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:

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.

Depeche Mode – Speak & Spell

This week we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the debut Depeche Mode album, Speak & Spell. Vastly different from anything else the group have ever released – A Broken Frame shares some sonic similarities, but that’s about the only thing you can say – it really shares as much with Vince Clarke‘s later work as it does the artist whose name on it.

So you could probably forgive Depeche Mode fans for disliking this album, but really there’s something rather charming and fascinating about it.

It opens with the hit single New Life, which had hit the chart four months earlier and provided their first major hit. By the time the album came out, all three singles had been released already, so there were never too many surprises here. What is a surprise is just how far the group have come in the subsequent three and a half decades. With Vince Clarke at the helm as the main songwriter here, the focus was very definitely on pop music at this point.

I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead, despite the alarming title, is a short and sweet pop piece which is sufficiently different from its neighbours to guide us through smoothly to the darker PuppetsBoys Say Go! follows, and for many acts might well have been a huge hit single, but for Depeche Mode it’s just an album track. There isn’t a hint of Personal Jesus here.

Nodisco is a delightfully ironic disco track, and then the ridiculously pop-sounding What’s Your Name? closes Side A. It’s quite bizarre – absolutely nothing else Depeche Mode have ever recorded sounds like this, and yet it reminds me a lot of Yazoo. Not too surprising, until you remember that there were four people in Depeche Mode at this point, and three of them weren’t Vince Clarke.

Side B opens with the brilliant Photographic, perhaps the first moment since New Life that you realise quite how brilliant Depeche Mode are going to become once they get going properly. The more raw version on the Some Bizzare Album from earlier in 1981 is definitely better, but the album take is rather exceptional too.

At the end, it quietly morphs into the first of two Martin L. Gore-penned pieces, Tora! Tora! Tora! I doubt you would have noticed at the time, and maybe I’m pinning my expectations onto it, but it definitely sounds more experimental than anything we heard on Side A. You could probably also argue that Gore wasn’t quite at his best yet in terms of songwriting, although the chorus is great. And Dave Gahan‘s pronunciation of the line “You played a skellington” still amuses me every time I hear it.

Until A Broken Frame appeared barely a year later, the remainder of Gore’s songwriting legacy was represented by the instrumental Big Muff which follows. The lovely and dreary b-side Any Second Now comes next, in a new version, before passing the baton to its a-side, the adorable Just Can’t Get Enough.

For the most part, the singles are the highlights of this release, and the latter two at least have had so much radio airplay over the years that they’re difficult to forget. Debut release Dreaming of Me is less well known, and didn’t actually make it onto the original version of the album, but it got tacked on in a few different countries, so the reissued version includes it right at the end.

In many ways, Speak & Spell is more of a precursor to Depeche Mode‘s career than a debut. Apart from the lineup changes and the evolution of their sound, the artwork is particularly fascinating – the swan wrapped in cling film was heavily obscured for the original 1985 CD release, and is considerably more provocative than anything on the album. The photographer Brian Griffin returned for the cover of their next album, and that one is often cited as one of the finest album sleeves ever. This one is less well understood.

If you can find the double disc version of Speak & Spell, that’s the one you want – if not, forego the extra tracks in favour of less tinny sound, and grab the remastered single disc.

Artist of the Week – Erasure

Here’s another old Artist of the Week feature from my old radio show. It probably wasn’t researched very well, and so may contain plagiarism, errors, and omissions. My sincere apologies if so.

The story begins way back in 1981, when Vince Clarke was briefly a member of the gods of electronica Depeche Mode. After the first album, musical differences forced him out of the band, leaving just as their popularity was growing. Following this, he and Alison Moyet formed Yazoo, who saw huge success during their brief but stormy reign over the charts between 1982 and 1983.

After their split, Vince joined with producer Eric Radcliffe to form a group called The Assembly, where the intention was that they would produce tracks with different singers. After one huge hit, Never Never, and one flop, they called it a day.

It was during the auditions for The Assembly project [I’m going to add my own “citation needed” tag here] that Vince first came across singer Andy Bell. They started working together, and had soon completed the first album Wonderland. However, for whatever reason, the debut was never a substantial hit, and only yielded one minor hit single, so it wasn’t until the second album The Circus came out that they were propelled to the top end of the charts by the universal hit Sometimes.

Further albums followed, with The Innocents bringing more success, and, at the end of the 1980s, they turned away from their traditionally analogue sounds to produce Wild!, their second number one album, which also brought them four top twenty hit singles.

For 1991’s Chorus they returned to a very analogue sound to produce what is commonly thought to be their best album to date. Again, a further four huge hits ensued, and in mid-1992, they followed this with an obscure collection of cover versions which brought them their biggest hit to date, the huge summer smash Abba-esque EP.

Their return in 1994 with I Say I Say I Say brought them further hits, but by the mid-1990s, a combination of being overwhelmed by Britpop and spending too much time experimenting meant they were starting to lose their touch. This began in earnest with 1995’s eponymous album, which turned their previous sound on its head with ten-minute instrumentals and ambient tracks.

