Monday, 31 January 2011

FAD GADGET : Part Seven

Before I temporarily put the lid back on the box, though, there’s still one project lingering in the background unreleased, “Easy Listening for the Hard of Hearing”, Frank’s collaboration with Boyd Rice from the summer of 1981, which eventually got its release in November 1984 and seemed to baffle the majority of listeners at the time through its unconventiality. Those who followed Mute would already have been familiar with Boyd Rice’s repetitive, hypnotic and, ultimately, brain confusing loops but for the more pop oriented Fad Gadget this was an enormous departure, as any concept of song structure was thrown entirely out of the window. Many thought the outré ingredient was the American one. However, on the DVD documentary, Rice, who is also known for his enthusiasm for sixties girl singers and saccharine sixties and seventies bubblegum pop, sets the record straight: “Frank wanted to work with me because he had a reputation for doing Fad Gadget and he wanted to do something far more abstract and extreme or harsh and I wanted to work with Frank because I had a reputation for doing noise and I wanted to do something far poppier. So, when the album came out, I think people assumed that all the noisy stuff was my contribution and all the poppy stuff was Frank’s contribution and, I think, at the end of the day, that really wasn’t the case...We’d go into the studio and just bang different stuff together, drag metal across the floor, filling up sixteen tracks. Then we’d randomly, in the middle of this tape, make a loop of this and we’d listen back to all this and pick out the ones that were the most cohesive or, in some cases, the ones that were the least cohesive and mix them together or put them through various effects and electronic devices and we came up with stuff that didn’t sound like anything else. Even though it ended up taking a few years to come out it still didn’t sound like anything else that anybody else was doing at the time.” That final comment certainly hits the nail on the head, too, as, apart from a very small number of emerging artists, such as Coil, Current 93, Nurse With Wound et al, as well as the mighty Throbbing Gristle, there wasn’t much back then with which to have drawn even the most tenuous comparison. The duo even gave their experimentation a live outing, a few months later, when they played on the same bill as Sonic Youth and Manchester industrialists, Tools You Can Trust, as part of the ICA’s “I Want Independents” week of concerts in March 1985. A review in the NME by Agnes Gooch, although not negative, was rather non-committal, perhaps confusedly so: “Fad Frank and Boyd Rice, the La Becque sisters of industrial noise and easy listening for the hard of hearing, performed a highly polished, nicely synchronised piece with a mystery axeman. A kind of radical root-canal rendition of ‘Marathon Man’, in which Fad silhouetted by fairy lights and Boyd in hat would question the silence (is it safe?) then punish it with a jolt of hydrollically(sic) satisfying pulses (viz ‘Ricky’s Hand’). The rest was mute.” Video footage of this event is in existence and one extract can be seen on the Mute video compilation, “Tyranny of the Beat : Original Soundtracks”.


What then followed were, for some Fad Gadget fans, The Frank Tovey Wilderness Years, whilst for others they represent the pinnacle of his career. To write about them in detail would, however, lead to this becoming a book rather than an article, so I will gloss over them very quickly, returning only to the tale when the FG name re-emerges from the ashes in a new century. So, meanwhile, a single, “Luxury”, was released in the summer of 1985 and we all went out and bought it because it sounded just like Fad Gadget, only with a glossy sheen - once again, though, it failed to chart - and an album entitled “Snakes and Ladders” came out the following spring, the recordings being populated by a now familiar cast of characters, such that the journey travelled was, initially, not that significant. However, as the 1980s ran out their course and merged blandly into the 1990s, four more albums were released - “Civilian”(1988); “Tyranny and the Hired Hand”(1989); “Grand Union”(1991) and “Worried Men in Second-Hand Suits”(1992) – and the Frank Tovey sound developed enormously. The first two of these albums were released under the name of “Frank Tovey” and adopt a much more acoustic, folky sound but, by the latter pair, he had put together a backing band, The Pyros, formed from amongst London’s Irish musical fraternity and you can sort of guess what the results sound like, although, thankfully, they don’t indulge in that nauseating fiddle-dee crap you hear in Dublin pubs, being much more accomplished and palatable than that. Then, seemingly, there was nothing for almost ten years, the Tovey contribution to mid to late nineties culture being just a few pieces of music composed for plays written by his old schoolfriend, Michael Vale, these sounding like an extension of the sound sculptures Tovey had released as a one-off 12” with Malcolm Poynter and Simon Stringer under the name of Mkultra in 1987 – on Mute, as always.

However, in 1996, Frank Tovey had met a group of Austrian Placebo soundalikes, Temple X, through his girlfriend and, liking their demo, he had agreed to their request that he go into the studio and produce them. Then, as often happens in such cases, one thing led to another and a never stage-shy Frank joined them at some of their concerts to perform slightly rocked-up versions of old Fad Gadget favourites, like the perennial “Ricky’s Hand”. The results were successful and Frank, seemingly, found himself back with the bug. Also, parallel to this, things were picking up musically in certain circles, after the twin bores of Britpop and the tired fag-end of house/dance culture had died away, and events seemed to conspire such that by 2000/2001 the time seemed completely right for a Fad Gadget renaissance, with Frank going on to delight not just the old school but a new and hungry, younger audience.

Consequently, on Easter Sunday of 2001, Fad Gadget made his return to the stage proper, headlining London’s Elektrofest, held at the Astoria 2, his backing band being the catalysts in this adventure, Temple X, and, when news of this performance and accompanying photographs began to appear on the internet, around the same time as Soft Cell’s temporary re-emergence, it felt like a huge, heavy cloud of ennui had eventually floated off over the horizon.


Amongst those gathered to see him that night, when they would otherwise have been at home stuffing their faces with over-priced chocolate eggs, were a couple of members of old friends Depeche Mode, now transported to unimaginably dizzying heights of fame and wealth since the Canning Town gig over twenty years earlier, and, evidently, looking for a suitable support band for the European leg of their forthcoming tour. Impressed as they were, Fad was their choice and, in a tables-turned scenario, Frank soon found himself successfully warming up monster-size crowds in vast arenas and stadiums. However, complete disaster almost occurred, as Temple X’s van was involved in a dramatic accident somewhere in Europe, flipping over, apparently, and ejecting their drummer out of the back doors and onto the ground outside. The broken collar bone he sustained in the accident meant that he would be unable to play the final, British, shows at Wembley Arena and Manchester’s MEN Arena and, to further begin closing the circle, Nick Cash was invited back in to fill the gap. This, then, was the line-up I then saw in Manchester a few months later when Fad Gadget went out on a short headline tour in January 2002, taking in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Antwerp and Bielefeld, as well as the aforementioned show. More of this is a moment, though.

In the meantime, a “Best of Fad Gadget” double CD, comprising all of the A-sides and the majority of the B-sides, as well as some 12” versions, was released in the autumn of 2001 to fill a gap for the new audience and also to give him something to promote whilst he was on the road – a similar, although less comprehensive collection had already been released in 1986 – and, in this new context, it all sounded as vibrant and urgent as ever. A four track 12” also came out around the same time to accompany the album, featuring old favourites, “Lady Shave”, “Ricky’s Hand” and “Collapsing New People”, the latter appearing in its Berlin Mix format. However, the lead track was a meaty “Toasted Crumpet Mix” of “Fireside Favourite”, the product of a subtle yet highly effective remix by of-the-moment Sheffield recording artists, I Monster. The potential of what could be done with old Fad Gadget tracks, placed in the right hands, was clear, as well as his relevance in the early years of the decade. A year or so later, the German arm of Mute Records discreetly released another fantastic four track 12”, this time featuring a new mix of “Collapsing New People” by Berlin techno maestro WestBam, alongside the original version of said song and two amazing remixes of “Lady Shave” by John Acquaviva, the “Robo-Sapien Vox” and “Robo-Sapien Dub” versions. These latter tracks, without making vast amendments to the original, captured the zeitgeist perfectly and put Fad Gadget straight back onto the centre of the electro dancefloor, as well as onto compilations such as “Lektroluv 5” where he held his own amongst other contemporary artists such as Bangkok Impact, Polygamy Boys, Solvent and David Caretta.

