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.

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