New Order – Substance

Released thirty years ago this week, New Order‘s first compilation, the companion album for Joy Division‘s slightly later album of the same name, is widely celebrated as one of the best compilations of its era. Uniquely, thanks to their habit of releasing non-album singles, more than half of the tracks had never appeared on another New Order album.

The singles are presented here in relatively simple, chronological form, and so it opens with one of two versions of Ceremony, the Joy Division track that New Order recorded after Ian Curtis‘s suicide. It’s a great track, if somewhat poignant.

Continuing with their early works with producer Martin Hannett, we then get Everything’s Gone Green, representing their second single from late 1981. I’ve never been hugely fond of either this or Procession, which makes up the other half of the single. As a minimum it’s an interesting period piece, but it’s noticeably lower quality than Ceremony, and to me seems to show a group struggling to find its way after the death of its guiding light.

By Temptation (1982), they seemed to be starting to find their way. It could have been a lot more polished, but you could definitely see what their sound was starting to become. This version was slightly re-edited for Substance.

What can you say about Blue Monday that hasn’t been said before? Not much. Let’s just say it’s fantastic, groundbreaking, and unforgettable, and leave it at that. However good anything else on here might be, it’s never going to be as good as this.

A tweaked version of Confusion is next, unsurprisingly a sizeable hit after Blue Monday, just missing out on a top ten placing. Written with Arthur Baker, it’s an oddly experimental track, full of huge eighties snares and orchestral hits, but somehow it also displays a certain brilliance. Five tracks in, and New Order are firmly and consistently producing great music.

Thieves Like Us is probably the most “pop” of the earlier tracks. From the traditional New Order instrumental introduction that lasts over two minutes – more than a third of the song – despite being challenging and unusual, is already accessible, and Bernard Sumner‘s vocal, when it finally arrives, is unusually well delivered.

The eight-minute 12″ version of The Perfect Kiss is an odd inclusion in a way – it just seems a bit too long among the other singles. Which is only ironic because due to limited playing time on the CD, this is actually slightly edited from the original release. Still, it’s a great piece of music, and speaking personally, I’m all for frog and sheep samples in my music.

Also from Low-Life is Sub-culture, which follows, also in the form of a slightly obscure edited remix, which apparently led to sleeve designer Peter Saville refusing to design a sleeve for the single. Then comes the brilliant Shellshock, again an edited 12″ version, but sounding every bit as resonant as any of the single versions on here.

There are then two tracks from 1986’s Brotherhood – firstly, State of the Nation, a number 30 hit in September of that year. Honestly, by this stage it would be hard for New Order to do anything wrong – particularly not with their singles. Truly brilliant. But not, honestly, quite as good as Bizarre Love Triangle, which appears here remixed by Shep Pettibone in typically extravagant form. It’s perplexing and confusing that this only reached number 56 on its original release.

Finally, promoting the album was the fantastic one-off single True Faith. If you were forced to name a New Order track, the chances are good that you would pick either this or Blue Monday – it’s utterly fantastic, and unusually (at least as far as I’m concerned) the title actually seems to fit the song. Everything just seems to come together perfectly.

So Substance is an unusual compilation, focusing generally on the 12″ versions rather than the ones you might have heard on the radio, but as a companion to New Order‘s first four albums, it’s rather fantastic. The second disc gets you a whole load of b-sides and alternative mixes. You would probably have to be an established fan these days to buy this instead of the more recent Singles, but it’s definitely an essential purchase for completists.

You can still find Substance at all major retailers.

Pet Shop Boys – Disco

Six little tick sounds, and Disco begins with what has, for many, become the definitive version of In the night, Arthur Baker‘s extended version. It takes about a minute before the vocal turns up – just long enough to fit in the entirety of The Clothes Show TV theme.

In the night is something of an oddity. The first Pet Shop Boys b-side, it was built around the chord sequence of the a-side, the original release of Opportunities, and is a melancholic piece about a Parisian youth group from a couple of decades earlier.

Disco, which first appeared in the shops thirty years ago this week, is a bit of an oddity in this respect – the concept in general wasn’t so unusual for its age, but it does seem strange now. For much of its time, this was a budget release, and although it didn’t peak quite as high, it flirted with the lower reaches of the charts for nearly as long as its parent album. For some people, then, their first taster for much of Pet Shop Boys‘ early work would have been these six extended and alternative takes.

The Full Horror version of Suburbia comes next, an extended version of Julian Mendelsohn‘s single mix. Hidden in here is a take on the song which is vastly better than the one that appeared a few months earlier on debut album Please, but the additional dog samples at either end, and the spoken word introduction have always seemed a little over the top to me. But this is definitely epic, in every sense of the word, and it’s a solid version.

