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.

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Bent – The Everlasting Blink

Fifteen years ago this week, the brilliant Bent released their second proper album The Everlasting Blink, which took the charts by gentle nudge in early 2003. Since they’re definitely one of your favourite Nottingham-based chillout electronica acts, this seems a worthwhile anniversary to celebrate.

It had been a couple of years since the minor success of debut Programmed to Love, but relatively little seemed to have changed in Bent‘s world, and they were still able to craft beautiful, elegant chillout music, as the lovely opening track King Wisp ably demonstrates. But nothing is ever quite what it seems, as Mozart makes an appearance in this track.

Next is the adorable An Ordinary Day, full of analogue chirps and built around a vocal by Lena Martell, it’s really rather brilliant. This was, of course, the same year that Röyksopp‘s Melody AM broke the charts, and there are definitely certain commonalities between the two albums. This one did not, unfortunately, sell quite as well, but it’s every bit as accomplished.

Next is a Nana Mouskouri sample for the equally adorable Strictly Bongo, which carries the album gently onwards. But track four is the big surprise, and as I recall this was the reason I started listening to Bent in the first place. I was in a little independent record shop (remember them?) just browsing, and suddenly I heard the voice of one of my favourite singers, Jon Marsh of The Beloved. Knowing that they hadn’t released anything new for several years, I was intrigued. I asked the shop assistant what it was, and bought the album then and there.

The thing with Beautiful Otherness isn’t that it was Jon Marsh‘s first vocal performance for a number of years, though – it’s that it’s absolutely fantastic. The rippling piano, drifting lyrics, and generally perfect mood are what set this track apart. I never realised until researching this that Stephen Hague had a hand in it too, which of course helps. It deserved to be a huge hit single, but that was never to be.

After that, anything was going to be a bit anticlimactic, and sure enough, there isn’t really anything wrong with Moonbeams – it’s very pleasant, in fact, with its pedal steel guitar work – but it does suffer by not quite being Beautiful OthernessToo Long Without You gets closer, as it cleverly samples two different songs by Billie Jo Spears, and works very nicely indeed.

Exercise 3 is joyful and fun, if a little silly, and then we get the first of the two singles, Stay the Same, which was actually Bent‘s biggest hit, peaking at number 59 in July 2003, although unfortunately with a vastly inferior single version. It’s a beautiful song, drawing heavily on a David Essex song from 1974, but rather than sticking to his original slightly naff country delivery, it’s been stripped, re-timed, and turned into a great pop vocal. Clever stuff.

Magic Love was the second single, another beautiful track built around something much older, and then we get the gentle title track The Everlasting Blink, with a bit more pedal steel guitar on it. Then the last track is the short Thick Ear, closing the album sweetly and softly.

Except that isn’t the end – here, Bent bring us not one, not two, but three bonus tracks – 12 Bar Fire BluesWendy, and Day-Care Partyline, none of which were ever going to completely  change your world, but it’s nice to have them on here anyway to round things out.

The Everlasting Blink is a great second album, with a number of exquisite songs – but what happened next was better still – the follow-up, Aerials, which appeared the following year, is by far Bent‘s finest hour.

You can still find The Everlasting Blink at all major music retailers.

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.

Technique – Pop Philosophy

This week fifteen years ago saw the somewhat belated release of Technique‘s debut album Pop Philosophy. A two-piece consisting of infamous Creation Records boss Alan McGee‘s wife Kate Holmes and singer Xan Tyler, they secured the production talents of Stephen Hague, supported Depeche Mode on their Exciter tour in some parts of the world, and were pretty close to finding fame when everything seems to have gone a bit wrong. But more on that later.

The album opens with Sun is Shining, a sweet and simple pop song which is every bit as good as anything else that was on the charts in the mid-1990s. It’s uplifting, cheery, and frankly brilliant. This was also their first single, peaking at number 64 in 1999.

The second single follows, You and Me, which followed a few months later and peaked at number 56, and is another great pop song. So what went wrong exactly? Honestly, I suspect they were just too late. They weren’t alone – Peach suffered similarly by trying to enter the “clever synthpop” realm in 1996, and they failed to capture the popular imagination. Why would Technique have fared any better?

Ultimately, the only reason this album seems to exist is a 2000 Cantonese cover version of You + Me, which caused enough interest in the original for people to want to own the two singles, the five other complete tracks, and two remixes by Matt Darey. Those other five tracks are good, although there isn’t really anything up to the standard of either of the singles here. Unity of Love is a pleasant enough song, as is Wash Away My Tears, but there isn’t a lot else that you can say about them.

There are others which show potential – There’s No Other Way is pretty good. Deep and Blue is pleasant enough, although lyrically it’s a bit… well, I want to call it “wet”, but the lyrics are about the deep blue sea, which makes me even worse. Quiet Storm is bloody awful, but it’s the only thing on here that is.