Anyway, back to Saturday 19th January 2002, when Fad Gadget returned to Manchester University to play in the smaller hall there, which used to be called the Solem Bar but is some Academy something or other now, and played a storming set, whilst engaging in similar antics to yesteryear. The backing to “Ricky’s Hand”, for example, came supported by Frank’s contribution on a handdrill, which span recklessly into the palm of a leather glove; “Lady Shave” came with the pube plucking routine; “Back to Nature” saw him lumbering around the stage gorilla fashion during the opening bars; and for “Ad Nauseum”, a temporarily disappeared Frank Tovey, came back on to the stage with a black bin bag full of feathers which he then tipped over his stickily primed torso. It was a truly memorable night, partly because I’d always been too young to go to his earlier visits to the city and so was seeing him live for the first time but also because he was so energetic, entertaining and engaging whilst performing a host of favourite songs from my youth. Unlike a number of re-formed bands, who appear from time to time, this didn’t feel like a faded re-hash either. A recording was made of the previous night’s show at The Garage in London and, if you watch it, you’ll be able to see for yourself what I mean. I went backstage after the concert in Manchester, too, and had a five minute chat with FT and he was charming and seemed genuinely thrilled that he’d had such an impact on the lives of myself and the person I was with. He also talked of the 1990s having been a bit of a wasteland for him, where he agreed with myself that he’d got a bit bored, really, for several years. However, optimism was in the air now and the promise of the first new Fad Gadget material for eighteen years was on the horizon. If you watch the London show on DVD, you’ll hear him announce to the audience during the latter part of the set, “Even I want more tonight.”

Then, on 8th April 2002, as I’d just come through my front door from a few days in Stuttgart, where I’d been on a bit of an Oskar Schlemmer / Baader Meinhof pilgrimage, I played my answering machine messages back and received the devastating news that Frank Tovey had died of a sudden heart attack at his home six days earlier and, even though I didn’t know the man, the news hit me right in the core of my stomach. In one split second, a few words took away all the optimism of the previous few months, as well as someone who had been a significant companion throughout my most significant years. How his family and friends must have felt, I cannot imagine.

Anyway, time has rolled on, the memory is still well and truly alive, as evidenced by the CD/DVD release and the continued success of the official website, and his legacy and influence, too, continue to be heard in people like the fabulous Mechanical Cabaret, who covered “I Discover Love” on their second album. What a different and dreary world it would have been had Fad Gadget never come out of his closet, as it were.



Sunday, 30 January 2011


1983, though, was to prove quite a quiet year for Fad Gadget in terms of releases, although a single called “I Discover Love” came out that autumn. As previously, after making a very heavily electronic album, this record signalled a major shift in the opposite direction, as none of the instruments listed on the reverse of the sleeve would have betrayed to an outsider that this was a band normally associated with synth-pop. Frank Tovey is credited simply for “voice”, whilst Dave Simmonds’ electrical gadgetry has been replaced by simple piano. Elsewhere, a new vocalist, Joni Sackett, had entered the ranks, alongside David Rogers on double bass. A number of guest musicians are also credited, including a brass section but most noticeable of all is the name of Rowland S. Howard of The Birthday Party who provided some screech guitar which is kept well under control in the mix. The resultant sound is, in fact, a much more organic one, the single being a smoky, swingy number over which the distinctive Frank Tovey vocals can be heard. I remember the single being quite a hit down our road that October where it got quite a hammering at a Halloween party held in the garage of one local girl’s grandmother. The other popular record that night, although I can happily admit that it was not mine, was “Lovecats” by The Cure and, although Fad’s is a far superior song, the two made quite happy bedfellows at the time. Incidentally, a young girl’s hair caught fire that night - a Fad Gadget-esque warning that lashings of hairspray and naked flames in Halloween lanterns don’t mix?

This single, incidentally, was the first since “Back to Nature” not be recorded at Blackwing. Instead, the band used John Foxx’s The Garden where his sidekick, Gareth Jones, now took over the engineering duties.One enthusiastic, although rather late and not very carefully edited, review for the single came from Mick Mercer in the December issue of “Zigzag” magazine - “A profoundly big sound from Uncle Frank without a doubt as sensationally expounds sixties TV show sounds splashing around ease their way into a hunched shoulders/pigeon toed stance and then advance. With male and female interaction of this degree this might even herald the end of The Human League.” Make of it what you will.

Another major event that Autumn was when Fad Gadget were invited to support Siouxsie and the Banshees when they played two nights (30th September / 1st October) at The Royal Albert Hall, these being the shows which were recorded for the “Nocturne” album. However, Chris Bohn, who was normally a very loyal supporter of the band, had to admit that the occasion was a little too large for Frank et al to shine. His review in the NME read, “The hall certainly wasn’t chosen to favour support act Fad Gadget – a flea to Siouxsie’s butterfly. Tonight, his normally sharp bite was blunted by the buildings acoustic time traps and sound delays, which bounced his slow, evenly tempered rhythms and melodies into barely recognisable shapes. His brave move to a predominantly non-electric line-up was thus ruined, leaving Frank Tovey scrambling to draw an uninterested audience’s attention with a series of self-flagellations, gambols and leaps. Unfortunately, nobody looked his way, let alone wonder why he did what he did.”

The latter part of the year was then spent recording the fourth, and what was to be the final, Fad Gadget album at Hansa Studios in Berlin, a converted ballroom which stood directly beside the then still extant Wall, such that those working there could apparently look Russian guards right in the eye when they peered out of the windows and across into the eastern sector of the divided city. The studios had been made famous in the seventies when David Bowie and Iggy Pop had recorded there but, more recently, Depeche Mode were using it more and more to record and/or mix their mega-successful singles from the period, such as “Everything Counts”, “People are People” and “Master and Servant”. In fact, over the next few years, it would be used quite a lot by Mute artists, in much the same way that Blackwing had been used previously, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Diamanda Galas are two examples of those who recorded there. Gareth Jones was once again assisting, along with label boss, Daniel Miller.

The first fruit of their labours to see the light of day was a single released in January 1984, a song which clearly displayed the influence the city was having upon Frank Tovey et al. “Collapsing New People” is a forceful, thumping affair, powered by the industrial rhythm of a printing press which the band could hear operating in a building adjacent to the apartment they had rented for their stay. According to Joni Sackett, interviewed for the DVD documentary, they were so taken with its sound that they got Gareth Jones to come out and record it, the results then being turned into a loop for the rhythm track. It also took as its theme the prevailing trend at the time for members of Berlin’s alternative scene to make themselves up to look like the walking dead – “Exaggerate the scar tissue, wounds that never heal. Takes hours of preparation to get that wasted look.” One of the chief proponents of such a look at the time was Blixa Bargeld, frontman of pioneering noise merchants Einstürzende Naubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) and, so as not to cause offence or to look like he was cocking a snoop at the band, Tovey invited them to come and contribute to both sides of the single. As Bargeld explains in the book “No Beauty Without Danger”, “Fad Gadget did a record with Gareth at Hansa Studio and the lead singer Frank Tovey wrote the song ‘Collapsing new People’ with the line ‘Sat awake all night / But never see the stars / And sleep all day / On a chain link bed of nails.’ That was a direct reference to the Neubauten. Now, Tovey had the clever idea to ask Neubaten whether we’d play on it, so that the whole thing would not be misinterpreted as a criticism.”

Fad Gadget also performed on a double bill with the band at a venue in the city called The Loft around this time and, once again, this show made its way into the annals of memorable FG gigs, as during the set Tovey decided to leap into the air and swing on an air conditioning vent which then became detached from its fittings, bringing a large section of the false ceiling down onto the stage. Apparently, the damage he caused was nothing compared to Neubauten’s contribution to the show. One of the photographs taken that evening, by the way, although not of this particular incident, then found its way onto the back of the sleeve for the 12” format of the single and the kind of people the song describes can be clearly seen therein, one punter, seemingly, having literally dropped dead, as his/her head rests lifeless on the edge of the stage, in spite of the chaos ensuing in her immediate umgebung.

