tour, in Glasgow, has appeared under about ten different names now, initially as Live at Last through their own website, and then as How Live Is for the first commercial release.

This set opened with (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, the 1993 remix performed live. Their debut single is, honestly, every bit as good, or as awful, as it ever was. The whole Penthouse and Pavement album is, for me, a bit like a joke that everyone else gets but you just can’t see why it’s funny. You probably just had to be there at the time – and the remix didn’t do this one too many favours for me either.

But what does strike you, even despite that, is just how good a vocalist Glenn Gregory is. He may have barely sung live at this stage, but he’s a natural, which is clearly going to pay dividends as this album continues. This is even clearer on Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, which follows, giving Gregory the chance to really shine.

We Blame Love was their latest single at the time, and while it never quite made it into the shops in the UK, it sold a few copies in Germany. The whole Bigger Than America album, from which this is taken, is a bit of a sad tale, really, as the songs are among Heaven 17‘s best for at least a decade, but it barely sold anything.

Time for another hit – they were just a support act on this date, after all. Come Live with Me seems very seedy indeed now, three and a half decades after its original release, and I imagine Heaven 17 have done some soul searching about its lyrics in recent years, but at its heart is what I think is intended, at least, to be a very sweet love song about an age gap that really doesn’t matter to either party. Even if it sounds as though it’s about a middle-aged man obsessing over a teenager.

New track Freak! is next, proving that they’re still capable of recording rubbish. You have to wonder what Erasure‘s audience were making of this at this point – I’m sure they loved hearing the eighties hits, but the applause at the end of this track seems a little surprising, given that I can’t imagine many would have known it, and fewer still would have liked it much. Maybe the visual performance made up for it at this point.

I should clarify my feelings about Heaven 17, as it’s probably coming across as though I hate them here. I really don’t – I think they have written a lot of great songs, and Gregory always delivers a good vocal. I just think they’ve tended towards repetitive, unmelodic chants a few too many times, and Freak! is another example of that for me.

What Heaven 17 do have is a decent collection of songs to fix this with, and so here comes the brilliant Let Me Go to the rescue. Such a good song, and barely messed around with here – they have added a few extra wizzes and bangs here and there, but nothing too major. It redeems the previous track at least, if not the last few albums as well.

Let’s All Make a Bomb, originally an album track on Penthouse and Pavement, has been given an overdue update. There’s actually another version on this release, hidden away among the enhanced video section, and that’s a better rendition, but this one isn’t bad. Proof that there was often little wrong with the actual songs in the early eighties – just a lot of overambitious production, perhaps? Even so, this does get a little overwrought during the chorus.

The nineties were not kind to Heaven 17, though, and while some of their 1992 remixes brought a degree of new life to the songs, the house version of Penthouse and Pavement didn’t even make the charts, so this lively performance is worthy but just seems very waily here. For fans, it must have been amazing to finally see them live, and they have certainly got better over time – I saw an exceptional performance of theirs about ten years ago in Manchester – but the performance on this CD sometimes just isn’t that good.

Every time you have that feeling, though, they rescue it with something, and this time it’s 1995’s comeback, the number 128 hit single Designing Heaven. Again, they go over the top with the vocals, and Gregory trills his Rs in “running” to almost comedic effect, but while this was never going to hit the top spot, it isn’t a bad track or a bad performance.

It would, of course, be pretty disappointing if they couldn’t get Temptation right, performed here in its jaunty 1992 Brothers in Rhythm remix form. The dance nature of the version means that much of the track is given over to backing singers telling us that they can’t see our hands, which is probably something that works better when you’re there in the room than listening on CD. But all in all, this is a great track, a competent remix, and a good performance.

The treats are all stacked up towards the end here, which is entirely appropriate for a support act. But it’s the final track that really packs a punch – for the first time, Heaven 17 cover The Human League‘s (i.e. their own) debut single Being Boiled, in its punchier album version form. Obviously nobody could ever replace Phil Oakey, but Glenn Gregory gives it his best, adding vocal power and punch to a brilliant track. It’s an exceptional way to close the concert, and in a way it’s a pity that there wasn’t more of this.

So How Live Is, or whatever you know the album as, is, appropriately for Heaven 17‘s career, a bit of a mixed bag. When they’re good, they’re very very good, but when they aren’t they’re pretty dreadful. I’d love to be able to recommend the recording of this first concert as a great introduction to the trio, but let’s just say they have made better setlist choices in more recent years. For all its failings, though, this isn’t a bad live album.

There are numerous versions of this album floating around with different titles – the latest appears to have returned to the original Live at Last, although it loses the video tracks, but it’s available here.