Artist of the Week – Sparks

The Artist of the Week feature on my old radio show Music for the Masses has proved a vaguely interesting source of features for this blog, although it does seem to contain some errors, hyperbole, and possibly plagiarism. This week, Sparks.

This week’s Artist of the Week is the ever-wonderful and ever-evolving Sparks. Now, unfortunately we can’t really afford to go into too much detail, otherwise we’ll be here all night, but anyway, the story goes like this… Ron Mael and Russell Mael formed their first band Halfnelson back in 1971, releasing their first (and only) album that year. The following year they crossed the Atlantic and started recording with a new line-up, now known as Sparks.

They first saw UK success with the seminal but not overly electronic This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, which peaked at number two in 1974. Slowly the hits began to die away, and by 1976 they were once more failing to reach the chart – however, they resolutely refused to give up.

In 1979, they managed a comeback when they travelled to Germany to work with Giorgio Moroder on the essential Number 1 in Heaven album. This brought them two further substantial hits, but unfortunately they failed once again to hold onto their success, as the follow-up album Terminal Jive flopped. However, it brought them hits in France, and in the early 1980s they finally managed to break their homeland, America.

In 1989, they began one of their most interesting chapters to date. After fifteen albums and countless singles on an almost infinite number of record companies, they decided to give up and make films instead. Sadly, the constant delays and broken promises of the film world led to them abandoning their new career after four years and returning to music instead.

Their comeback in 1994 brought them success across Europe, as they embraced the swiftly growing genre of Europop. The classics When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” and When I Kiss You both reached the top forty, as did a reissue of This Town released in 1997 with additions from rockers Faith No More.

Recent years have seen them once more failing to make the charts, but continuing to release album after album. Their most recent, their nineteenth album L’il Beethoven, was convincingly given five-star ratings across the board, and they even scraped a minor hit single with Suburban Homeboy, but the album itself failed to chart.

Rumour has it they are now working on a new album, as it’s now nearly three years since L’il Beethoven

Artist of the Week – William Orbit

Time now for another of our archive Artist of the Week features, dating back to early 2005. Some of these do contain errors, and probably contain some plagiarism too. Apologies in advance…

This week’s Artist of the Week was born William Wainwright, and would ultimately go on to become one of the most important musicians in the world of electronic ambient and dance music.

He began his musical career in the early 1980s in the new wave group Torch Song, and while recording with the band started to learn studio techniques, and by the end of the eighties was making a name for himself by remixing and producing the likes of Kraftwerk, The Human League, Erasure, and Madonna.

His first solo album Orbit was released in 1987, but it was with the Strange Cargo project that he started to make a name for himself. The first part of the four-album epic also came out in 1987, and was followed by parts two and three at three-year intervals. It was with these that he kick-started the career of folk singer Beth Orton, who first featured on 1993’s minor hit single Water from a Vine Leaf. The fourth album in the set, Strange Cargo Hinterland, followed in 1995, and features some of his best material to date.

It was at this time he first recorded his legendary Pieces in a Modern Style album, featuring inventive new interpretations of classical pieces, but it initially attracted very strong protests from some of the composers involved, so he re-entered the world of production, apparently never to be seen again.

However, it was with his production work that he truly made a name for himself, being responsible for some of All Saints‘ later material, as well as Ray of Light, one of Madonna‘s best albums to date, and also Blur‘s acclaimed album 13. On the back of this, he returned to the studio to re-record Pieces in a Modern Style, which swiftly made its name as a modern classic thanks to remixes by Ferry Corsten and ATB.

As rumours of a new album continue, he continues to work with the likes of Pink and Eagle-Eye Cherry on production work, and we await his return with baited breath.

Artist of the Week – The Beloved

Many moons ago, there was a radio show called Music for the Masses, which I presented on and off between 1999 and 2005. I’ve talked about it here plenty of times. One of the features was the Artist of the Week, and contained various errors, incorrect opinions, and the following information:

Jon Marsh originally formed a band called The Journey Through in 1984 with fellow Cambridge students Guy Gausden, Tim Havard, and Steve Waddington. After some demos, they evolved into The Beloved, and started making music not a million miles away from the style of Joy Division, early New Order, or even, occasionally, The Smiths.

After a number of minor singles, they released their debut album Where it Is, but following little success and disagreements with the record company, they left, dropped two members, and reappeared in 1988 with their first commercial release Loving Feeling.

It was at the end of 1989 that they saw their first major hit, with the release of The Sun Rising. Further singles from the first successful album Happiness were also hits, including Hello and Your Love Takes Me Higher. A remixed album Blissed Out also saw some success.