This collection represents all four of Pet Shop Boys‘ singles to date, backed up with two of the b-sides, and representing second single Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money) is a remix by The Latin Rascals, who never really saw a lot of fame elsewhere. There aren’t any remix names on the album, but this turns out to be the Versión Latina which was hidden away on the limited edition 12″ of the original release. It’s an odd choice of version, but it’s actually pretty good – particularly the section in the middle where they have broken everything down and it’s not clear what’s going to happen next. The extra beats are a bit over the top, but they’re welcome too.

Both sides of Disco open with b-sides, and Side B brings us the glorious nine minute version of Paninaro, originally released a month or so earlier as a b-side to Suburbia. It’s huge – atmospheric, dark, and quite exceptional too. Until a decade or so later, this would have been the only version of the song that many people would have known, and the shorter version (strangely lacking Versace from the lyrics) would pale into insignificance compared to its big brother.

The darkness continues with the Dance Mix of Love comes quickly. It’s difficult to imagine anyone actually dancing to this – it’s dark, atmospheric, and very beautiful, but not exactly lively. But that’s just another way that this album surprises – all the tracks are of a particular age, one of enormous snares, long before kick drum intros and outros, but apart from that, this is actually a very varied collection.

It closes with a unique nine minute version of West End girls, cobbled together from several of the different versions on the single, mostly by the legendary Shep Pettibone. The screamy shouted title almost certainly isn’t necessary, but the extra verse and some of the additional counter-melody arrangements are welcome inclusions. It closes the album in fine form.

Eight years later, Pet Shop Boys would finally return to the remix album concept with the much disliked Disco 2, and then a third and fourth volume would follow even later, each in a completely different form. Now, thirty years on, it would be easy to forget about the release that started the series, but it’s an exceptional little album.

You can still find the original release of Disco at all major retailers.

Electronic – Twisted Tenderness

Electronic‘s first album is widely celebrated as being excellent, and as I found out a couple of weeks ago, the second one turns out to be a lot better than any of us remembered too. But as I listened to that one to write the review, I found myself questioning my memories of the third one – is it really as bad as I remembered? Let’s find out.

I’m always a bit suspicious of noisy, industrial electronica, and listening to opening track Make it Happen, I wonder if that might be where my dissatisfaction with Twisted Tenderness stemmed from. It’s a nice enough jingly synth line at the beginning, and then a funky guitar line comes in before we get the vocal. This is telling: “Sometimes we find ourselves searching for something new,” Bernard Sumner tells us.

Well, doing “new” things just for the sake of it is a bit misguided, but let’s give it a chance anyway. Bernard and his bandmate Johnny Marr had clearly been listening to a lot of The Chemical Brothers (and as it turned out, Sumner was also working with them on Out of Control, which was rather better than this and appeared a few months later).

The other telling aspect is Arthur Baker, who turns up as producer here, with some supporting work from members of Doves and Black Grape. Baker has plenty of electronic music on his CV of course, but by the late 1990s seemed to have settled on a much darker, more industrial sound. Which is OK, of course – guitars are “electronic” too, but I suspect Electronic might have been on a mission to alienate their established fanbase here.

Eventually Make it Happen draws to a close and the charmless Haze begins. Where this succeeds over the preceding track is in its chorus: this time it fits nicely, whereas Make it Happen‘s seemed shoehorned in at best.

There’s a noticeable change in mood at the start of the one and only single Vivid, with its curious mix of electronic backing and harmonica with guitars and live drums. Despite that, it’s actually a pretty good song – it could have just about fitted as one of the less good moments on the preceding album Raise the Pressure. But that’s about it – it’s good, but nothing too great. And I can’t help but worry that might be as good as this album gets.

Neither is it ever too bad though – at worst, it’s listenable, even if it’s not really our thing. The less good moments (Breakdown) are always balanced by the better ones (Can’t Find My Way HomeTwisted Tenderness). I suspect the latter is intended to provide continuity to the previous releases, but even so, barely a moment goes by when you don’t find yourself looking at this album’s neighbours on the shelf and wishing you were listening to one of them instead.

Like No Other is forgettable, and Late at Night was almost going to be the second single, but never quite got its full release, and honestly that’s no major injustice. The better moments still appear – Prodigal Son drags on a bit, but it’s pretty good, but closing tracks When She’s Gone and Flicker are nothing special.

When I write these reviews, I just listen to the album and write what I think. Sometimes I’m wrong, and people quite rightly call me out for it. Other times their arguments (like mine) are clearly tempered by their memories. But I wonder if anyone will rush in to defend this album? Because honestly, right now I think I’m right – either it isn’t very good, or I’m just not its intended audience. Probably the latter, but in that case, who is?

You can still find Twisted Tenderness at all major retailers.