A review of the single in “Smash Hits” was a little lukewarm in its reception: “Weird title. I suppose he’s taking the mickey out of the new German groups but it does sound like this man loves Kraftwerk and that isn’t exactly fashionable at the moment. He needs a little more discipline to make himself a hit-maker (if that’s what he wants). It would be great to see some new people on Top of the Pops, however.” Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17, who was on hand to help out, summed it up thus: “Nice dancing music for wild dark parties.” And this, in fact, was what it was to become, being a dancefloor favourite in certain niche discotheques around the world at the time. It’s still quite popular today and I do believe that there is even a club night which bears its name in London today, as we live and breathe.

January 1984 also saw Frank Tovey’s involvement in a controversial performance held at The Institute for Contemporary Arts in London on the third of that month. “The Concerto for Voice and Machinery” had been incorrectly billed as an Einstürzende Naubauten concert when, in fact, it was a separate entity, although involving members of its personnel. The sell-out event, which was apparently attended by Marc Almond and the legendary Christiane F, was described by one reviewer as follows: “Around 10.30 the stage was covered with road drills, chainsaws, a cement mixer and various raw materials, most noticeably a piano quietly awaiting its imminent destruction. The performers, all wearing goggles for protection from the fierce showers of sparks flying from the hot slicings of wood and metal, included Neubauten regulars Mufti, Marc Chung and Alexander Von Borsig, plus Genesis P-Orridge, Fadist Frank Tovey, Jila (from Holland's Schlaflose Nacht) and the svelte frame of Stevo, the latter first toiling at woodsaw and later switching to an assault on a locker room cabinet. The noise was intense, violent, beautiful. A few ran, with fingers wedged in ears, to the exits as the decibels soared to agony-inducing proportions. The air became heavy with smoke, sawdust and, in places, sickly with petrol fumes. And it was exciting. Madly and wildly so. People quaked in the bone breaking din, squealing their delight in a kind of euphoric giddiness. A sudden taste of forbidden pleasure, fuelled by a drunken adrenaline pulse of sheer noise and crazed destruction. On the stage, things veered from gleeful, precise carnage to an exhilaratingly dangerous chaos. The protagonists jolted and bumped into each other. At times, I seriously expected an arm or a leg to be severed, the disembodiment then insanely celebrated by the tossing of the blood-dripping limb into the audience. Instead, Mufti showered the front rows with sawdust. The crowd, dense and tight, swaying around the small hall, fell back in waves as road drills were flashed at them and a musclebound figure dropped with one from the stage to begin pummelling the floor. Someone (characters became indistinct in the haze) began throwing empty milk bottles into the cement mixer. The savage rattle of their crushing was lost in the overall row but the splinters vomiting out of the device apparently resulted in several gashed faces. Suddenly, the clatter faded and died. The ICA stewards quickly replaced performers at the front of the stage. The performers and the gaggle of photographers snapping from the rear were ushered backstage and the doors closed on them. No return. What very few people knew (including me at the time) was that the piece was only intended to last 25 minutes. It seemed that the ICA officials had taken a reactionary view and stopped the gig, fearful, perhaps, for the ongoing upright posture of their building. The stage continued to be battered, this time by the angry audience, themselves using any available implement. A tug-o-war between stewards and a section of the crowd resulted in a road drill being hauled back to the stage and rapidly shunted, along with the rest of the equipment, to the rear.”

After the performance, some of those involved stated that their intentions were to drill through the building’s floor and into a system of secret tunnels they had heard existed, linking Buckingham Palace to Whitehall. The night’s proceedings, although unsuccessful in this respect, caused quite a furore and it has since become the stuff of legends. The event was actually restaged at The ICA in February 2007, although with a different cast of participants and under the careful strictures of health and safety guidelines. Yawn!!

The following month then brought Fad Gadget’s final album “Gag”, the cover of which featured an Anton Corbijn photograph of a bedraggled and tarred and feathered Frank Tovey. Once again, it was a departure from what had gone before, developing along the route which had been hinted at by “I Discover Love”. Speaking of its recording, Dave Simmonds once said, “That was the first album I did with him that was more live,” a point agreed upon by Nick Cash: “I think that was the first time we played drums live all the way through virtually”; and, in an interview with “Electronics and Music Maker”, published roughly contemporaneously to the album’s release, Tovey told the journalist that “I wanted everything for ‘Gag’ to be a complete break from the past,” before going on to speak of Einstürzende Naubauten’s involvement in the project: “Neubauten just happened to be in the studio for a little while as we were recording the album. They liked ‘New People’ a lot and we decided to see how it would work out with them playing along to it. What you’ve got to remember is that the song wasn’t written with them specifically in mind: we already had the backing tracks down on tape when they came in and overdubbed all their metal percussion and I think things might have turned out a bit better if I’d worked with the band on a song right from the start.” As well as Neubauten and the core Fad Gadget line-up of Tovey, Dave Simmonds, Nick Cash, David Rogers, Joni Sackett and Barbara Frost, other contributors included Rowland S.Howard, again, who contributed guitar to two tracks, “Ideal World” and “Ad Nauseum”, and Morgan Tovey-Frost who provided her vocal gurgling for a second time, this time to a song called “Sleep”.

Aside from the single which preceded its release, arguably the best track on the album is the one that closed its second side. “Ad Nauseum” is a hellish opus, wherein Frank narrates a picaresque tale of despair and degradation over an oppressive backing, the repetetive violin/double bass riff bringing to mind the unsettling music which heralded the approach of the world’s most famous great white shark in the “Jaws” films. Intimidating whistling, which suggests a gang not unlike that led by Alex DeLarge is just around the next corner, compliments this and, as mentioned earlier, Rowland S. Howard is on hand to spread a little of his guitar menace. It doesn’t make for particularly easy listening, being very much in the same kind of vein as the work that Jim Thirlwell was releasing around this time on the two Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel albums. However, like the assorted Foetus releases, although darkly gothic, the song is not in the least dour, being characterised by the now familiar Frank Tovey gallows humour. “Tarred and feathered like a gutted chicken, stuck in a rut, out of luck, ad nauseum. Sew up my lips and then cut my throat. I choke on the gag but I don’t get the joke,” are the songs opening lines, for example, providing both the album’s title, as well as the concept of its cover..

Elsewhere there are some other high points, including: “One Man’s Meat”, a more tempered and commercial retreading of similar ground to “Ad Nauseum”; the powerful “Ideal World” which, again, seemingly presents a world-weary outlook, with Rowland Howard doing his very best to work against the ironically optimistic title; and “Sleep” which, on first listen, sounds rather incongruously gentle in this context. However, a closer listen to the lyrics anchors it back into the album’s generally cynical worldview, as Tovey, now developing in his role of father, addresses his daughter directly : “Watching over you tonight, I get the feeling that life’s alright. You can laugh at those middle-aged fakes but I hope you don’t make the same mistakes as me.”

The press generally approved of what they heard, too, with Steve Connell in “The Catalogue”, the trade paper produced by independent record distributors The Cartel, leading the way: “...the best LP yet from Fad Gadget: Gag is compelling and convincing with Rowland Howard adding menacing guitar to stand-out track Ideal World (the next single). Even if you’ve resisted Fad’s charms before, now is the time to succumb,” whilst the NME described it as “one hell of a companionable platter”, displaying “tremendous guttural verve” and “Sounds” partly re-presented the now, seemingly, age-old Fad Gadget paradox, “too hip and intelligent for the denim bozos and too traditionally versed for the teeny masses.” “Melody Maker”, however, were less enthusiastic, their journalist seeing it as evidence that Fad Gadget was: “.slipping back over old ground.”

Whilst I certainly don’t agree with that final comment, my own personal evaluation is, unfortunately, nowhere near as gushing as Steve Connell’s, for, in my view, the rest of the album, which includes enjoyable twisted pop songs, such as “Jump” and “Stand Up”, is good but, for me, it just doesn’t sparkle or quite hold together like the three which had gone before. I remember feeling this, too, as a teenager, at the time, that somehow for Fad Gadget, as well as the great alternative, experimental pop music scene which had lit up the late seventies and early eighties, the show was finally coming to the end of the road.