The third album Conscience followed in 1993, including the smash hit Sweet Harmony, and saw them starting to explore deeper dance territory with more house-based tracks and remixes. The fourth album in 1996 was in many ways a transitional piece, with the tracks starting to show great signs of depth.

Since then, they’ve done naff all… (that is genuinely what it says here!)

Artist of the Week – Faithless

Rolling way back into the prehistory of this blog, we find a radio show called Music for the Masses, which ran in its second incarnation from late 2004 to 2005. Here’s another Artist of the Week from that show, and my apologies again for any problems with what’s written below.

The Faithless story goes back to 1995. After no success as a record company boss, Rollo, responsible for releasing the debut Felix track Don’t You Want Me, was starting to make his name as a producer and remixer. He joined up with then renowned DJ and remixer Sister Bliss, folk guitarist Jamie Catto, and Buddhist Maxi Jazz to become one of the most bizarre but best loved dance groups of the last decade.

The debut album Reverence was recorded in an astonishing 17 days back in 1995, providing a springboard for many music careers, not least that of Rollo‘s younger sister Dido, who provided vocals from the start.

After several false starts, Reverence finally became a hit at the start of 1997, spawning the massive hits Insomnia and Salva Mea. The second album, the less chaotic but also eclectic Sunday 8pm, was released in late 1998, and included only one substantial hit, the euphoric God is a DJ.

After a break of three years, the third album Outrospective followed in mid-2001. It gave the group a number of further minor hits, as well as the huge smash hits We Come 1 and One Step Too Far, both of which broke into the top ten. The third album also marked a turning point, as, after shedding members with each album, they worked once again with the now-infamous Dido, who has now appeared on every Faithless album to date.

Also worth mentioning at this point is Jamie Catto‘s project, the seminal 1 Giant Leap album. Probably only widely known for the hit My Culture, this is a fantastic album, and definitely something we should play a lot more often on the show.

The fourth Faithless album No Roots was released last year. It contained some of Maxi Jazz‘s most insightful lyrics to date, but I would argue that despite its tremendous success, being their first number one album, it is one of their less good albums. However, it included the wonderful Mass Destruction, and also spawned an instrumental spin-off album Everything Will Be Alright Tomorrow, even if the hits were a little thin on the ground this time around, I Want More scraping into the top thirty, and Miss U Less See U More, admittedly only a vinyl release, only making number 106.

However, we are now at  a turning point for the band. As always, the live juggernaut rolls on, crushing every venue they visit, and April will see the release of their Greatest Hits album, Faithless Forever (sic). Still no news on exactly what the track listing will be, but it’s probably safe to say that all the hits will be on there… and we’re going to play three of them tonight on the show.

Unsigned Act – Blue Swan (and Subculture)

With this blog and the radio shows that came before it, I have always tried to keep some space available for unsigned artists, but honestly giving them the chance to be written about or to appear on an actual radio station yields surprisingly poor results. In the end, I only ever covered two unsigned acts on my old radio show Music for the Masses (2004-2005), one of whom was Blue Swan.

I must have contacted them via email, and wrote the following…

The duo consists of Henrik Jürgensen, 31, the vocalist and a soon-to-be qualified accountant, and Kasper Lauest, 30, who is the producer and also a psychologist (in the band?) They have been producing music since late 1999, when they met on the first Pet Shop Boys internet forum at Dotmusic, discovering by chance that they had gone to the same high school, one class apart, so they decided to meet up.

They listened to each other’s music, and both liked what they heard. When they heard about the Pet Shop Boys fan tribute project Attribute, they decided to record a cover of A New Life. They liked the result, so continued working together. They continue the story:

Last August, we released our first “virtual” album Sinister But Fragile. The track Black Widow was supposed to have been recorded by a famous Danish artist for her international debut album, but the deal fell through.

They are situated around Copenhagen, Denmark. All of their songs are recorded in their home studio in Kasper’s house. They write their songs together, sometimes in collaboration with Kasper’s younger brother Jakob.

The track Black Widow was done as an instrumental entitled Brutal, written by Kasper and his brother. When Henrik heard it, he absolutely loved it and wrote the lyrics and melody line on top of it. All synth sounds on Black Widow were made using an Access Virus C, while the beat was programmed using Reason 2.5.

Their virtual album Sinister But Fragile can be heard and downloaded in its entirety for free at (a website which no longer exists).

Their favourite band is the Pet Shop Boys, and Kasper’s favourite TV show is 24.

If you’re wondering, the other unsigned act we featured on the show was Subculture, but my only notes for them read as follows:

  • “Trash pop”
  • New Order
  • The Human League
  • David Bowie
  • OMD
  • Suede
  • Ladytron

Ross (vocals), Mace (synth), Matt (guitar), and Julia (bass).