I had always assumed the somewhat makeshift track listing was due to the band not having finished much else, but it turns out that there’s an earlier version of the album with a whole load of other songs on it. Maybe they just picked out the least bad ones for this release. Who knows?

Either way, history may have forgotten Technique, but this one little album isn’t at all a bad way to remember them. If nothing else, it’s worth having for Sun is Shining and You and Me, as well as the remixes of each of them. Honestly these are both fairly typical Matt Darey trance mixes – they start off with just a kick drum on every beat, and slowly grow into something enormous. They’re nothing particularly groundbreaking, it’s true, but they’re great nonetheless.

Oh, and if you were wondering what happened next… well, Xan Tyler was unable to turn up for the Depeche Mode tour, so Dubstar‘s Sarah Blackwood was draughted in at the last minute. Technique then rebranded as the briefly brilliant Client, and gained a sizeable cult following before eventually Xan Tyler turned up again in 2011 as Sarah Blackwood‘s replacement. Yes, I know it’s confusing – just nod politely…

You can still find Pop Philosophy on import from major retailers, such as here.

Pet Shop Boys – Please

The culmination of a couple of years of getting their feet off the ground, Pet Shop Boys‘ debut album Please appeared this week thirty years ago. That is definitely cause for a celebration.

It opens with the curiously brilliant Two divided by zero, on which a sampled calculation error repeats itself throughout a hauntingly beautiful song about running away from home. In many ways it’s a very obvious way to open the album, and yet it always seems to come as a bit of a shock when you hear the drum intro and suddenly remember that it doesn’t start with West End girls.

That comes next, and is undeniably brilliant. Slightly longer and more spacious in its album form, it really sounds so good, so iconic. There aren’t many songs as good as this in existence – London’s underbelly is captured as dark and seedy, but ultimately beautiful and invigorating too.

When it was re-recorded in 1985 with Stephen HagueWest End girls shed its sillier side, and became much more atmospheric, and so it is fitting that Hague appears on the whole album. On Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money) though, he actually removed its darker side, turning it into a simpler pop song, which does it a lot of favours too. Somehow he seemed to instinctively know the right treatment for every song, and removing the “all the love that we had” coda was one of his better moves.

It would be difficult to argue that Love comes quickly is better, but it’s every bit as good. A disappointing chart hit, on the album it sounds so full of mournful energy that it’s difficult to ignore. This is not so true for Suburbia though – on this album, this is the one time that Hague let himself down a little, as the later single version proves. It’s still a good song in its album form, although it still suffers slightly from the overpowering samples that plagues all the versions, and the punchy bassline doesn’t quite seem right for the song.

The oddest moment on the whole album, which never actually appeared on the credits of the vinyl and cassette versions, is the thirty second reprise of Opportunities which opens Side B, before leading into the glorious Tonight is forever. It may not be single material, but it’s extremely good album fare, and sees Neil Tennant on particularly good vocal form.

Violence, famously reinvented at The Haçienda several years later, could so easily be vacuous and silly, but it isn’t – it’s haunting and beautiful. Its neighbour I want a lover fits perfectly too – if nothing else, this would be an exquisitely structured album, but that’s far from all that you can say for it.

Later Tonight is far from subtle, instead a strong and powerful statement full of emotional piano and pads. Perhaps inevitably, it fits perfectly, leading into the appropriately hoarse and euphoric Why don’t we live together?

For a debut album, Pet Shop Boys truly excelled themselves with Please, and the follow-up Actually, far from a difficult second album, managed to be better still. There are plenty of indications of longevity here, but it would have been difficult to predict just how important an album it might turn out to be.

At the time of writing, the definitive version of Please is the 2001 double CD reissue, which is only available second hand now. The single CD version is still worth having.

The Other Two – The Other Two & You

The New Order side-project The Other Two is unusual in having been born of two other side projects – in the early 1990s, Bernard Sumner was off having enormous hits with Electronic, and Peter Hook was, well, doing whatever it was he did in Revenge. So the other two, then called Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris, were left to form The Other Two.

Having grown out of such forced circumstances, it’s not, unfortunately but not entirely unexpectedly, a particularly good album. Having spent a couple of years in gestation, it actually appeared the same year as the rather better RepublicIt opens with Tasty Fish, a nice enough Stephen Hague-produced song, which has a pretty catchy chorus, although you would be hard pushed to define exactly what it’s about. It was a minor hit, landing just outside the top forty in 1991.

The Greatest Thing is a surprising second track, and does stand out somewhat. A couple of tracks in, and you realise that between them, Morris and Gilbert are every bit as good at writing lyrics as Sumner, and Gilbert’s vocal delivery is possibly technically better than that of her bandmate. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to hear very New Order-like songs delivered with a female vocalist.