And that is exactly what happened, Fad Gadget did go out on the road to promote the album, during the early months of 1984, their show at Manchester’s Haçienda on 28th February being filmed for posterity by Factory Records’ video arm, Ikon, but it wouldn’t be long before it was all over. (If Ikon filmed everybody who played there, incidentally, which I suspect they may have done, certainly in the early days, the archive material lying around unreleased must be absolutely incredible. Thankfully, Liaisons Dangereuses’ performance at the club on 7th July 1982, as well as The Birthday Party’s visit from the same month, eventually got a commercial release but what else there could still be defies imagining: an early visit to the UK by Einstürzende Neubauten with NON (Boyd Rice) as support act? Fad Gadget’s other appearances at the club? Cabaret Voltaire on its opening night, 21st May 1982? Dome?) Anyway, I digress slightly. Fad Gadget’s entire performance that night did, thankfully, surface twenty two years later, on the CD/DVD box set I speak of so fondly, where Frank Tovey can be seen dressed and made-up to look like the walking wounded, firing up the crowd with energetic renditions of old classics like “Coitus Interruptus”, “Back to Nature” and “Ricky’s Hand”. He even does a bit of wild, backwards stage-diving during the latter of these. However, when the majority of the tracks from the album, even “Ad Nauseum”, for example, are given their turn, a lack of enthusiasm is evident on audience members’ faces and, dare I say it, Frank Tovey’s, too.

Then, a few weeks after the Haçienda gig, the final Fad Gadget single was released, an edited down version of “One Man’s Meat” from the album, coupled with an “electro-induced” reworking of the lullaby, “Sleep”. The 12” also featured a bonus version of “Ricky’s Hand”, complete with audience contributions, recorded live that night in Manchester. A review of the single in “Smash Hits” was favourable and optimistic, again, - “It’s about time Fad Gadget had a huge hit. ‘Collapsing New People’ paved the way and I’m sure if ‘Meat’, produced by Frank Tovey (that’s Fad) and Gareth Jones, receives enough airplay we’ll see it in the Top 40. I’m keeping my fingers crossed anyway.” – but “too late” was the cry, as the Fad Gadget story, sort-of, comes to an end here for knocking on two decades, with Frank Tovey deciding to drop the name and start out on a musical journey which would, eventually, take him well away from the Fad sound we’d previously known and loved. In a television interview from the following year, he explained his reasons for so doing, “I changed it partly because I wanted to have a fresh start, maybe take a new approach and partly because in Britain I’d built up such a reputation as an underground artist or a cult figure that it was very difficult to break through that image. I was effectively making music that was pop music but I was still being categorised as being in the independent chart, tucked away in a corner and I wanted to break away from that.”

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

FAD GADGET : Part Five

The first half of 1982 was also a period where two significant occurrences had quite a profound effect upon Frank Tovey, one of a personal nature, the other more universal. The first of these was the birth of his first child, a daughter named Morgan Tovey-Frost, whilst the second was the Falklands Conflict, which saw Britain at war with Argentina and Margaret Thatcher’s popularity soar amongst a jingoistic population and press who admired her cast-iron resoluteness in the face of these offenders of the realm, even though most people had never previously heard of this remote colony, thousands of miles away off the coast of South America. One of the Queen’s sons even joined the military task force which stormed across the oceans to sort the invaders out and young people on both sides lost their lives as a result of political machinations. Tovey was not a supporter of the war and the strong feelings it evoked, as well as those emanating from finding himself a parent for the first time, had a strong impact on the lyrical content of his third album, “Under The Flag”, which was released that Autumn. Speaking of the former theme in a television interview from the period, Tovey explained that: “When I made ‘Under the Flag’ I wrote the lyrics over a two week period and that was just as the Falklands conflict started and so, naturally, that influenced my writing. Every image on TV was to do with that.”

Funnily enough, though, the first single from the album, “Life on the Line”, released in September 1982, a few weeks before the larger work, does not pick up on either of the threads mentioned above, although baby Morgan does appear providing some gurgling vocals on the otherwise instrumental b-side, “4M”. Instead, it is an oblique expression of the dehumanising and materialistic nature of the times. Again, quoting some lyrics will probably make the task of explanation simpler. Here’s the chorus – “Fortune built my hopes in daydreams, pages I’d never seen. I’m sorry you were so disappointed. The contract states quite fundamentally, the undersigned is you. Lay your life on the line.” Fad Gadget records were certainly presenting a different version of events compared to Duran Duran, for example, whose “Rio” single was out at roughly the same time as “Life on the Line”. The two are as different as chalk and cheese, something Paul Morley pointed out when interviewed for the DVD documentary: “At a time when the excess of the eighties and the decadence of the times was, in a funny sort of way, being celebrated by mainstream pop acts, so that they were representing and reflecting Thatcher’s decade as if somehow it was a glorious thing that it gives you the opportunity to swan around on yachts and wear designer suits ...Frank was one of those people who pointed out the hollowness of the decade. It further bust him out because, at a time when his music was beginning to sound like it really should be in the pop charts, he was almost sort of shouting at everybody for being so gullible and falling for the illusion.”


The latter comment is particularly pertinent, as the single, which was an accomplished, catchy and intelligent pop song, introduced a return to a more electronic sound then very much in vogue, a sound which the band seemed to have been moving away from over the previous year or so but which now characterised much of the album. It also indicated a shift to a digital approach, as some blurb provided by Mute at the time states that, “the single was written by Fad and features him on vocals, computer and synthesizer.” In an interview with “Electronics and Music Maker” magazine from April 1984, he explained his reason for working in this manner: “It was during the making of ‘Under The Flag’ that I first started to use the Roland MC4 microcomposer. I wanted the music to be very flat, very controlled and using something like that, where almost every part can be played automatically, seemed to me the best way to go about doing it. The reason I wanted the music to be relatively uneventful was that the lyrics on that album were very intense and I didn’t want the music to grab any of the limelight, if you like. The way I see it is that the music should act as a contrast to what the vocals are doing.”

The lyrical content of the album was certainly there at the forefront in the way that it was presented, the words appearing on an inner sleeve for the first time, so that listeners could follow Tovey as he presented his microcosmic vision of the nation at that point in time. The title track, which opens and closes the album, in two different forms, does so very forcibly with the tale of a young man trying to make his way in the harsh contemporary climate, elements of it sounding slightly autobiographical – “Well, the story begins on the Isle of Dogs in a time of world recession. There’s a queue a mile long for every job, young hearts deep in depression.” He then proceeds to find himself a mate, who falls pregnant with a child they cannot afford, this, in turn, leading to him turning to drink which then leads to scenes of domestic violence. The story ends with him subjugated and broken spirited, towing the line in a civil service position. As Tovey sings at one point, “Oh the script is so damn obvious.” A similarly bleak outlook also characterises “For Whom The Bells Toll” which, like a number of songs on the album, once again, features the choral backing vocals which began appearing on “Incontinent”. In fact, they’ve been significantly intensified, with seven people now credited as being members of the chorus. One of these, Alison Moyet, then enjoying huge success with Yazoo, also provides a saxophone solo on one track, “Wheels of Fortune”, which is an extremely commercial sounding pop song where Tovey once again rails against the dominance of motor vehicles over pedestrians, although now from the perspective of a parent with a much more cynical take on the corruption at the core of political decision making – “I choke on the words as I speak. Brain damaged citizens file along the street. The view from my window, a motorway intersection, exhaust pipes at pram level. Now playgrounds are car parks...Wheels of fortune keep rolling on, five-star fantasies of multi-storey power games. A money spinner.”