You can read our most recent feature on Blue Swan here. If you’re unsigned and want some coverage, please get in touch using the form on the “Are You Unsigned” page.

Artist of the Week – Massive Attack

Many moons ago, I had a radio show, which included an Artist of the Week feature, in which I gave some history on the act. I’m including them here because I think they give an interesting perspective, but watch out for any errors or omissions in this piece.

The Massive Attack story goes all the way back to 1983, when the Wild Bunch DJ collective was formed. Based in Bristol and showcasing varied musical styles and genres, they soon started to draw huge crowds. When the Wild Bunch came to an end in 1987, two of its members, Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall teamed up with a graffiti artist Robert del Naja, more commonly known as 3D, and formed Massive Attack.

Working with another former Wild Bunch member Nellee Hooper, who has since gone on to huge success as a producer, and was at the time also working with Soul II Soul, they released their first singles Any Love and Daydreaming in 1990.

They soon saw the success they deserved, with Unfinished Sympathy and Safe from Harm both becoming huge hits and propelling the Blue Lines album towards the right end of the charts.

The first album saw great marketing difficulties because of their name, and possible links between it and the first Iraq war, so they dropped half of their name and temporarily became Massive. For various reasons the US tour that followed was something of a disaster, and they disappeared into the studio for three years.

Their comeback Protection is just as essential an album as the first, and, in chart terms at least, was more successful. It brought them three further hit singles: SlyProtection, and Karmacoma, and the remix album No Protection, although rather bizarre, was also a substantial hit.

Following another break, this time of four years, with only the one-off single Risingson to show for it, they returned in 1998 with their third album Mezzanine and three further hit singles, Teardrop, Angel, and Inertia Creeps.

One member down, they returned in early 2003 with their fourth album, 100th Window. Probably their darkest offering to date, it crept in at the top of the charts and quickly disappeared without a trace, with only one hit single and one non-charting single to show for it. More recently, they made a brief visit back to the charts at the end of last year with the soundtrack to the Luc Besson film Danny the Dog.

Artist of the Week – Erasure

Here’s another old Artist of the Week feature from my old radio show. It probably wasn’t researched very well, and so may contain plagiarism, errors, and omissions. My sincere apologies if so.

The story begins way back in 1981, when Vince Clarke was briefly a member of the gods of electronica Depeche Mode. After the first album, musical differences forced him out of the band, leaving just as their popularity was growing. Following this, he and Alison Moyet formed Yazoo, who saw huge success during their brief but stormy reign over the charts between 1982 and 1983.

After their split, Vince joined with producer Eric Radcliffe to form a group called The Assembly, where the intention was that they would produce tracks with different singers. After one huge hit, Never Never, and one flop, they called it a day.

It was during the auditions for The Assembly project [I’m going to add my own “citation needed” tag here] that Vince first came across singer Andy Bell. They started working together, and had soon completed the first album Wonderland. However, for whatever reason, the debut was never a substantial hit, and only yielded one minor hit single, so it wasn’t until the second album The Circus came out that they were propelled to the top end of the charts by the universal hit Sometimes.

Further albums followed, with The Innocents bringing more success, and, at the end of the 1980s, they turned away from their traditionally analogue sounds to produce Wild!, their second number one album, which also brought them four top twenty hit singles.

For 1991’s Chorus they returned to a very analogue sound to produce what is commonly thought to be their best album to date. Again, a further four huge hits ensued, and in mid-1992, they followed this with an obscure collection of cover versions which brought them their biggest hit to date, the huge summer smash Abba-esque EP.

Their return in 1994 with I Say I Say I Say brought them further hits, but by the mid-1990s, a combination of being overwhelmed by Britpop and spending too much time experimenting meant they were starting to lose their touch. This began in earnest with 1995’s eponymous album, which turned their previous sound on its head with ten-minute instrumentals and ambient tracks.

In 1997 they tried to get a foot back in the door with Cowboy, a collection of 3-minute pop songs, which were widely ignored by the record-buying public. In 2000, they tried to tap the remnants of the indie explosion with Loveboat, a predominantly acoustic guitar-based album, which barely even managed to scrape into the charts.

It was finally last year that they managed their comeback, through the all-too-popular medium of a cover versions album. The wittily titled but frankly awful Other People’s Songs managed to grab them a little bit of the limelight they deserve, and helped their second singles compilation into the top end of the charts.

So what now? Well, they’re still very analogue, and rumour suggests that they’ve now gone all electro on us, following recent successes from the likes of Röyksopp and Mirwais. The album is released on January 24th, preceded by the single Breathe on the 3rd.