In 1997 they tried to get a foot back in the door with Cowboy, a collection of 3-minute pop songs, which were widely ignored by the record-buying public. In 2000, they tried to tap the remnants of the indie explosion with Loveboat, a predominantly acoustic guitar-based album, which barely even managed to scrape into the charts.

It was finally last year that they managed their comeback, through the all-too-popular medium of a cover versions album. The wittily titled but frankly awful Other People’s Songs managed to grab them a little bit of the limelight they deserve, and helped their second singles compilation into the top end of the charts.

So what now? Well, they’re still very analogue, and rumour suggests that they’ve now gone all electro on us, following recent successes from the likes of Röyksopp and Mirwais. The album is released on January 24th, preceded by the single Breathe on the 3rd.

Erasure – Wonderland

There is, as Andy Bell so wisely tells us, “something going on, something not quite right.” Because just a couple of years after Vince Clarke left the breathtakingly successful Yazoo, and not long before they were very near the top of the charts with Sometimes, Erasure were to be found right at the bottom with their number 71 hit Wonderland.

Who Needs Love (Like That) is, of course, one of the best songs of their career. Clarke had written it long before the two met, and Bell actually performed it as one of his audition pieces. It also gave them a minor hit, which isn’t something you can say for anything else on here.

Is that because they weren’t very good? Honestly, partly I think the answer is yes. Reunion and Cry So Easy both have nice enough melodies, but they seem naïve and a little empty. The production is probably the thing that’s most obviously lacking – producer Flood has made the best of a bad job, but if you consider for a moment what else was going on in the world of music at the time (the first Pet Shop Boys album and Depeche Mode‘s Black Celebration to name but two), this seems very empty – perhaps even rushed.

There are exceptions, in addition to the opening single – Push Me, Shove Me in particular, which didn’t actually make it onto the earlier US version of the album, is Erasure at their best. Perhaps they just needed slightly tighter editorial controls at the time.

It doesn’t last – Heavenly Action holds a special place in my heart, as I’m sure it does for many people who grew up on Pop! The First 20 Hits, but honestly it isn’t actually very good. What on earth is it supposed to be about?

The first few tracks on Side B aren’t much better either. Say What has a nice swing rhythm, but not a huge amount else – it might at least have been moderately contemporary at the time though. Love is a Loser is nice, but very cheesy indeed. Senseless is better – at least the chorus is fairly catchy, but you do have to wonder exactly what they were throwing away at this point if this is what made it onto the album.

After all that, My Heart… So Blue is something of a surprise. It might not be the best song that Clarke and Bell have ever written, but it’s pretty good, and paves the way well for the exceptional and entirely unexpected Oh L’Amour.

I think the first few times I heard it, it passed me by somehow, but over time I’ve come to see it as what it is – one of Erasure‘s finest moments, and its eventual chart success in 2003 was entirely deserved. For the first time on this album, I have to confess that there’s something truly beautiful here.

So finally, the album comes to an end, with the derogatory Pistol. Another one that was missed off the original US release, you do have to wonder slightly whether they were just making it up as they went along.

Wonderland is, at least, where it all began for Erasure, but it seems fair to view it as being closer to the lower end of the scale than some of their later works. Try to remember these were the same people who had a run of five number one albums starting just two years later, and you might see something in it. One for completists.

Having said all of that, there is a new deluxe edition of this album, which may well bring out the qualities that make it amazing. See here. Also available on vinyl.

Music for the Masses 32 – 16 February 2005

Always keen to try new features on the show, the Spring term had seen my try out the Unsigned Act feature, where I would try to give a new or unsigned artist a bit of free airtime, with no strings attached (well, except they had to be good). In the end, it was a bit of a failure, as pretty much everyone who showed an interest failed to submit anything on time. One of the few exceptions was Blue Swan, whom we also covered here on the blog.

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Show 32: Wed 16 Feb 2005, from 6:05pm-8:00pm

Broadcast on LSR FM, online only. Artist of the week: Faithless.

  • BT – Love, Peace and Grease
  • Conjure One – Centre of the Sun (29 Palms Remix)
  • Dave Gahan – I Need You
  • Mirwais – Naïve Song
  • Leftfield – Afro-Left
  • Faithless – Don’t Leave
  • Bomb the Bass – Winter in July
  • Echoboy – Lately Lonely
  • Groove Armada – At the River (Live)
  • Blue Swan – Black Widow [Unsigned Act]
  • Jollymusic feat. Erlend Øye – Talco Uno
  • Faithless feat. Dido – One Step Too Far
  • Electribe 101 – Talkin’ with Myself 98 (Beloved Mix)
  • Vic Twenty – Sugar Me
  • Moby – Left Me Up
  • Étienne de Crécy – Am I Wrong?
  • Yazoo – Don’t Go
  • Faithless – Mass Destruction
  • Deep Dish – Stranded
  • Goldfrapp – Utopia