Bearing in mind what was said before, though, probably the two standout tracks on the album are “Love Parasite” and “The Sheep Look Up”. The former is an extremely punchy piece of electronic dance music which sounded very progressive and powerful at the time, this being six months in advance of when New Order, supposedly, made seismic advances in the genre by releasing “Blue Monday”. (Shall I also mention “Los Ninos Del Parque” by Liaisons Dangereuses, also from 1982, at this point? Or Fad’s own “Coitus Interruptus” from two years earlier?) The lyrics, in typical Fad Gadget fashion, give a rather unsympathetic and personal expression of some of the less positive feelings parenthood was beginning to evoke in Tovey. The love token of his partnership with Barbara Frost has actually turned out, partly, to be some kind of voracious, constantly demanding monster – “Scream aloud, words without meaning. You lack the gift of speech but you suck like a leech. Scream aloud.” This song would later go on to be voted into the top five list of fan favourites mentioned earlier. “The Sheep Look Up”, on the other hand, is a much more sedate affair befitting the gravitas of its theme, events in the Southern Atlantic. Tovey’s lyrics now take no prisoners – “This is the shadow of a great cloud. This is the flag of hate. Patriotism is the key word now, here in this democratic state.” The parallel with the doomy choruses of Greek Tragedy is now highly evident, again, in the powerful female counterpoint which backs Tovey on the song’s recurrent refrain – “And the sheep look up, as the sky falls down, tumbling heavy to the sea.” Crass may have achieved much greater notoriety with “Sheep Farming in the Falklands” and “Gotcha” but Fad Gadget was right beside them in sentiment.

Reviews of the album were very positive, too. “Sounds”, for example, described it as, “A constant delight of modern electronic soundtrack with passion,” whilst Paul Tickell in “The Face” evaluated it as follows: “Picking over sores is a pastime of Fad Gadget’s, too. He turned it into uneasy entertainment on his early work but it went off the rails with his ‘Incontinent’ album: derision without vision will get you nowhere, not even into the charts. ‘Under the Flag’(Mute), though, sees Fad/Frank Tovey back on form; he’s latched onto something as he dissects the post-Falklands spirit, national decay and gathering conservative reaction. To his credit, Frank performs the operation with oblique zest and has dispensed with Daniel Miller as producer. His music now has a more lush sound – for example, the electronics are frequently augmented by grand piano. So, then, Fad’s disgust has come into its own: the joker looks out of his window at Thatcherite Britain and sees a lot of vile bodies.” Elsewhere, in “Noise”, Bill Prince awarded it four out of a possible five stars, which meant “jolly good but not top-notch”. His more detailed comments were: “What’s Frank Tovey worrying about these days? The social decay brought on by mass unemployment and the terrifying ease with which the country found itself at war earlier in the year are two of the subjects dwelt upon by Fad Gadget on this album. Four albums(sic) under their belt and Fad Gadget are still after that elusive hit and a place in the Mute Hall of Commercial Success but, even without it, Frank Tovey’s music will still be thoughtful, experimental tapestries of sound and atmosphere. Unlike labelmates Depeche Mode, Frank uses synthetic sounds as a means rather than an end so there’s no slavish adherence to the synth. Acoustic piano and percussion can also be heard. The sparse melodies are brought to rather doomy life by chant-like vocals, one of which belongs to Yazoo’s better ‘alf. Alf also blows some sax on one track. To say this album sounds like ‘A Broken Frame’ whilst not untrue (some of the sounds must have come from the same box of tricks) is very misleading. Frank’s approach is continually at odds with the Mode’s search for the perfect tune. His is the pursuit of meaning over mechanics.”

Then, as well as an appearance on Channel 4’s “Whatever You Want”, where the band were shown performing “Coitus Interruptus”, “The Sheep Look Up” and “For Whom The Bells Toll” live, the year then ended with Fad Gadget supporting Depeche Mode at their Christmas show at the Brixton Ace on 23rd December. Mat Snow of the NME was impressed with his performance that night – “Fad Gadget could be on the verge of breaking out of cultishness and into the wider arena...Mastermind Frank runs through the gamut of frontman styles from Bowie to Iggy to Lux Interior. Whether he’s lashing himself to a mike stand with his lead or greedily attempting to devour a keyboard during ‘Coitus Interruptus’, this puny, wild-eyed creature is never less than amusing and commandingly watchable. A natural.”

As with the previous year, 1983 was kick-started by the release of a new single, making it into the shops in the very early days of January. This time it was “For Whom The Bells Toll”, which, although a good song, seemed an unusual choice for single release, bearing in mind two highly commercial tracks lay hidden on the album – “Wheels of Fortune” and “Love Parasite”, either of which could possibly have made the charts - perhaps? Probably not. As it happened, though, the single was received quite favourably, a “Smash Hits” review stating, “The Gadgetman’s most promising single since ‘Ricky’s Hand’ – a drum-thump and chant affair that’ll warm its way into your mind. All Fad Frank needs now is a little luck.” On the back of it and also to promote the album, the band went out on quite an extensive tour.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

FAD GADGET : Part Four

The following month, April 1981, then saw Fad Gadget headlining a Mute Records night at London’s Lyceum Theatre, NON and Depeche Mode, who had recently released their debut single ( “Dreaming of Me”) also appearing on the bill. With D.A.F. having just left the label to sign with Virgin and The Normal, The Silicon Teens and Robert Rental not really being viable live acts, non-Mute bands Palais Schaumburg and Furious Pig also played that night in order to pad-out the bill. An NME review of the gig summarised Fad Gadget’s performance thus: ““..the group line-up with two drummers, one of them synthesized, plus guitar and keyboards; musically they represent electronic music’s hooligan element.”

The summer of 1981 also saw Fad Gadget making plans to tour America for the first time, as well as the release of a joint flexidisc, coupling “King of the Flies”, from his forthcoming second album, with an early version of “I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead” by Depeche Mode. This was then given away in huge quantities with Issue 11 of “Flexipop” magazine. An interview with Akiko Hada in ZigZag magazine also gave clues to the sound which would be heard on the forthcoming album – “’I think I’ll be using a lot more voice in the future. Experimenting with mixing-in the voice.’ Frank’s been listening to ‘Carmina Burana’ by Carl Orff, a classical piece of (mainly) choir written in the 1930s” – as well as the news that he was working on a collaboration with Boyd Rice, “to be released on Mute later this year”. As it happened, “Easy Listening for the Hard of Hearing”, as it was titled, did not see the light of day until 1984 – see later on for details.

1981 was also the summer of riots in a number of Britain’s larger cities, and this sense of unease and violence, along with the more varied approach mentioned above, are highly evident on the follow-up to “Fireside Favourites” which was released that Autumn. The title of the album (“Incontinent”) was apparently a pun, referencing the international travel that the band had enjoyed for the first time over the preceding twelve months. However, when one listens to the skittering, splattering instrumental title track, which closes the first side, a parallel scatological intention must be assumed. Tracks such as “Innocent Bystander”, with its muffled police sirens, and “Plain Clothes”, with lyrics of police brutality ( “Plain Clothes, they’ll arrest you again. Beat you up on the street, fight back and you’ll get the blame. They mix with the crowd in civilian dress. Just put one foot wrong, they’ll make you confess the rest”) certainly convey the sense of social unease prevalent at the time and, in this respect, the album evokes this aspect of the period as vividly as “Ghost Town” by The Specials which had topped the charts a few months earlier. Elsewhere, “Blind Eyes” and Swallow It” picked up the theme more obliquely, expressing Tovey’s dissatisfaction with the nation’s apathy in such bleak times, through a critique of the average man in the street’s passive acceptance of what was being presented to him – “Waste your money on some fad gadget, a multi toy for the family. Let’s all play at being concerned. It doesn’t really make much difference to me...blind eyes turning. Hear no, see no, speak no evil” and “Swallow it, like the fool you are, swallow it” are amongst the albums most memorable lyrics.

