B.E.F. – 1981-2011

It seems strange writing a review of something that in some cases is thirty years old, but this is a fully remastered reissue, and that’s how it has earned its place on these pages. Also, B.E.F., or the British Electric Foundation are back now with their third collection, which seems a good time to look back at what they did previously.

For the uninintiated, B.E.F. are pretty much the same people as Heaven 17, a side-project which came about around the time that The Human League imploded in 1980. They’re also responsible for the name of this very blog Music for stowaways, for reasons which are unlikely to ever become clear.

The beautiful box set 1981-2011 is pretty comprehensive, bringing together almost all of their output from the thirty year period. You get three CDs – Music of Quality and Distinction: Volume 1Music of Quality and Distinction: Volume 2; and a collection of oddities entitled Music from Stowaways to Dark.

The first disc consists of the original Music of Quality and Distinction: Volume 1 album (1981) and some bonus rarities. It opens with Ball of Confusion featuring Tina Turner. Apparently, the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation. It’s one of the better tracks on the album, although I’m not the world’s biggest Tina Turner fan, and as with much of Heaven 17‘s work it hasn’t aged especially well.

The original Music of Quality and Distinction is an album which I’d probably consider important rather than actually good, and this is highlighted by some of its less enjoyable moments, such as Billy Mackenzie wailing all over the place on The Secret Life of Arabia and then again at the end on It’s Over, and Paula Yates making a total mess of the frankly awful These Boots Are Made for Walking.

The less dreadful moments are generally listenable, such as Paul Jones‘s version of There’s a Ghost in My House, although the sound is distinctly odd – I’ve not heard the un-remastered version, but listening to this version I don’t even want to think about how the previous CD releases must have sounded.

Spectacularly vomit-inducing is Gary Glitter‘s appearance on Suspicious Minds. Obviously we can’t just wipe him from history, but it is hard to listen to this without wandering how much money he’s just made from your purchase of the album. On the plus side, it’s largely unlistenable.

Side B of the original album sees a general upturn in quality, with Bernie Nolan‘s take of You Keep Me Hanging On and Sandie Shaw‘s pleasant version of Anyone Who Had a Heart. The high-points of the album, though, are both of Glenn Gregory‘s tracks. By the time this came out, he had already appeared as the vocalist on Heaven 17‘s debut album Penthouse and Pavement, and they were clearly rather more comfortable recording with him than with any of his contemporaries.

Wichita Lineman is a pleasant electronic-soul take on the original, with backing not unlike the Music for Stowaways cassette which had appeared the previous year, and Perfect Day, which must by law be included on all cover version albums, is a great version of a great song. The first volume is then closed out by seven “backing tracks” (largely instrumental versions, occasionally with a few changes here and there), which are often better than the originals without the intervention of the less good vocalists.

Having worked through all of that, the second volume of Music of Quality and Distinction is rather more of a pleasure to listen to. B.E.F. returned nearly ten years later in 1991 with Volume 2, which is this time tempered by the sounds of the early 90s, as you might expect. It opens with the brilliant Chaka Khan on an atmospheric take of Someday We’ll All Be Free, and this is smoothly followed by Lalah Hathaway performing Family Affair. The best track on Side A is Early on the Morning, performed by Richard Darbyshire, and this is followed by the distinctly better return of Billy Mackenzie for Free.

The second volume is not without its low points. It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding may have effectively launched the career of Terence Trent d’Arby, but it’s not great, and neither are A Song for You by Mavis Staples or Billy Preston‘s Try a Little Tenderness.

But for the most part, this is a pretty good album. In particular the moment halfway through I Don’t Know Why I Love You (vocals by Green Gartside) where it morphs into The Robots by Kraftwerk is pretty masterful. Tina Turner‘s return for A Change is Gonna Come is good too, as is Ghida de Palma‘s version of Feel Like Makin’ Love. The final track, Billy Preston‘s version of In My Life, is another of the best tracks on the album.

The bonus tracks for this album are equally pointless – you get a couple of acapella versions, an instrumental, an alternative version, and a version of I Don’t Know Why I Love You with a bit less of the electro middle eight. But in general the second volume is very strong.

The same cannot really be said for the third. Curiously titled Music from Stowaways to Dark, it essentially brings together the tracks from their early Music for Stowaways cassette with a couple of early demos from Volume 2 and the then-forthcoming Volume 3.

Unfortunately, much as I love the title and concept, the original Music for Stowaways is, frankly, pretty awful. Highlights are Wipe the Board Clean and The Old at Rest, as well as Honeymoon in New York which wasn’t on the cassette version, but the openers Optimum Chant and Uptown Apocalypse are dreadful, as is Rise of the EastGroove Thang, an alternative version of (We Don’t Need This) Fascist from Penthouse and Pavement, frankly just makes a mockery of the whole thing.

In fact, I’d possibly go as far as to say that the only good track on the album is the B.E.F. Ident which closes it. But then you get the three Work-in-Progress mixes which close the album – two apparently unfinished 1992 tracks, and one from the forthcoming album.

First up is Trade Winds, with a vocal by Mavis Staples, which is entirely pleasant, as is Co-Pilot to Pilot by Kelly Barnes, even if it does contain the word(s) “fiddle-dee-dee”, and the latter seems to have made such an impression on the artists that it now appears on the third full album Dark. Finally, you get an early version of Smalltown Boy starring Billie Godfrey, which is suitably excellent, and the box set is finally over.

Grab the CD or download version of the box set from Amazon if you’re in the UK or your local retailers if that’s where you’re at.