Stowaway Heroes – Shep Pettibone

One of the most important names of the 1980s is Shep Pettibone. You’ll know him from multiple remixes and production credits, but there’s a good chance that you don’t actually know anything about him. Me neither, frankly, so let’s start with something we can all agree on – the brilliance of his 1986 remix of Love Comes Quickly, by Pet Shop Boys:

The New York-based DJ would work with Pet Shop Boys a number of times between 1986 and 1988, working on ten tracks in total. But by 1986, Pettibone was already half a decade into his career, having cut his teeth on Afrika Bambaataa‘s Jazzy Sensation in 1981:

His CV for the late 1980s is impressive to say the least, including remixes and production work for Art of NoiseThe B-52sBee GeesBrosDavid BowieDepeche ModeDuran DuranDusty SpringfieldElton JohnErasure, FalcoGeorge MichaelJanet JacksonNew OrderRun DMCWhitney Houston and many others. But his most prolific collaborator seems to have been Madonna, who used his services no less than sixteen times between 1985 and 1993. Here’s Into the Groove:

His mixes were undeniably of their time, with huge drum fills and solos, and a lot of orchestral hits – so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his remix work dried up somewhat in the 1980s. But if you’re looking for someone who heavily impacted the sound of a particular era, Shep Pettibone should be very high on your list.

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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.

Vinyl Moments – Pet Shop Boys – 1985-1988

As you’ll remember, the previous vinyl moment saw me thinking about taking a trip back to 1985, to listen to Pet Shop Boys not too long after the start of their careers.

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Inevitably, West End girls has to come first, but as you know I only listened to Please a couple of days ago, so I decided to go for the b-side, A man could get arrested. On Alternative, it’s a dark and atmospheric piece, but the single version, produced by Steven Spiro is a slightly vacuous pop version which makes me wish I’d started with Side A after all.

Fortunately, I also own the 12″ version, giving me the opportunity to hear one of my favourite versions of West End girls, the Dance Mix. Some of the extra bits detract a little from the atmosphere, but the longer form suits the song too, and the extra verses are a joy to hear.

The second single I own is Love comes quickly, a German version, where someone with no graphic design skills and frankly limited English has added the words “Original-Version” to the cover in a font that looks like the 1980s equivalent of Comic Sans. Again, having heard the a-side recently, I opted for Side B, That’s my impression.

This is exactly what I was looking for – dark and gloomy, and rather glorious too. There’s something about this period in Pet Shop Boys‘ history – they were definitely making pop music, but they weren’t afraid to put their own stamp on it either.

I wasn’t sure what to listen to from the Opportunities single, which must be, incidentally, one of the low points of Pet Shop Boys‘ typically wonderful design history, with a silver sleeve and not a whole lot else to say for itself. I’m sure that was the idea, but it’s not one I’d have gone for. In the end, I chose Side B again, Was That what it was?

Again, it’s deep and dark, and I always find myself wondering why on earth they hid things as good as this away on the back of their singles, but it’s definitely a nice present for the people who buy your records.

I should probably track down the double 7″ version of Suburbia one of these days, but for now the next single I own is the 12″ of Always on My Mind, and although I haven’t heard this recently I opted for the b-side, Do I have to? as it’s a great song (as you might be realising, Alternative is, perhaps improbably, one of my favourite albums).

This is a particularly crackly vinyl – definitely the worst of this bunch. I always take care to clean everything before listening again, but the vast majority of my vinyl was bought second hand, largely from obscure bargain bins in record fairs, so they have often been well loved long before I got my hands on them.

Do I have to? though, is definitive Pet Shop Boys – it almost explains some of Chris Lowe‘s photo poses, but it’s also an exceptionally beautiful piece of music. Always on My Mind is great too, but one for another time, I think. Although it’s worth a mention for the wonderful design on this single, particularly the sly joke at the bottom: “Not from the album, Actually.”

This particular journey has to end with Heart, and since I don’t know Shep Pettibone‘s Dance Mix on Side B too well (it never made it onto any of the later reissues), I decided to go with this version. As with a lot of Pettibone’s remixes, it’s just a little bit cheesy in places, but it is fun too, and it brings out some different elements in the song.