Choral, almost medieval sounding, backing vocals by Barbara Frost and Anne Clift also feature strongly in the mix and Fad Gadget, alongside the usual vocals, synthesizer and sequencer, is also credited with playing less conventional electropop instruments, such as Chinese shawm, saxophone and flute, whilst Nick Cash adds Jew’s harp and accordion to his percussive contribution. Robert Gotobed, who was coming to the end of his stint with the band, is also credited with playing drums on “Manual Dexterity”, a highly rhythmic instrumental, the title of which is self-explanatory. In terms of its musicality, the album is a long way from its predecessor, although the signature is still notably that of Frank Tovey/Fad Gadget. It was also warmly received in some areas of the press. Fred Dellar in “Smash Hits”, for example, wrote “Fad supplies synth sounds that induce you to listen while his percussive exploits dig you in the ribs in a manner you’ll enjoy. And though his songs are mainly about folk you won’t like – ghouls who hang around at the scene of an accident, well-to-dos who ignore the plight of the world’s poor and those who nearly work their way down to gutter level – Fad fashions them in a manner that will keep you hanging on. Can a man with a deadpan voice make one of the year’s most diverting albums? Seems so.”

For the record’s sleeve, as well as those of the two singles lifted from it, Tovey was dressed as seaside favourite Mr. Punch, the violence and brutality inherent in this character being a perfect metaphor for the album’s expression of the times. In a brief interview snippet featured in “Smash Hits” in the month of the album’s release, he explained his intentions for so dressing : “Fad wants to look like Punch (that seaside staple who knocks the living daylights out of a certain Judy because of all ‘the contradictions’ that the puppet represents. ‘Punch might make us laugh,’ Fad argues, ‘but he’s also ‘gruesome, sexist, racist and he beats up policemen. He’s everything you try and teach children not to be!’” In the Paul Morley interview, which I keep quoting, he elaborated further: “My mother could not tear me away from the Punch and Judy show. I could watch, enrapt, for whole days. The spectacle of the Punch and Judy show held me there, as if stupefied, through the sight of these puppets that talked, moved, clubbed each other. It was the spectacle of the world itself, which was unusual, improbable, but truer than truth which then presented itself to me in an infinitely simplified and caricatured form, as if to underline its grotesque and brutal truth.” It was certainly an extremely striking image which became synonymous with Fad Gadget for the months which followed, appearing regularly in the music papers alongside news of whatever he was doing during the period

To promote the album, Fad Gadget then embarked on a national tour supporting Toyah, who was then riding the crest of her popularity, although her audience were none too impressed with the less obvious presentation of the opening act when compared to the palatable pop star they’d paid to see. In a “Smash Hits” interview from early ‘82, Tovey gave an account of his poor reception: “Everybody would be screaming for Toyah while we were on...In England it was okay but in Ireland it got really violent, with people throwing chairs and coins and spitting all over us. In Ulster I jumped into the audience and got beaten up by the crowd. They ripped my shirt and I later crawled out with just one shoe on.” This, however, didn’t stop the diminutive punkette voting Fad Gadget to be her favourite artist of the year in the “Smash Hits” readers’ poll which closed 1981.

Expectations were riding high as 1982 dawned, with the increased exposure Fad Gadget had enjoyed as a result of press coverage and the Toyah tour – not everybody hated him, going on the evidence of a girl at my school who returned from the Manchester Apollo show on 21st December 1981 with a copy of “Incontinent” signed “Fad” in large black scrawl – making many people believe that this would be the year when Frank Tovey would find himself in the “real” charts, rather than being confined to those reserved for independent releases. The year certainly started well, too, with Fad Gadget’s fifth single, “Saturday Night Special”, from the recent album, getting its release in the first week of January. The band were also invited onto BBC2’s arts magazine programme “Riverside” that month to promote it and, although this footage didn’t make it onto the “Fad Gadget by Frank Tovey” compilation, it does exist in YouTubeland, where Frank, dressed all in black and wearing a sizeable beret with the price tag still hanging from it, can be seen swaying around the studio stage, backed by Nick Cash, Dave Simmonds and Pete Balmer. Viewers were also treated to a lively rendition of “Blind Eyes”, the pace of which allowed a now hatless Tovey to bounce and bop around to the rhythm. He nearly does the splits on several occasions and, as he punctuated the song with shrieks and growls, the nation were exposed to some of the energy and spontaneity of the live Fad Gadget experience, although in a somewhat restrained form on this occasion. Interestingly, too, as the camera pans back to the audience at the end of the performance, a highly recognisable Boy George can be seen amongst the throng, clapping his approval. It would still be another nine months or so until he would become a household name.

“Saturday Night Special” was another darkly sardonic, possibly the darkest so far, yet memorably catchy single, a slow-paced waltz with tinkling piano parts and Frank’s deeply ominous vocals being off-set by the choral female backing, here fulfilling a role which is a little reminiscent of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, as they repeat the song’s cautionary refrain at various junctures (“Ride into the sun and the damage is done”). The writing of the song had been a joint collaboration between Tovey and Frost, with the striking lyrics allegedly being written half by one and half by the other. When interviewed in “Smash Hits” a month after the single’s release, Tovey explained their intentions to the journalist: “I feel there’s a kind of American macho cowboy image, which also exists here, whereby a man has three kinds of rights in his life. One is the right to defend himself – which raises the question of whether he is entitled to kill others in order to defend himself. Next, a lot of men think they have the right to take a wife and feel that they can choose any woman they want, just to use for their own ends. Finally, there’s the right to raise a son – which brings the whole thing round again, the son being raised with the same attitudes, resulting in the tradition being carried on.” At the risk of being tedious, I’ll quote some of the lyrics to back up his explanation – “Every man should have the right to take a wife. Every man should have someone to share his life. Keep her at home with the kids and the cooking, so wholesome and clean when the neighbours are looking. She’s mother and angel and courtesan, too, always hot in the bedroom, she’s dressed just for you.” The single, which was backed by a live version of “Swallow It”, recorded on 8th December 1981 at London’s Venue, proved to be a little lacking in commerciality and didn’t receive the daytime radio play it deserved and, consequently, Fad Gadget failed to chart once again.

As well as the above, and conducting the major NME interview with Paul Morley, having his photo taken by Anton Corbijn and being the subject of a whole page feature and interview in “Smash Hits”, early 1982 also saw Tovey and the band playing more gigs before a second and final single from the album was released in early April. “King of the Flies”, you’ll remember, if you’ve been following, made its first outing on the Flexipop disc the previous summer and then it appeared as the lively highlight of the second side of “Incontinent”. Now, however, what was previously quite a murky, yet still extremely poppy and catchy number, with its heavy bassline, steel drum rhythm and strong chorus, had been re-recorded with greater umph and commercial appeal due to a forceful, stinging keyboard part which had been absent from the original.

Was Fad about to get his first major hit? Those in the press seemed to think it was a strong possibility. Ian Birch in “Smash Hits”, for example, wrote “With luck this could slip into the charts by a side entrance. It has a sturdy melody, confident vocals and plenty of mystery and imagination in the words. Clever lad, our fad.” Meanwhile, Betty Page, in her “Electrobop” page in Sounds’ short-lived glossy spin-off “Noise”, listed it amongst her recommended new releases for the month, alongside such luminaries as “Ever So Lonely” by Monsoon, “The Anvil” by Visage, “Only You” by Yazoo, “Fred Vom Jupiter” by Die Doraus and Die Marinas, “My Private Tokyo” by Vicious Pink Phenomena, “To Have and Have Not” by Ronny, “Nowhere Girl” by B-Movie and “Radio Silence” by Tomas Dolby, as well as releases by artists whose appeal hasn’t lasted the test of time in quite the same way, Peter Godwin and Private Lives, for example. It was a busy time release-wise and, once again, Fad Gadget missed the boat, although, as previously, the intelligent, satirical subject matter must take some of the blame, “King of the Flies” being a first-person account of life in prison. The song’s anti-hero, once one of the haves in Thatcher’s increasingly divided Britain, seems to have lived a corrupt and exploitative existence in the outside world, making money carelessly and irresponsibly in the process but now, stripped of his freedom, he doesn’t even have the power to control the flies who pass freely in and out of his cell through the bars which keep him incarcerated. It wasn’t really the stuff of “Razzmatazz” and “Cheggers Plays Pop”, even though it did come in a glossy colour sleeve, which a certain schoolboy, who shall remain nameless, once sat in an Art lesson trying to copy, much to his teacher’s fascinated bemusement.


