Preview – New Order

It’s a rare treat to be able to preview a new single from a group as legendary as New Order. They returned last week, completely out of the blue, with a new track called Be a Rebel, and… well… it isn’t amazing, to be honest. It feels as though they’re missing Peter Hook more than they did on the entirety of Music Complete, and just ends up sounding a bit like one of Electronic‘s weaker moments. That’s OK though – even New Order and Electronic‘s weaker moments seem to be good enough these days, so let’s chalk this one up as a lockdown special and enjoy it for what it is.

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.

Karl Bartos – Communication

After a gap of twelve years, the year 2003 delivered not one but two Kraftwerk comebacks, as Tour de France Soundtracks appeared just months before Karl Bartos‘s third solo outing, and his first to use his real name. A lot of fans took the opportunity to argue about which was better

But Communication certainly has a lot of energy – it opens with The Camera, which absolutely embodies the spirit of Kraftwerk – pick some generic inanimate subject matter, write some very mechanical lyrics around it, add some electronic instrumentation and processed vocals, and you have a good song. So it is here – The Camera is, bluntly, great.

I’m the Message was the lead single, and after The Camera is disappointing at best – the inanimate subject matter is supposed to be “a message in sound and vision,” which might have worked if it had only been realised better. It’s not bad, but there’s just something a little off here; something that isn’t quite working. You can’t quite put your finger on it yet, though.

15 Minutes of Fame is next, Karl Bartos‘s comeback single from three years earlier, and having been very much in non-electronic form for his previous release Electric Music (1998), it does feel a bit like a homecoming. It’s really rather excellent, and it’s not hard to see this as the blueprint for the rest of the album.

Bartos appears to be of the opinion that Communication was overlooked at the time it came out, although it’s difficult to sympathise with that viewpoint when you realise that at the time it was actually his best charting work since leaving Kraftwerk – Communication peaked on the German charts at number 85, while the more introspective follow-up Off the Record (2003) peaked at 44. Neither of the Elektric Music albums made it onto the top 100.

More importantly, there’s a bit of a quality control problem here. That might seem a controversial view – if you search online for reviews of this release, you’ll find evidence of almost cult-like hero-worship, but honestly large swathes of it are very average – Reality and Electronic Apeman, for instance, contain plenty good ideas, but they just don’t appear to be particularly well pulled off. The “there is a big black rectangle” part in the latter track might have seemed a clever nod to 2001 – A Space Odyssey, but it really doesn’t work. Contrast with the simplistic, rhythmic, and unusually contemporary perfection that Kraftwerk had again achieved with Tour de France Soundtracks, and it’s hard to get too enthusiastic here.

But when it’s good, it’s very good. Following his frustrations about the original release, Bartos reissued it in 2016, now with an added track Camera Obscura, and led by Life as the new lead single. This is crucial to note, because while singles might not be as important now as they were in 2003, picking the right one as the lead proves that his head was in the right place now. Life is fantastic – it’s an uplifting song, with a great message. It is, of course, introspective and anchored in the past, as all of Kraftwerk‘s output has been in the last three decades, but this song seems to represent Bartos coming to terms with the past (specifically, being fired from the group that gave him his career) and starting to think about looking forward.

Cyberspace is good, although we’re really very much doing things by the numbers now, and neither Interview nor Ultraviolet really have much new to offer. With the excellent debut Elektric Music album (1993) and his production of Electronic‘s Raise the Pressure (1996), Bartos’s latter career has definitely had some better moments, but the pair of releases either side of the turn of the millennium appear to have presented him with a few challenges. Try not to laugh too much at his pronunciation of “potato chips”.

If you don’t have the new reissue, which I don’t, the album closes with the strangely sweet Another Reality. As with much of the album, it feels a little forced and awkward, but it’s a good closing track anyway. Communication definitely isn’t up there among the finest albums ever made, but it still makes its mark, and I’m glad it’s on wide release again.

The remastered version of Communication is still widely available.

New Order – Lost Sirens

As used to be customary after major New Order albums, they basically imploded after Waiting for the Sirens’ Call. They had had a pretty good year, closing it out with their brilliantly comprehensive Singles compilation, and there was an extensive tour, but then in May 2007, things got very confusing. As you probably remember, Peter Hook appeared in an interview and said that New Order had split up, to which the rest of the band responded, “no we didn’t,” and we’ve now been treated to a decade or so of Hook moaning about how badly he was treated while the rest of them seem to put their fingers in their ears and sing “la la la, I’m not listening”. There are some real issues there, but it all comes across as very childish.