This isn’t the last we’ll hear from Pet Shop Boys in the Vinyl Moments series, but this has been a fun little journey for now. Where next? Well, from Heart we’ll move on to a group who just a few years earlier wanted to Open Your Heart – The Human League.

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.

Pet Shop Boys – Leaving

If you choose to ignore Winner (a lot of people would) then Leaving was the first single from Pet Shop Boys‘ 2012 album Elysium. The main track is an elegant slice of classic PSB – perhaps a little drab on the face of it, but the more you listen, the more rewarding the song becomes. The lyrics are positively bristling with bitter energy, and the deep moping analogue sound is entirely fitting. In days gone by, this would have been a top ten hit, but in the age we live it was barely able to scrape the bottom end of the chart.

The first CD / package, Leaving – EP, comes with three additional b-sides, starting with the  witty Hell, to all intents and purposes a “list” track from Pet Shop Boys‘ golden age. To a bouncy rhythm, Vlad the Impaler meets the Ceaușescus, while a long list of other generally nasty people (including, controversially, Vladimir Putin alongside Fred West). Like the best of PSB tracks, it’s funny, a little bit daft, and features a false ending. What’s not to like?

Next up is In his imagination, a really sweet bonus track from another long-standing PSB series of slightly introspective songs about one of the young people who can’t be bothered to go out and find a job while everyone else panics about his future and he dreams about what might happen to him.

The final track on the first disc is Baby (2003 demo), which you may have previously heard snippets of during The Most Incredible Thing. It sounds a lot like Flamboyant, which really did come out in 2003, and isn’t nearly as good, but it is a worthwhile reminder of how good their 2006 album Fundamental could have been if they’d kept making proper synthpop rather than messing around doing over-the-top orchestral pieces with Trevor Horn.

The second CD, Leaving Remixed, contains three versions of the title track. First up is the Lost Her Love Remix by Dusty Kid, a much more spacious (and ever so slightly pointless) eleven and a half minute take on the track, which seems to be designed primarily to take as long as possible. It opens with an extremely long piano solo, which ticks off nearly two minutes, before launching into a pleasant section with swelling bass and a chunk of the vocals from the first verse, followed by a guitar breakdown. That’s another two minutes ticked off. And on it goes. The piano comes back – another couple of minutes pass. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any of it – in fact the pad swells at the end are extremely pleasant – but it is about eleven times longer than is absolutely necessary – a worthwhile reminder of why you should exercise the delete key occasionally. I’ll take note myself.

Next up is the Believe in PSB Remix, an extended mix by the boys themselves. It’s been extended by the 1980s rulebook, and so after some soft swells in the introduction you get an instrumental verse, then, for the most part, the original song. They’ve done a bit of work on the drums to make it a bit more driven and add a few Shep Pettibone-inspired drum builds, but otherwise you’ve heard the next bit already. Again, according to the rules of the 80s 12″ mix, the middle section is longer and has some extra bits in it, before building back to the chorus and then ending with a bang. Predictable? I suppose so. Brilliant? Entirely.

Apart from using the same drums and middle section as the version we’ve just heard, there’s nothing unduly special about the demo version of Leaving which closes this CD, but it is nice to hear. I demand more demo versions.

If one remix package wasn’t enough for you, on Leaving you get a second, entitled Leaving Again, which brings you the slightly more Euro-flavoured PSB Side-by-Side Remix (which is pretty much the same as the last one, but now also with added bonus synth bits and also an extra spoken word section towards the end).

Then there’s an Andrew Dawson remix, which is worth special attention as it was one of his which breathed new life into Winner on the last single package. His HappySad Remix of Leaving is less spectacular than that one was, but is excellent nonetheless, full of synth swells and crescendos.

Finally another PSB mix, the Freedom Remix, a pleasant dub version with a lot more 1980s drum builds and reverb effects. It’s hard not to like a version like this, as it builds something new out of an excellent original version. And it closes the excellent trio of packages that make up the Leaving single with gusto. Highly recommended.

You can find the Leaving single at all the usual download outlets, with physical versions of the first two discs at Amazon UK and “all good record stores”.