Kraftwerk – Aerodynamik

Kraftwerk singles are a rare enough treat, but it’s only in recent years (and by that, I mean perhaps the last two decades or so) that I think you would be able to safely regard them as a full single package. With Aerodynamik, I think you could argue that they reached their pinnacle.

Fans had been somewhat divided over album Tour de France Soundtracks (2003), but this single, now with a slightly tweaked title (on the album it’s Aéro Dynamik) and released fifteen years ago this week, was better received – although you would be pushed to notice this from its chart performance, as it peaked at just number 33 in the UK – although that far eclipsed its German performance, where it hit just number 80.

Key to the single is the new Kling Klang Dynamix version, Kraftwerk‘s own seven-minute remix with heavily reworked drums and percussive sounds. You would, of course, have to appreciate the original, but I suspect most people did, as it’s clearly one of the standout tracks on Tour de France Soundtracks. Having established that, even just an extended version would be great – but this is more than just expansive – it’s a comprehensive rework of the original, while still entirely in the same spirit – it’s absolutely brilliant. Before that, though, we had already had a taster with the Kling Klang Radio Mix, a four-minute edit of the Dynamix, which is exceptional too.

Another nice thing that happened with Kraftwerk was their embracing of remix culture from the early 1980s onwards – it almost feels out of character for them, given how purist they have become about their own music, but a small group of artists have been let loose on their catalogue, and they have created, pretty much without exception, wonderful versions. Hopefully one day, the Düsseldorf quartet will formalise these versions in a remix album – I’ll be at the front of the queue.

To prove my point, the brilliant Alex Gopher and Étienne de Crécy turn up for the third version on this single, the Dynamik Mix, adding some wonderful eccentricities – the drums are a bit more metallic, and are augmented by some nice woodblock usage, but the key to the mix is the enormous acid synth arpeggio that runs all the way through. At the risk of repeating myself, this is exceptional too. For Kraftwerk to have returned the preceding year after twelve years of silence with material this good is very impressive.

Closing the release sees longtime Kraftwerk remixer François Kevorkian turn up for his Aero Mix, a broader and more expansive take on the track. Like all of François’s Kraftwerk remixes, it’s a subtle reworking, almost a dub mix or a “part two” version at times, with relatively few new sounds, but it’s always good to have his take on a track. If I had to choose, I’d say that of these remixes I probably like this one the least, but there’s really nothing in it – his is a typically subtle reworking of some great material.

So if you buy any Kraftwerk singles, I can provide a list of which you should track down, but this one should be high on the list. It would be a full three years before the next single, which ironically saw Aerodynamik coming out again, this time as a double a-side with La Forme, remixed by Hot Chip, and in a bright green neon sleeve.

The CD version of Aerodynamik is hard to find now, but the digital release is widely available.

Pet Shop Boys – Actually

By 1987, thirty years ago this week, Pet Shop Boys were comfortably at the top of their game. Actually may have only peaked at number two on the charts, but it yielded two number one singles, plus another number one that wasn’t actually on the album (Always on My Mind), a number two, and another top ten hit. That’s quite impressive, by anybody’s standards.

It opens with One more chance, one of the many songs that they originally recorded with Bobby O in 1984, and that had already been released as a single in some territories. They completely re-recorded it for their second album, and then remixed it as a 12″ version, removing an entire verse in the process, and that’s the version that opens the album. Putting 12″ mixes on your album was still considered pretty revolutionary at this point, and so this is an unusual but undeniably catchy opener.

Then Dusty Springfield turns up out of nowhere – literally, as she had barely recorded anything for about a decade – to duet on the brilliant What have I done to deserve this? The shift of dynamic is ingenious – neither of the first two tracks really have much in common with anything on the debut album Please, and yet they still sound familiar.