But none of them are entirely memorable, as second single Selfish demonstrates. Also a minor hit, it had some impact in the US, but has been largely forgotten by most people, and when you listen to it this is understandable. It’s nice – probably largely due to Hague’s production – but ask me in a few hours how the melody line went, and I’ll have totally forgotten.

The fourth track is Movin’ On, and even while listening to it, you’re hard pushed to find anything to say about it. Great production, good lyrics, and an entirely forgettable melody. If this was the first album you had ever owned, it might mean something to you, but I’m afraid I’m lost for words here.

Side A closes with the nice instrumental Ninth Configuration, which might actually be the best track yet. There’s a nice driving bass part, which does remind you of the lack of Peter Hook on this release. That’s not entirely a bad thing, especially if it leaves him with one less thing to be bitter about, but it is notable just how much this sounds like New Order otherwise.

If the rule of albums says that Side B is always less good than Side A, that could mean some interesting diversions here. But actually things start to look up a bit with the opening track Feel This Love. This is much closer to what you might expect The Other Two to be. Next is the slightly acid-inspired but very much late 1980s sounding Spirit Level, largely instrumental with some weird vocal samples. Despite having absolutely no melody, it’s strangely compelling.

Then comes the soft and gentle Night Voice, another short instrumental, but this time a pleasantly atmospheric one, in the style of film music. Finally, a more rhythmic introduction brings us to Innocence, the last track, and one of the more catchy. It’s every bit as unmemorable as anything else on this album, but it’s nice enough while it lasts. Which isn’t especially long – this is a very short release.

So The Other Two & You is good – sometimes even up to the standard of New Order. It’s just very forgettable – so maybe it’s one best left for the fans. If you have one of the CD versions (I don’t) you also get the earlier promotional single Loved It, and optionally a pile of remixes by the brilliant Pascal Gabriel and Moby.

The special edition of The Other Two & You is still available here.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Crush

I’ve written before about my reservations with OMD, and this is not the right time to bring them up again, but honestly their mid-80s period is probably my least favourite, so when a reader inadvertently suggested recently that I give it another chance, I did approach it with a little caution.

But this week is its thirtieth anniversary, and I haven’t actually listened to some of the songs here for half a decade, so it seems fair that it should get another listen now. Also, I’m listening to the vinyl version here, as I never actually bought the CD. This shouldn’t be as unusual as it is, but it makes a pleasant change now.

The first track is the lovely So in Love, easily the best thing they recorded between Enola Gay and Sailing on the Seven Seas. If you bought this album solely for this one song, you wouldn’t be disappointed, as it’s pretty much as close to a perfect song as you can get. It’s afterwards that everything falls apart.

Or does it? I remember Secret as being totally awful, but while it’s still far from my favourite song, now it somehow sounds charming. It still isn’t quite as good as the first track, but that would be a lot to ask.

My recollections aren’t all inaccurate though – I remembered Bloc Bloc Bloc as being OK but not great, and I think that’s fair. It’s funny, because it’s definitely an album track, and it does work pretty well here actually – it just isn’t especially good. The rest of Side I is similar – enjoyable, but a bit daft in places. Women III has a nice “groove” and bounces along in a pleasant, if slightly cheesy fashion, while the title track Crush is one of OMD‘s odder moments. Again, it’s pleasant – just very strange.

As with The Pacific Age which followed a year later, this album was produced in its entirety by Stephen Hague, who was one of the people who made the 1980s sound a lot better than they otherwise might have and continues to produce exceptionally good albums to this day.

Side II starts with 88 Seconds in Greensboro, a slightly inexplicable song which, as with much of this LP, shows very clear signs of having been written with the American market in mind. It’s tempting to wonder if that might have been what they were thinking with the cover image too, which I’m still really struggling to describe as anything other than ill-advised.

Some tracks sound more promising than others – The Native Daughters feels as though it’s a backing track for a much catchier song. It’s nearly extremely good, but there’s something missing. Maybe the vocals are just mixed too low, or maybe the melody isn’t very good – it’s difficult to tell, because the drummer clearly seems to have “got” it.

La Femme Accident is next, and was only a minor hit in the UK. I have to say I can see why – it’s nice enough, but it really doesn’t have much going for it otherwise as far as I’m concerned. In fact, compared to its predecessors, this album wasn’t enormously successful in OMD‘s home market, which is why I was surprised to learn that it had been their first major success in the USA.

I suppose I could summarise it by saying that it’s just a bit too understated. Hold You is probably the best song on Side II, and even then the chances of me remembering it a few days after listening are relatively slim. The final track The Lights are Going Out too, is almost haunting, but it still feels as though it’s missing something somehow.

So Crush is, as it turns out, a lot less bad than I remember, although I’m still not entirely convinced. But for everything that might be wrong with it, it did at least bring us So in Love, which gives it some extra leverage, and Secret was pretty good too. The mid-1980s were, as it turns out, not quite as cruel to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as I’d remembered.

You can find the original CD release of Crush through major retailers, such as here.