Record Companies – Mute Records

Closing this mini-series out is a quick look at Daniel Miller‘s Mute Records, which, since its launch in 1978, has become one of the most cult, collectible labels. Initially devised as an engine to release Miller’s own electronic act The Normal, it has grown to house a huge roster of artists from a broad range of genres.

Key artists include Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Moby, Goldfrapp, and more recently, New Order, but it has also housed some hugely influential underground artists, including Fad Gadget, Nitzer Ebb, and Laibach. The list could be endless. Many of those artists were lost when Mute was sold to EMI in 2002, and didn’t follow back when it regained its independence at the end of the decade, but the list of artists is still very strong.

Perhaps most notable in recent times is the now-legendary box set MUTE433, a compilation of different artists performing John Cage‘s 4’33”. Which is clearly brilliant, even if I don’t really want a copy (thanks all the same). By the time you read this, it might already be in the shops.

You can find out more about Mute by going to
http://mute.com/

Stowaway Heroes – Daniel Miller

Our first stowaway hero is Daniel Miller, boss of Mute Records, and one of the most influential and seemingly hands-off individuals in the world of electronic music. In his late twenties, he was working as a film editor, and scraped together enough money to buy a synthesiser. His resulting 1978 solo double a-side single T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette, released as The Normal, is fundamentally brilliant:

It’s not clear to me whether Miller actually intended for Mute to become a fully fledged record label or whether it was all supposed to just be a one-off, but always way ahead of the curve, he also came up with his own virtual group Silicon Teens, who released a couple of great singles including Memphis Tennessee:

(video removed)

But of course, Mute is most famous for the astonishing roster of artists who were signed over the decades that followed, including mainstream acts such as Depeche ModeYazooMobyNick CaveNew Order, underground and cult successes including Fad Gadget and I Start Counting, and even (briefly) Kraftwerk. And he didn’t completely keep his hands off their output either – here’s his take on Erasure‘s Supernature:

He also presented a radio show on Berlin’s Radio Eins and remains well respected throughout the music industry, despite the slightly questionable sale of Mute to EMI for £23 million in 2002 (which was fortunately rectified by a split in 2009). It’s rare for someone so influential to turn up in so many places but be so unknown. So he’s a worthy first hero for this blog – hats off to Daniel Miller.

Edited, 25 Feb 2018 – removed Silicon Teens video that is no longer available.

Depeche Mode – Composition of Sound Demos

Depeche Mode, or Composition of Sound as they were called back in 1980, must have been an interesting bunch. They had a little twenty minute package of plinky plonky synth-based tracks to share with us, and they were really rather good.

First up is The Price of Love, with synth sounds borrowed from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. I’m not clear who’s singing here – it sounds as though it might be Vince Clarke. Either way, why did this never get released? In a way it sounds more like Yazoo than Depeche Mode, but that’s no bad thing.

Let’s Get Together reveals that they were listening to The Human League too, and I think has a very unconfident (but still pretty good) vocal from Dave Gahan. Again, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Yazoo album.

Early live favourite Television Set comes next, featuring a vocal line lifted straight from Gary Numan, and clearly taking heavy influence from The Normal‘s T.V.O.D. Again, this is strong enough that you have to wonder slightly why record companies weren’t falling over one another to sign them. I suppose in 1980, they were still a little ahead of their time.

Reason Man is less strong, although you can still see some promise, and also the odd hint of New Life, while Dance of Modern Time is perhaps a good idea lacking somewhat in execution. The electro-swing of Tomorrow’s Dance does come as a bit of a surprise, and might have even lifted debut album Speak and Spell when it starts to get a little dull in places. Another great track.

The last in the collection is I Like It, which I can only assume was an attempt at bubblegum pop, and it actually almost works. It’s good to hear them experimenting with different ideas, and although this one may not be their finest hour, it’s still kind of fun.

There’s a separate set of demos floating around called Vince Clarke Demos, including an alternative version of Television Set, alongside two unreleased and seemingly untitled tracks. While it might have been tempting to write about those as a separate post, the entire collection comes to less than three minutes, so it probably isn’t really worth it. The vocal unreleased track doesn’t really work, although it has some nice elements here and there, while the final instrumental wouldn’t have sounded out of place at the end of an early Human League album.

As always, it’s a fascinating experience listening to any demos, particularly the ones that an enormous act were using to try and get signed. But it must have been an easy decision for Daniel Miller back in 1981 when he offered them a deal with Mute Records – the Composition of Sound Demos are totally brilliant. And for the record, Composition of Sound is a really good name for a band.

Various Artists – Electrospective

The basic way this blog works is that when I’m reviewing an album, I listen to it in full, and while doing so write what I feel about what I’m hearing. How, then, do I tackle a two-and-a-half hour long compilation? I feel the skip button may be seeing some usage on this occasion.

Electrospective is the centrepiece of a recent record company campaign to get us buying mid-price synth-based albums of which I heartily approve. The compilation is a fascinating and wonderful journey, encompassing maybe ten tracks from each of the primary decades of electronic music. But its omissions are also fascinating. Perversely, almost, it contains none of the pioneering sound of Jean Michel Jarre or Kraftwerk. The early 1980s focus rightly on OMD and The Human League, but there’s no sign of Soft Cell or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The late 1980s largely forego the “indie dance” and trip hop movements in favour of pop and soul. But then, if you were faced with the task of compiling a forty-track journey through the history of electronic music, how would you tackle it?