Shopping is next, a social commentary on Thatcherite 1980s Britain. This is the single that never was – it’s catchy and you’ve almost certainly heard it before, but it was never released anywhere apart from on Actually. In a way it has some similarities to Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money) from the first album, and you have to wonder whether they intentionally wrote it as a “catchy” song. Pretty good though.

The singles alternate on each side of the album, so next comes the album’s one flop – the autumn single Rent only peaked at number 8. It’s a beautiful track though, one of the gentlest of Pet Shop Boys‘ early career, supplemented on the single by a couple of brilliant François Kevorkian remixes. The album version is a bit more plodding than the single mix, but still a brilliant track.

The pressure to write hit singles was clearly on at this stage, and so Hit Music pastiches a number of other people’s songs. It’s my least favourite track on here, but you can still easily appreciate the songwriting talent behind it – there’s a wonderful melancholy in the middle section that seems to appear from nowhere. This is also the second of three consecutive songs to talk about paying bills and rent (It Couldn’t Happen Here contains the line “Who pays your bills?”) which does make you wonder slightly what was going through Neil Tennant‘s mind at the time.

Side B opens with the slowest track on here, the exceptional It Couldn’t Happen Here. Famously co-written with Ennio Morricone and scored by Angelo Badalementi, it’s a beautifully melancholic piece about a friend of Neil Tennant‘s who had been diagnosed with AIDS. It also gave its name to the 1988 film which Pet Shop Boys famously released when they were unable to fund the tour they wanted to stage.

This leads to the enormous opening single It’s a Sin. If you don’t like this, you have no soul. Appearing on pretty much every top 100 list in the last thirty years, it hit number one across most of Western Europe and made the top ten pretty much everywhere else. With an appropriately overblown video to accompany it, it is a truly era-defining track.

I Want to Wake Up is the only track on here other than Hit Music that realistically never would have been a single, but it’s a strong album track. Strangely, Johnny Marr chose to rework it for his 1993 Remix, which took it to a very different place. Then the album version of Heart is, of course, not quite as good as the version that topped the charts six months or so later, but it’s still an excellent song, particularly when you reach the trick ending.

Nothing can really prepare you for the haunting quality of Kings Cross, another song about Margaret Thatcher, the then-British Prime Minister who was at the time busy selling off the nation’s public services. But even a conservative would appreciate this song on some level – it’s an exceptionally beautiful, if poignant, closing track.

So Actually sees Pet Shop Boys at their chart-topping, era-defining best, and anything that followed could never be this good. Or could it? If nothing else, the thirty years that have followed have been full of surprises.

At the time of writing, your best bet is to wait a little before purchasing Actually. It will be available again soon with the accompanying disc Further Listening 1987-1988.

Bent – Programmed to Love

It only seems like yesterday that Bent‘s debut album launched, but in fact it was fifteen years ago already that the beautiful, eccentric, laid back sounds of Programmed to Love were drifting across the airwaves for the first time.

The album begins with the brilliant showcase Exercise 1. Everything that you’re going to love is here, from the sweet swelling pad effects and bonkers vocal samples, through to the overwhelming sense of happiness it brings. It’s difficult to listen to Bent without an enormous smile on your face.

This is an album that drifts, as Exercise 1 mixes into the sweet but short Laughing Gear, and then the exquisite Private Road, with our first taste of Zoë Johnston‘s superlative soft vocals.

Cylons in Love offers our first taste of another key side of Bent, the lead vocal part sampled from an ancient recording, probably on vinyl. A lovely processed vocal part comes in to make the piece a duet, and works remarkably well.

It just seems to keep flowing, with the serene I Love My Man, and the slightly daft but fun instrumental Invisible Pedestrian. All the way through Programmed to Love, the sillier moments balance out the prettier ones, and sometimes, as on Chocolate Wings, they also converge. And even at its most bonkers – the pair of Wrong Rock and I Remember Johnny are a prime example – it’s still a lot of fun.