It took another six years for Lost Sirens to appear, but it’s pretty amazing that it did. Plugging the gap firmly between Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, when they had Peter Hook, and Music Complete, when they no longer did, you get this. It opens with I’ll Stay with You, which is comfortably better than most of the tracks on the preceding album. It’s a great, catchy song, with some great contributions from Hook.

Even Sugarcane, hinting somewhat at some of Bernard Sumner‘s dafter lyrical moments, is still another catchy and memorable song. What’s notable here is that whereas the parent album was gloomy and rock-infused, this is positively chirpy.

Recoil gives us a more acoustically-focused piece, with some great (electric?) piano work alongside Hook’s unforgettable bass lines. If this had been the last album New Order ever recorded together, it would have been an excellent way to leave – think what you like of Music Complete, the end of the Peter Hook era definitely left listeners on a high. You just have to put emotions to one side – a bit like being in a band, really.

I think California Grass is probably my favourite track on here. It’s also the most rock-sounding, with some relatively big guitars, but they stay subdued and hold back on too much extreme wankery. It just feels like an epic coastal road trip song, somehow.

This is a compilation at heart though, and the track listing is appropriately odd. Hellbent, which snuck out on a compilation a couple of years earlier, is good, but it’s not great. Shake it Up starts off sounding like one of Electronic‘s better moments, but ultimately fails to deliver, particularly once the wah-wah turns up. “I read your book from front to cover,” must surely be up there among Sumner’s worst lyrics ever?

I’ve Got a Feeling is better – it starts off particularly promisingly, although things fall apart quickly during the verse, and despite a catchy chorus, it still sounds a bit generic. The first half of this mini-album was definitely better than the second. To close things out, I Told You So was up there with Jetstream as one of the best tracks on the last album, and now we get a remix of it, the Crazy World mix. It’s huge, epic, and… well, very disappointing. In this century, the guitar-based version of New Order simply isn’t as good as the electronic version. So roll on Music Complete, the album where for the first time in a long time, they really understood who they were, and did it well.

For all my misgivings, Lost Sirens is a pretty good release, and I’m glad we got it, even somewhat belatedly. Is it better than Waiting for the Sirens’ Call? Well, they’re probably about the same, but this does at least have a nice stack of uplifting tracks at the start, which can’t be said for its predecessor.

You can find Lost Sirens at all major retailers.

Stowaway Heroes – Stephen Hague

If you know anything about pop music from the last three or four decades, you have probably come across Stephen Hague‘s name. Producer of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the DarkPet Shop BoysCommunardsErasureSiouxsie and the Banshees, and many more, his impact on music really is immense.

Here’s one of his biggest hits from the 1980s, and a fantastic video to boot – this is New Order‘s True Faith:

In the 1990s, Hague was to be found producing Electronic‘s DisappointedBlur‘s lovely To the End, and Dubstar‘s brilliant debut Disgraceful. Here’s Stars:

In the 2000s and 2010s, Hague has worked with Afro Celt Sound Systema-haRobbie WilliamsClient, and this astonishing comeback from Claudia Brücken:

Yes, we owe a lot to Stephen Hague, and he’s a very worthy stowaway hero.

Bizarre search engine terms – 2018 edition

I don’t often look at the statistics for this blog, but occasionally it tells me one or two interesting facts. One of the more revealing is the search engine terms that bring people here. These are a selection of the ones that brought you here in the last year or so!

b.e.f. ‎– music for stowaways torrent

No. Just no. I say this every time, but if you want illegal music, this is not the right place to look. Stream, buy second hand, or best, buy the original in some form. Most of B.E.F.‘s debut album is available on the 1981-2011 box set.