Electrospective opens, as all definitive electronic compilations should, with Delia Derbyshire‘s 1963 version of Ron Grainer‘s essential Doctor Who theme. Fifty years on, in an age where literally anybody can make music with their portable telecommunications devices, it’s difficult to picture the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop slaving away generating tape samples and cutting them into exactly the right length to sync and make quite astonishing music. In a sense it’s unsurprising that they didn’t really succeed with the syncing (Derbyshire also revisited the theme in 1967 to create a rather more orderly but definitely less charming version).

Some of the other early tracks are a little odder. Roxy Music‘s Virginia Plain is, I can only assume, here to show some of the early electronic experimentation in which popular acts of the early 1970s were indulging, and it has a few nice Moog sounds in it, but frankly it’s largely tolerable at best. Even Brian Eno, introducing this album to its first taste of ambience, fails to impress particularly with Here Come the Warm Jets (1974).

The 1970s start to look a lot stronger after this, with Tangerine Dream‘s Rubycon and Can‘s brilliant I Want More before launching into another unmissable moment with The Normal‘s Warm Leatherette. The final trio of Cabaret VoltaireTelex and Simple Minds round of 1979 in less compelling fashion, and you should be clear by now that electronics is firmly planted in the world of music.

We then enter the 1980s in typically variable fashion. OMD‘s excellent Messages carries into Ultravox‘s more questionable SleepwalkThe Human League‘s astonishing The Things That Dreams are Made Of is followed by rather more questionable choices from Duran Duran and Heaven 17, and then a distinctly dodgy choice of remix for Yazoo‘s Don’t Go.

The mid-1980s are, as you might expect, rather stronger. Together in Electric Dreams is perhaps a little unnecessary, coming as it does only five tracks after the previous Human League moment, but then West End Girls mixes into Who Needs Live (Like That), and you’re definitely reminded that the eighties weren’t nearly as bad as everyone seems to suggest.

All this is not to say that this album is without its surprises. Nitzer Ebb‘s Control I’m Here is an unexpected pleasure, as is Soul II Soul‘s Back to Life (However Do You Want Me), which ends the 1980s a couple of tracks into the second disc.

The 1990s are, of course, where electronic music comes of age. A whole slew of enormous, exceptional, and very well chosen hits follow from Depeche ModeMobyThe Future Sound of LondonDaft Punk and Adam FMassive Attack turn up, as indeed they should, but here they are represented by the slightly disappointing choice of Inertia Creeps, by no means bad, but a track which surely belongs in the middle of Mezzanine rather than here?

Air‘s wonderful Kelly Watch the Stars and St. Germain‘s Rose Rouge are here to represent the rest of the late 90s French invasion, which is inevitably followed by the experimental indie of Radiohead and The Chemical Brothers.

Finally, our potted history of electronic music has brought us into the 2000s, by which time “electronic” had definitely ceased to be a label for weird experimental noises or extravagant expressionism. It had, in every imaginable way, gone mainstream. In a good way.

Goldfrapp hammer this home beautifully with the essential Strict Machine, and then Dare by Gorillaz leads us through to a string of 21st century floor fillers. Eric Prydz‘s probably Bo Selecta-inspired Proper Education with its Pink Floyd elements leads us into some less interesting tracks from David GuettaDeadmau5, and finally a total abomination by Swedish House Mafia. Not a great ending, admittedly, but a fair assessment of the journey of electronic music over the past half century.

Make no mistake – in terms of meeting its remit of compiling a handful of tracks from every decade of electronic music, this is a great release. But it’s difficult to ignore the many omissions – you can’t help but feel that perhaps a themed or era-specific compilation might tick the boxes a lot more convincingly. In the end, all you get is fleeting glimpses of particular acts and eras. All told though, for all its failings it’s a great listen, and I can’t help but recommend it.

There’s also a companion remix album, which we’ll touch on in a future week. If you’re in the US you can find Electrospective here; if you’re in the UK try here; and if you’re anywhere else then you’ll have to fend for yourself.

The Normal – T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette

In a way it seems a little odd writing a review of something that everyone has already heard. But it feels as though there are certain releases that by law must be included on a blog like this, and The Normal‘s one and only single is definitely one of those.

From the initial analogue strains of T.V.O.D. you’re immediately captured by the sounds. The perfect snare; the slightly bored sounding vocal; the bizarre lyrics. It doesn’t even make the three minute mark, but somehow it helps to define what pop music would become for the next decade.

From its multitude of appearances on compilations, I assume most people prefer Warm Leatherette, but for me it’s the weaker of the two tracks. The lyric is rather more evocative, with its astonishingly sordid and masochistic description of a car accident, although to be honest the pronunciation of ‘warm’ always annoys me very slightly.

The original 7″ was released back in 1978, and it has been reissued on countless formats every year or two since then. And quite rightly too – every home should own a copy. It’s on iTunes, but your best bet if you don’t own a copy yet is to track down the essential Mute Audio Documents 1978-1984 compilation (see here).

Somehow the ‘product’ of The Normal has never been diluted. No remixes have ever been officially released; there’s never been an album. The only other release they ever put out is the less captivating experimental 25-minute live performance recorded in 1980 at Western Runton Pavillion, Live at Western Runton Pavillion, but it’s still quite fun to listen to. But somehow the original single, Warm Leatherette / T.V.O.D., or whichever way round you prefer to hear the tracks, is a truly wonderful and essential listen.