There’s a point just over half way through where everything comes together perfectly, as the perfect Swollen is followed by Welly Top Mary, then the ironically named Irritating NoisesA Ribbon for My Hair, and Always. If this isn’t an album of contrasts, then that’s only because it’s an exceptional piece when viewed as a whole.

Both of the full singles from this album, Always and Swollen are truly wonderful, the latter including a remix from François Kevorkian which is, of course, well worth hearing. In their album form they are six and seven minutes long respectively, and are entirely deserving of the space they have been given. You don’t often find music to this standard.

Closing this version of the album comes the pairing of Toothless Gibbon and Exercise 2, neither of which would have changed the world on their own, but they do close out an excellent album in a suitably bonkers manner. Ultimately Programmed to Love was just the start of an extremely strong career for Bent, but if this is all you remember them for, then that’s really no bad thing. Essential listening.

The 2002 version of Programmed to Love that we’ve reviewed here doesn’t appear to be as widely available any more – if you’re stuck, just grab whichever version is available to you, and go with that!

Essential Albums – Erasure

Long before this blog ever existed, some time around late 2000 or early 2001, I started compiling a list of essential albums. There were just six entries, and this was the fourth.

Erasure – Erasure (1995)

  • Chart Position: 14
  • HitsStay with Me (15), Fingers and Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day) (20)
  • Highlights: Rescue MeSono Luminus

Although still one of their least successful albums to date, Erasure‘s eponymous album is probably their finest work. Collaborations come from renowned electronic pioneers François Kevorkian and Thomas Fehlmann, and make this album quite unlike anything else Erasure have ever released.

No longer one of their least successful, given the way their career tanked over the next decade or so, but still among their finest hours. You can read a more recent review here and the Beginner’s guide to Erasure here.

 

Kraftwerk – The Mix

Right from the first notes of Die Roboter (The Robots) you can tell there’s something a little bit different about The Mix. After five years of silence, Kraftwerk reappeared with something absolutely brilliant, eleven of their classic tracks, self-remixed, as The Mix.

As a self-re-evaluation (if only that were a word), it’s quite brilliant. Some tracks aren’t quite as good as the originals; others are just as good; and surprisingly, a few are actually better. One of those is Die Roboter – always good, but now transformed into a tantalisingly inhuman nine minute electronic exploration. Truly exceptional.

Then comes Computer Liebe (Computer Love), less melancholic than the original, but much more approachable in simple pop terms. If you’re looking for the essential version of this track, there’s a good case to make that this might be it.

The best represented album on this collection is Computerwelt, and the third and fourth tracks are also from there, Taschenrechner (Pocket Calculator) and its Japanese partner Dentaku, the latter not otherwise widely available. The pocket calculator may not have quite made that noise previously, but it sounds pretty good nevertheless. The inclusion of Dentaku as a second part is a bit strange, but it seems to still be doing well as a live favourite.

The new version of Autobahn is interesting – it’s definitely a good fifteen years or so more contemporary than the original, but there’s something slightly uncomfortable about it too, as though it doesn’t quite fit in its new surroundings. The addition of the central section (the repeated “do the fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” when they turn the radio on) is particularly fantastic though.

Just as good as the original version is the new version of Radioaktivität. Gone are the deep haunting choir and the darkness, and yet somehow it’s still every bit as spooky as the original. It’s no longer a celebration, either – the original talked at length about Marie Curie, whereas now it’s all about death and pain. The single spawned some great remixes by long-time collaborator François Kevorkian and William Orbit too.

The updated trio of Trans Europa ExpressAbzug, and Metall auf Metall are less convincing than the originals, and are rare examples of tracks on this album where you find yourself wondering slightly why they bothered – all the charm and expression seem to have been edited out, and replaced with slightly better synced drums but not a lot else. Then Heimcomputer, now incorporating elements of It’s More Fun to Compute, is a good combination, but relatively little has been changed from the original. And finally, Music Non Stop is fun, but ultimately it’s every bit as dull as it was on the original Electric Café (Techno Pop) album.