“stephen hague” produce

A search which has brought people here on an astonishing nine different occasions. Stephen Hague turns up a lot on this blog, of course, and not always by name. Over a four-decade career, he’s been responsible for producing many of our favourite acts around here, including Orchestral Manoeuvres in the DarkPet Shop BoysNew OrderErasureMarc AlmondElectronicBlurDubstarSarah CracknellAfro Celt Sound Systema-haPeter GabrielClientClaudia Brücken and more. A future stowaway hero for sure.

location of the first brit award in 1981 [and 1981 brits awards]

A lot of people seem to come here now looking for information about the BRIT Awards. As you’ll see from this article, the first BRIT Awards was not in 1981 – there wasn’t even a ceremony that year. The first was in 1977, at Wembley Conference Centre. The first regular ceremony was in 1982, at Grosvenor House.

best kraftwerk album to start with

Everyone will have their own opinion on this, but I gave mine when Kraftwerk appeared on the Beginner’s guide feature three years ago. I’d stand by that judgement – start with Trans Europa Express or The Mix. It’s worth paying extra for the German releases.

vangelis aimless noodling

This might be one of my favourite web searches ever. Honestly, yes, a good chunk of Vangelis‘s music is aimless noodling, and rather amusingly it turns out that I actually used those exact words when I reviewed the Metropolis soundtrack in 2014, although at the time I wasn’t referring to the man himself.

If you want more, here’s the 2017 edition.

Retro chart for stowaways – 21 October 2006

Here are the top albums from eleven years ago this week:

  1. Delerium – Nuages du Monde
  2. Front Line Assembly – Artificial Soldier
  3. Kings Have Long Arms – I Rock – Eye Pop
  4. The Future Sound of London – Teachings from the Electronic Brain
  5. Hot Chip – The Warning
  6. Electronic – Get the Message – The Best Of
  7. Sparks – Hello Young Lovers
  8. Massive Attack – Collected
  9. Faithless – Forever Faithless – The Greatest Hits
  10. Conjure One – Extraordinary Ways

Monaco – Music for Pleasure

Sha la la la la la la. Yes, What Do You Want from Me? is an extremely good song. Peter Hook is on great form, the lyrics are better than many of New Order‘s and singer and guitarist David Potts was on fine vocal form too.

Music for Pleasure, released twenty years ago this week, was Peter Hook‘s second attempt at a solo project after 1990’s largely forgotten Revenge project. Monaco, though, were pretty successful for a while, and of course What Do You Want from Me? is the single you remember, with its enormous bass guitar part and all the sha la la-ing.

The album followed reasonably quickly after the single though, and third single Shine comes next, still sounding a lot like New Order, or even Electronic during this period. It’s a bit more rocky, and Potts can’t quite reach the high notes, but it’s still a great song.

Getting the singles out of the way right at the start, we then jump to Sweet Lips, which came out just before the album, and was also a pretty sizeable hit. It’s much more dancey than either of the other singles, and it’s another fantastically catchy song. The album version is a slightly extended mix, which works well too.

1997 was, of course, just a couple of years after Oasis had turned up and persuaded everyone to dig out their 1960s record collections, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Monaco wanted some of the action as well. Buzz Gum is a pretty respectable imitation of all the other indie stuff that was going on in the mid-1990s.

It’s tempting to wonder whether loading all the singles at the front of the album was the best idea – it started off so promisingly, but Blue is pretty dreary, although it’s also mercifully short. Then comes Junk, a nine minute dance piece, which actually sounds as dated as the indie tracks now, but it’s pretty good.

Billy Bones is a slightly trippy slow-rock piece, which is pretty pleasant, then Happy Jack is another low-grade indie track, this time with a particularly average vocal as well. Tender is better – if you’ve forgotten the album, this is the one with the catchy “in my mind I live in California” line.

Sedona (which is in Arizona, not California) is the last track, and is the best thing we’ve had on here since the singles at the start. It’s a huge, and epic piece, bobbing along at a fairly leisurely tempo, and with some slightly naff synth reed sounds, but it’s a clever exploration of sounds, and makes for a great instrumental closing piece. After a minute of silence at the end, someone turns up to add “Oi! You can turn it off now!”

Strictly speaking, I could have done that three quarters of an hour ago, but I didn’t. Music for Pleasure is a mixed bag, but when it’s good, it is very good indeed. And it clearly must have had some kind of impact on me – I would never have suspected it when the album came out twenty years ago, but now I do live in California. Thanks, Monaco!

You should still be able to find copies of Music for Pleasure floating around, but I’m not sure I would pay that much for them…