Sunday, 23 January 2011

FAD GADGET : Part Three

1980 also saw a number of live performances, including Fad Gadget’s first forays onto European soil, where a strong and enthusiastic following was beginning to develop, as well as shifts in their line-up which saw the beginnings of a more permanent band emerge. Lederman and Wauquaire were forced to leave through lack of funds, returning to their native Belgium, where several years later Lederman would form The Weathermen with ex-Tuxedo Moon member Bruce Geduldig, the pair of them going on to achieve a German chart hit in 1987 with their single “Poison”. Another of his outfits, Kid Montana, which included Wauquaire amongst its ranks for a while, also achieved a degree of underground success as a result of records released on hip Brussels label Les Disques du Crepuscule. Their places were filled by the likes of Robert Gotobed, moonlighting from his more permanent post behind the drumkit of Wire, and percussionist Nick Cash who had previously played and released records with PragVec and The Lines but who would now stay with Fad Gadget for the duration, and it was members of this evolving line-up, alongside Tovey, Miller and Eric Radcliffe’s sidekick at Blackwing, John Fryer (credited as playing extra fingers, ashtray, metal chair and studio), who spent some of the middle part of the year recording Fad Gadget’s debut album “Fireside Favourites”, released in early November.

A single, “Fireside Favourite”/”Insecticide”, preceded the release of the album by a month or so, however, and proved to be the third classic Fad Gadget 7” in a row. “Fireside Favourite” is a creepy, yet catchy, electro-waltz over which Tovey addresses his sweetheart in loving and coaxing terms, whilst sardonically juxtaposing the warmth and security of the fireside with the disastrous calamity of an impending nuclear holocaust. This was, after all, the autumn of Greenham Common protests over the deployment of American nuclear weapons on British soil and the direct aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the US’s subsequent boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Tensions were high and expectations were low. However, as with the previous releases, the tone is darkly humorous rather than preachy, the result being another piece of highly individual pop (but not pop), the sing-a-long lyrics taking us from the comfortable image of “toasting crumpets by the fire grate” to a situation whereby, “..your hair is falling out and your teeth are gone, your legs are still together but it won’t long. Your head was on my shoulder. Now, I’m kissing a skull. My heart is melting slowly as my senses dull. Now, we’re just a scab on a piece of wire. All things are done in front of the fire.” As one journalist put it, “Fireside Favourite” is “a song in which somebody’s girlfriend melts in his arms. Literally.” Turn the record over and “Insecticide” is equally ghoulish yet amusing, as we hear the distorted first person narrative of a fly as he creeps up the wall and across the ceiling, spins around a lightbulb and lands on a sandwich. An explanation of his frustration at being stuck in the same room, seemingly forever, and of how he has discussed his death wish with his wife ensues and he then begins smashing his face repeatedly against the windowpane in an attempt to commit hari-kari, all this delivered over a powerful and intense riff which echoes John Carpenter’s music from films such as “Halloween.” As previously, the single fared well critically and in the Independent Charts, Red Starr in “Smash Hits”, again being keen to extol its virtues: “The sadly neglected Fad Gadget looks like he could give The Human League a run for their money in the smart electronic stakes. His third excellent single in a row previews two tracks from his forthcoming album and features more of his clever black humour lyrics and nifty tunes. ‘Fireside Favourites’ pointedly combines the home fire, the atom bomb and an insanely jolly cakewalk while ‘Insecticide’ views life from an insect’s point of view with some clever effects. Highly recommended.”

Then, as mentioned, the debut album came out and “Fireside Favourites” has gone on to become one of Fad Gadget’s most loved releases, as well as one of the most enduring of the first wave of electronic albums then emerging. This, again, though, is probably as a result of Tovey’s uncompromising, somewhat commercially obtuse approach which favoured experimentation over clichéd instantaneity but which, ultimately, denied him the riches enjoyed by a number of his contemporaries. As well as both sides of the most recent single, the album also included amongst its nine tracks a re-recorded version of “The Box” and three other songs from the original demo tape, the infectiously harsh “State of the Nation”, “Salt Lake City Sunday”, which was Tovey’s critique of the mercenary paradox at the core of organised religions ( “They want you to repent. They want your ten percent.”) and the electofunk of “Coitus Interruptus”, a song about people’s failed attempts at having sexual intercourse. As Tovey explained to ZigZag journalist Akiko Hada six months or so after the album’s release, “Because nearly all disco songs seem to be about having sex, I thought why shouldn’t there be a song about not being able to have it?” In addition to this, two of the newer songs, “Pedestrian” and “Newsreel” suggested a somewhat prophetic side to Frank Tovey, as the issues raised seem more contemporary to us now in the twenty-first century than they did in the early 1980s. “Pedestrian” takes as its theme the damaging impact of the increasingly dominant car culture ( “Twenty-five acres every day to make one mile of motorway. Pedestrian wait. Don’t breathe the air it’s full of lead, babies sick, babies dead. Pedestrian wait.”), whilst “Newsreel” exposes the unpalatable voyeurism of reality television ( “Point the camera at the baby. Shoot the mother giving birth. Watch the blood run down the table. Close up to the afterbirth.”). Alongside 1968’s television drama “Year of the Sex Olympics”, the latter serves as a particularly sharp indicator of the unempathetic times lying ahead. The remaining track, “Arch of the Aorta” is an unsettling, atmospheric instrumental with hard to decipher vocal samples, suggesting a hospital operating theatre, woven into the mix.

Although the album was, once again, successful on an Independent Chart level, dissenting voices were beginning to be heard from reviewers, some of them previously enthusiastic in their approval. Red Starr in “Smash Hits”, for example, wrote: “I was a bit surprised by Fad Gadget’s ‘Fireside Favourites’(Mute). There’s been such a buzz about him that I didn’t expect the rather tame Numanisms of the first side. Turn over, though, and you’ll find him recovering much of the lost ground with more original tracks that include a dreamlike trip through major surgery called ‘Arch of the Aorta’ and the comedy of ‘Insecticide’ in which Fad Gadget becomes a housefly who spins round a light bulb prior to landing on your sandwich.” Pete Erskine of ZigZag was equally mixed in his evaluation: “’Ullo, Gary Numan with more balls. Fad Gadget scores over other synth-brigadiers in that there’s a bit more going on in the rhythm. His lyrics are warmer but he’s still guilty of the deep-voice.”

In the same month that the album was released, Fad Gadget played live at The Bridgehouse in London’s Canning Town (11th November 1980), the gig being particularly memorable as it was the occasion on which the teenage support band, Depeche Mode, first came to the attention of Mute Records boss, Daniel Miller, and a highly significant chapter in the history of pop music began to be written. It also sparked a relationship between the band and Frank Tovey which would last right up until his death, more of which later.

Perhaps as a result of comments such as those by Red Starr or maybe simply because a bass player, Pete Balmer, had been temporarily recruited into the ranks, the first release of 1981 represented a bit of a move away from the pure electronics of the previous Fad Gadget releases. “Make Room”, hitting the racks in March of that year, although possessed of a noticeable synthesizer presence, is much more akin to conventional pop and gestures towards a more organic sound, Robert Gotobed’s drumming and Balmer’s prominent bass giving it a rather funk-like feel. Personally, I find it a bit of a disappointment in the aftermath of what had gone before, the fact that it featured Dave Simmonds on synthesizer and Barbara Frost on full backing vocals for the first time being its chief draw, as both went on to be Fad Gadget stalwarts and members of what would ultimately become the settled nucleus of the band. David Hepworth, however, gave the single a favourable review in “Smash Hits”: “Spare, rhythmic and very clever. If Fad is crazy, he’s crazy like a fox and this deserves radio play at the very least.”