So The Mix does fall apart a little towards the end, but if you’re looking for a comprehensive Kraftwerk collection, this would be a good place to find it – it’s still every bit as contemporary as it was in 1991, while some of the earlier albums have dated less well. It may only really include eight of their greatest hits, but it’s a great album even so.

As with all of their albums, do yourself a favour and buy the German version, available on import from here.

Yazoo – Only Yazoo – The Best of Yazoo

I’m not sure that Mute Records ever really did a particularly good job of milking the catalogue of Yazoo. With two great albums – a number one and a number two, and a whole string of hugely significant hit singles, it wasn’t until the 1990s that they started trying to revisit their catalogue, and even then it was in a messy, disjointed fashion.

After the remixes of Situation and State Farm in 1990, there was then a series of CD reissues in 1996, and finally the first Yazoo best of Only Yazoo, fifteen years ago this week in 1999. Beautifully packaged, and accompanied by remixes of the three megahits, it was pretty successful. But was it actually any good?

Only Yazoo opens with the debut single and number two hit Only You, grabbing the listener from the start. It then jumps forward to the fantastic Ode to Boy from You and Me Both (1983, reviewed here). Then comes the one single from that album, the brilliant Nobody’s Diary.

Then Midnight and Goodbye ’70s, both from Upstairs at Eric’s (1982) follow. This compilation marked the first time that many of these tracks had seen a decent digital mastering, and although it’s now overshadowed by the rather better box set In Your Room (2008), the improvement in sound quality was marked.

Every compilation has its notable omissions and odd inclusions, but it’s rare that the compilers have so few singles to choose from. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that there are so many album tracks on here. What is perhaps surprising is that one of the five original singles, the non-album track The Other Side of Love, is not on here, and neither is François Kevorkian‘s 1990 version of Situation, both of which would have been welcome.

Meanwhile, the inclusion of some tracks, such as Anyone and Mr Blue, a couple of the less interesting tracks from You and Me Both, is a little puzzling. But slap bang in the middle is Don’t Go, so everything is OK. Then come Tuesday and the lovely Winter Kills from Upstairs at Eric’s, and the main chunk of the album is over already.

Every compilation should have its special, unique selling points, and on this release they’re all clustered towards the end. State Farm, only ever before heard as the b-side to The Other Side of Love is an extremely welcome inclusion, and while the reissued CD release of Upstairs at Eric’s also had François Kevorkian‘s original US 12″ mix of Situation is always worth hearing, so it’s good to have it here too.

There are then new remixes of Don’t Go, by Todd Terry, Situation, by Club 69, and finally Only You, by Richard Stannard. Perhaps slightly surprisingly, Yazoo always seem to remix well, although the three selected here aren’t really among the finest examples. Don’t Go just sounds like another Todd Terry track, which seems a little unfair – although he did prove that the main riff still has the beginnings of a very good dance track.

As with a lot of Peter Rauhofer‘s mixes, his version of Situation is a pretty poor effort unfortunately – in the long run it boils down to nearly nine minutes of over-extended house beats and not a whole lot else. And the new mix of Only You on the end, while pleasant enough on every level, just seems a little unnecessary – it’s basically the same as the original but with a few extra strings. Well, if that was all it needed, couldn’t they have just reissued the original?

So Only Yazoo may be a little disjointed, but it did mark the first time that the record company really gave their back catalogue the honour it deserved. These days you could skip it and jump to the better and more complete In Your Room, but in 1999, this was the essential Yazoo collection.

You can still find Only Yazoo at all major retailers, such as here.

Various Artists – Electrospective (The Remix Album)

There are times when I really enjoy writing these reviews, and others when I wonder why I put myself through this. There’s really only one rule – I have to listen to the entire album in order while I write the review. Earlier this year I reviewed the original Electrospective compilation in its full glory, and now it’s the turn of its companion remix album.