Music for the Masses 39 – 7 May 2005

For the final run of Music for the Masses, from April to May 2005, I had secured the coveted Saturday night slot, building people up to a stomping night out in Leeds. Or alternatively helping them to revise for their exams. Or potentially neither; it was rather difficult to tell. But looking through the playlist, I can see a slightly more uptempo seam running through the show, culminating with the Electromix at the end of the show.

webcamh1webcamh2 webcamh3 webcamh4

Show 39: Sat 7 May 2005, from 6:00pm-8:00pm

Broadcast on LSR FM, online only. Artist of the week: The Shamen.

  • Morcheeba – World Looking In
  • Erasure – Here I Go Impossible Again
  • 1 Giant Leap feat. Robbie Williams & Maxi Jazz – My Culture
  • Mylo – In My Arms (Sharam Jey Remix)
  • The Shamen – Comin’ On (Beatmasters Mix)
  • Sylver – Make It
  • Aurora – Ordinary World
  • BT – Orbitus Terrarium
  • Kraftwerk – Aérodynamik
  • The Shamen – MK2A
  • Depeche Mode – Freelove (Live) [The Live Bit]
  • Stereo MCs – Connected
  • Technique – Sun is Shining
  • Felix – Don’t You Want Me
  • Yello feat. Stina Nordenstam – To the Sea
  • New Order – Jetstream (Arthur Baker Remix)
  • The Shamen – Indica
  • Binar – The Truth Sets Us Free
  • Talk Talk – Talk Talk
  • Mirwais feat. Craig Wedren – Miss You [Electromix]
  • Elektric Music – Lifestyle (Radio-Style) [Electromix]
  • Front Line Assembly – Everything Must Perish [Electromix]
  • Fluke – Absurd
  • Bent – The Waters Deep

The Electromix feature from this show still exists, and will be included on a future Playlist for stowaways.

Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife

There is little doubt that the late 1990s were a turbulent period for Pet Shop Boys. After the enormous success of 1993’s Very, Britpop had arrived with a very noisy guitar-fuelled bump, so 1996 saw them reacting by exploring Latin American rhythms and Russian choirs on the brilliantly eccentric Bilingual.

But the bubble had definitely burst, and so it is with their 1999 album Nightlife. It opens in astonishingly good form with the anthemic For your own good, taking heavy influence from the dance scene of the day (particularly Faithless) and doing what Pet Shop Boys always did so well – decisively making it their own.

At this point, Tennant and Lowe were firmly stuck into production of their successful but perhaps slightly misguided musical Closer to heaven, which would debut a couple of years later. Many of the songs on this album made it into the musical too, and the title track Closer to heaven is no exception. Originally inspired by Arthur Baker‘s infinitely better remix of Babylon Zoo‘s Spaceman back in 1996, it’s another enormous track, and could easily have been a single.

But the choices of singles from this album were a little strange, and the first was the expansively titled I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it any more. It’s a great track, and it’s unapologetically a Pet Shop Boys track, but this was an era where only the fan base was going to buy it. Maybe that was the right decision after all – or maybe something else would have sold better. Either way, as a PSB fan, it’s difficult not to love it.

I expect Happiness is an option would have divided people at the time, but it’s difficult to dislike – it’s just so full of unadulterated happiness! Again, taking heavy inspiration from some of the hip hop records of the time, it draws heavy inspiration from classical music, adds a contemporary beat, and brings everything together in quite brilliant fashion.

Then comes the completely unpredictable third single You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk. To all intents and purposes a country song, it could easily be totally out of place here, and yet this is a Pet Shop Boys album – you almost expect it to be eccentric. It’s another brilliant moment.

The first half of the album closes with Vampires, arguably the best track on the entire release. There’s something both beautifully haunting and also very contemporary about it, which is a very catchy combination. And while Radiophonic may have little tangible connection to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it still makes for another exceptional Faithless-inspired piece.

But as the first paragraph hinted, this was a troubled period for Pet Shop Boys, and although the first half of the album could easily be part of their best release ever, the latter half is sadly among their worst. The only one has little to say in its favour – a dull lyric, and a moronic chorus – although it does at least boast some interesting production. Boy strange has a marginally more interesting lyric, but little else to say in its favour.

In denial does at least boast Kylie Minogue as the guest vocalist, but otherwise I suspect it might have been better left for the musical. Then New York City boy comes across as little more than a failed attempt to emulate the success of Go West. True, it seems less bad now, fifteen years on, but it’s still a little gratuitous. After all that, Footsteps seems positively uplifting, but there’s really nothing special about this closing track either – the lyrics in particular are well below Tennant’s normal standard.

Even if you disagree with some of those later statements, you must recognise that Nightlife is a troubled album. It almost feels as though somehow, deep into the musical, they realised that it was going to take another couple of years to finish, and they were already three years on from the last album, so they needed to throw something together as quickly as possible. Ever the professionals, they still managed to craft it into a reasonably cohesive album, but it does lack the gravitas of, say, Behaviour or Very.

Despite an exceptional array of b-sides, there still isn’t a deluxe version of Nightlife, but you can still find the original album all over the place.