The single’s flipside, though, “Lady Shave”, is pure Fad Gadget heaven and was voted amongst his five most popular songs by fans when invited to do so for the “Fad Gadget by Frank Tovey” retrospective in 2006. Another dancefloor favourite, due to its catchy riff and relentless rhythm, the track concerns itself with the social pressures placed upon women to shave certain parts of their bodies in order to be considered beautiful, something Tovey saw as unnecessary and offensive, as he explained to Paul Morley in an NME interview the following year: “I object to the pressures put on people to have hair here but not there...the pressure that says that hair on a certain part of a woman’s body is unfeminine. I don’t think pubic hair is shocking at all. I think it’s quite funny. I can’t understand why pubic hair is supposed to be naughty or shocking. Why there are certain parts of the body that you mustn’t talk about. Why can’t you have your pubic hair coloured and attended to by a hairdresser?” The song, which ends with the sound of running water, in true Fad Gadget fashion, draws a parallel between this everyday domestic act and the horror of the shower scene from “Psycho” to make its point. It also became a memorable favourite during live shows due to the routine Tovey developed for its performance, this often consisting of him covering his head and torso with shaving cream before extracting hairs, first from his head, then from his armpits and, finally, from his pubic region during an instrumental section of the song, the resulting detritus being sprinkled over the heads of those closest to the stage. A few months later, it also gave rise to a famous set of photographs taken in a Liverpool hotel by Anton Corbijn, where Tovey covered himself in shaving foam, such that, when he was captured in dim light against a neutral background, he became transformed into some strange sculptural being. Images from this session then accompanied Paul Morley’s interview in the 23rd January 1982 issue of the NME and resurfaced later to grace the cover of 2001’s compilation of A-sides and B-sides “The Best of Fad Gadget”. Frank Tovey now also went on to become one of Corbijn’s favourite subjects and the photographer most famous for his work with Joy Division, Depeche Mode and the truly awful U2 took many photographs of him over the next couple of years. Speaking after his death, he said: “Frank was full of ideas. Far more than I was in those years because I didn’t trust any of my ideas. I was a very intuitive kind of photographer – I would meet somebody and let the situation somehow dictate the photograph. Frank really had visual ideas – theatrical in a sense.”

    shavingcream.jpg image by chrisjcox1 

Saturday, 22 January 2011


A quick, yet interesting, diversion from the Fad Gadget story is Frank Tovey’s temporary involvement with The Silicon Teens, a solo side-project of Daniel Miller’s, whereby he had created an imaginary two boy, two girl synth-pop band specialising in re-workings of hits and favourites from the fifties and sixties. The first of these, “Memphis Tennessee”, was released during the summer of 1979 and problems then began to emerge for Miller when it very nearly became a hit and a real band was needed to promote the single. Tovey was then called upon to help out and promo shots appeared, including both himself and Miller under cover of dark sunglasses. A video was also shot with Tovey seen miming the lyrics into a radio set whilst Miller and others, dressed in white tuxedos, performed the song at a rather lively nautical ball. They were even invited onto Radio One’s “Roundtable” show where celebrity guests reviewed the week’s new releases and surprise appearances were sometimes made by those under scrutiny. When The Silicon Teens appeared, it was Frank who fronted the illusion.

So, as 1979 rolled over into 1980, word about Fad was beginning to spread and, in March of that year, a follow-up single appeared in the shops. “Ricky’s Hard” is a darkly comical, comic-strip-like, cautionary tale of the perils of drink driving, the focus being firmly on the hand of the song’s antihero, as he uses it to dip into his pocket for another five pounds, buy another round of drinks, wipe his mouth where he has vomited, pick his nose and squash a fly and, eventually, six pints later, he uses it to wave goodbye to his mates before getting into his car charged with man appeal. The song’s moral then comes in the final verse where: “Ricky contravenes The Highway Code / The hand lies severed at the side of the road.” Again, however, although the subject matter was a bit unconventional for the pop charts, the music certainly wasn’t, “Ricky’s Hand” being a bouncy, fast-paced four minute pop tune with instantly memorable hooks, such that it remains a firm favourite amongst Fad Gadget fans today and still works well on dancefloors thirty years down the line. It also achieved quite a good degree of success, surpassing that of its predecessor and securing quite a strong placing in the Independent Charts, a feat which then required quite substantial sales, such that an equivalent performance these days would have catapulted the single into the Top 40. As Mute Records put it in their label biography a few years later, “Ricky’s Hand” “ considered by many as a ‘pop classic’. Fad’s audience by this time had grown substantially with the single doing very well in the Alternative charts” and, reviewing it in his “Independent Bitz” column in “Smash Hits”, Red Starr explained the reasons for the single’s popularity : “Not to mention Fad Gadget’s latest would be a sin, if not a crime. “Rickey’s(sic) Hand”(Mute) shows off more of his black humour lyrics and hustling synthesised pop to good effect. Clever, catchy and well worth its current chart place.” Its success was not confined just to the UK, either, as Fad Gadget made his/their debut television performance promoting the single on a Belgian show called “Cargo De Nuit” where Tovey can be seen playing his synthesizer with a pair of claw hammers and also an electric power drill, slung machine gun style over one shoulder, whilst Wauquaire and Lederman bop along to the tune behind another pair of keyboards. The ways in which “Ricky’s Hand” took Fad Gadget to another level were also recounted by Edwin Pouncey years later in the DVD documentary : “The first single ‘Back to Nature’ was a pretty good start but I think the one that really hit-off was the next had those elements of humour in it, as well, and a bit of storytelling. In a came to encapsulate...the foundations for his career, in its theatrical way and the humorous comment and the fact that it had a little story behind it..”

Once again, the single came clothed in a striking and instantly recognisable sleeve, this time resembling an industrial safety poster, the central image of a hand being dissolved by drops of escaping acid vaguely picking up the song’s tone and imagery and the brightly coloured diagonal-striped border indicating the potentially hazardous content within. A little cartoon strip on the back of the sleeve then betrays some of the humour to be found on the record as the implications of carelessly placing one’s hand into a liquidizer are made clear. I remember buying this single as a schoolboy in Manchester and being mesmerised by what I saw on the sleeve and then being incredibly impatient to get the journey back home to my bedroom out of the way so that I could give it a spin. What lay within seemed to be perfectly encapsulated by these simple graphics. Other information on the sleeve also indicated a little bit about the recording of the single, with Fad Gadget credited for “synthesizer, voice, tapes and Black and Decker V8 double speed electric drill”, Daniel Miller for “synthesizer” and B.J.Frost for “choir girl effect”. We also learn that it was recorded at Blackwing Studios ( a deconsecrated church in South-East London) and that it was worked on by their in-house engineer, Eric Radcliffe, thus kick-starting a long and successful relationship between Mute and the studio where the majority of the label’s early releases were recorded, amongst them Depeche Mode’s first records, the majority of Fad Gadget’s output and numerous chart hits for Yazoo, including their debut album “Upstairs at Eric’s”. Radcliffe even went on to appear on “Top of the Pops” when The Assembly, the short-lived studio project he established with Vince Clarke, went Top 10 in 1983 with “Never Never”, Feargal Sharkey, if you remember, providing the wobbly vibrato vocals. And, of course, it came out on Mute.

On a final note, “Ricky’s Hand” was backed by a dub version of the A-side (“Handshake”), on the opening grooves of which Tovey, by the sounds of it sitting in a café or pub, can be heard explaining to somebody that he currently works in a bedding warehouse but that he will be “leaving in January.” The other voice on the recording then asks him where he will go next, CBS being his suggestion. Tovey laughingly replies “Dindisc”, although, in fact, like Depeche Mode and Erasure, he was to stay with Mute for his entire recording career and, thus, the story rolls on. However, before we do, the drill, incidentally, belonged to Frank Tovey Snr., as a “Smash Hits” interview from 1982 reveals : “My father, who’s always worked in London’s fish market, will play one of my records to his friends. But he doesn’t say ‘this is my son singing.” He just waits until he gets to a part where I’ve used one of his tools to get a certain sound and then he tells ‘em ‘That’s my electric drill you can hear.’”