Inevitably a remix album is always going to be a hit or miss affair, with occasional forgotten gems and occasional dross mixed in alongside one another. And so this is – but at worst, this is a journey through the story of the remix, from the early 80s extended versions to the modern reinventions, with everything in between.

Electrospective (The Remix Album) begins its first disc firmly in the 1980s, full of handclaps and drum solos, with the original 12″ versions of Heaven 17‘s Penthouse and PavementTalking Loud and Clear by OMD, and Talk Talk‘s original US mix of It’s My Life. Of these, it is the third which truly shines – perhaps because it’s the best song of this bunch anyway, or perhaps because there really is something special about this mix.

The next bunch are less exciting – Malcolm McLaren‘s Madam Butterfly drags rather over its ten minute duration, and Vicious Pink‘s Cccan’t You See and Grace Jones‘s I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You) do little to pick things up – this is left instead to Buffalo Stance by Neneh Cherry, although Kevin Saunderson‘s techno take on this has nothing on the original.

By thus stage we’re firmly in the late eighties, an age of big shoulder pads, big string pads, and orchestral hits. Derrick May‘s club mix of Good Life by Inner City is every bit as good as the original, as is François Kevorkian‘s reworking of Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode.

But for something that’s supposed to be a chronicle of “the remix” there are some odd omissions – where’s Shep Pettibone hiding? Where are all the DMC remixes? There’s a lot missing, but in a way this feels more effective as a companion album to Electrospective than a guide to what it means to be a remix.

François Kevorkian turns up again for the next track, the totally brilliant 1990 remix of Yazoo‘s Situation, after which disc one closes with a couple of disappointments – a thoroughly unexciting version of Soul II Soul‘s Back to Life and The Orb‘s rather misguided take on Crystal Clear by The Grid. Although it is very nice to see The Grid on a compilation like this.

By disc two, we are firmly into the mid 1990s. The first track is a brilliant remix which I hadn’t heard before of William Orbit‘s incredible Water from a Vine Leaf, and another surprise follows – the amusingly energetic Cappella Club Mix of Always by Erasure.

The rest of the 1990s are less well represented, with a good but somewhat unexciting Brothers in Rhythm take of Reach by Judy CheeksPaul van Dyk‘s reworking of Passion by Amen! UK, which starts off promisingly but in the long run doesn’t really go anywhere. Then there’s Deep Dish with a pretty poor version of Wrong by Everything But the Girl.

Finally, we work our way towards the end of the decade with unremarkable versions of Around the World by Daft Punk (remixed by Masters at Work), Telex‘s Moskow Diskow remixed by Carl Craig, and the slightly better Simple Minds‘s Love Song.

Before this review turns any more into an extended track listing, we should reflect a little on what we’ve heard. Where the original collection brought together thirty years of electronic hits, this one consists of thirty years of remixed electronic hits. And if that’s the goal, it’s pretty successful. It’s not comprehensive, and neither is it particularly amazing, but it is fun to listen to, and many of the tracks which were chosen are rare and unusual, which is all very worthwhile.

The last few tracks take us firmly into the 21st century, and the inclusion of one of The Human League‘s 2003 remixes (The Sound of the Crowd) is a pleasant surprise, even if the version itself is nothing special. On the other hand, Ewan Pearson‘s Strippedmachine version of Goldfrapp‘s Strict Machine is something incredibly special, and is a very welcome inclusion.

The closing tracks come in the form of Tom Neville‘s rather dull version of Kelis‘s Milkshake and the rather more entertaining Pass Out by Tinie Tempah – apparently he’s never been to Scunthorpe.

Ultimately, Electrospective (The Remix Collection) does what it says on the tin – it’s a fun journey through some selected remixes from the last three decades. Which is more than enough to make it an entirely worthwhile listen.

You can find Electrospective (The Remix Album) at Amazon here.