Smiths Complete - Available at Rhino.coma-ha "Hunting High & Low" and "Scoundrel Days" Deluxe Editions Rhino Handmade raids the vault!

Monday, March 28, 2005

"With a name like 'Wax Trax,' it has to be good."

That was my mantra in 1988, when industrial music was in its golden age, and I was a sucker for anything released on the Chicago Wax Trax label. Most if not all of the label’s releases seemed to have some tie-in with Ministry’s main man Alain Jourgensen, whether as producer, vocalist, noisemaker. While Ministry’s output was fairly regular at this point, it seemed like a new side project was debuting monthly. One of these was a pairing of Jourgensen and indie/punk überlord Ian McKaye dubbed Pailhead.


Let’s do some quick math – Ian McKaye was the lead figure of the straightedge punk movement, which frowned upon drug use. Alain Jourgensen had a rep for being a walking pharmacy. This equation shouldn’t have added to much, and in terms of recorded output, it didn’t really. Pailhead, with McKaye on vocals and Jourgensen doing pretty much everything else, released a 7” and one EP. Both were later compiled onto one CD EP titled “Trait.”

I first heard Pailhead shortly after its release while shopping at Chris’ Warped Records, then the coolest record store in Northeast Ohio. I recognized the trademark Wax Trax lurching sound immediately and snatched it up. I recall it being one of Wax Trax’s first CD releases, alongside Acid Horse, Lard and Ministry’s “12 Inch Singles” CDs. For a few years, if it was on the Wax Trax label, I bought it, sound unheard.

Pailhead was interesting in that it presaged Ministry’s later forays into more metallic sounds, beginning one year later with “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste.” In fact, both “Man Should Surrender” and “Don’t Stand In Line” end up sounding like they’d fit on that disc perfectly. Remember though, this was at least a full year before. Did McKaye influence Ministry’s future sound? Maybe. No? Who knows. It’s great anyway. And that’s coming from someone who, back in 1983, LOVED “With Sympathy.”

Download “Man Should Surrender”.
Download “Don’t Stand In Line”.

”Trait” did not chart.
Neither single charted. (I mean, really. C’mon.)
posted by John, 5:12 PM | link |

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Things That Dreams Are Made Of

Question: You’re the lead singer and lyricist of an up and coming underground synth-based band. You’ve just lost your songwriter and main keyboardist to an ego clash. You’re left with no one but the man who runs the slide projector during your live shows. What do you do?

If you answered “immediately go clubbing and hire two teenaged girls you see dancing as your new band members,” collect your smash platinum album and worldwide number one hit. But perhaps we should start at the beginning…

The Human League began life as an overly-arty, all-synth, anti-rock manifesto, brash in its rejection of all the trappings of “rock and roll”, eschewing the typical four-piece combo of bass, drums and two guitars in exchange for a reel-to-reel tape deck, two wobbly synthesizers and a slide projector. There were fewer more radical notions in 1977 than going onstage and boldly pressing “Play” on a tape deck to cue the drums that began your live show. It was a demonstration of wholesale rejection of what people expected from a concert, probably the most punk move made since “gabba gabba hey” was first uttered.

As word spread and crowds began to come ‘round, the League made some baby steps towards the mainstream. This came in the form of cover songs, the glammier and more popular, the better. A standout from the early League days was a medley of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll, Part 1” and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”. Combining these two disparate tunes was a statement in and of itself, the populist football cheer and the jaded heroine-fueled club tune…quite summing up the League itself.

Word spread. Crowds grew bigger. Egos clashed. Martyn and Ian left, taking the songwriting with them, leaving lead singer Phil Oakey with nothing but his talent for melody and provocative, sometimes austere lyrics. Oh yeah, and Philip Adrian Wright, the slide projectionist. The League had a European tour scheduled in two weeks time and pulling out meant financial ruin. Something had to be done, and quickly.

So, Oakey went clubbing, found the girls, recruited new synthkids Ian Burden and Jo Callis, and even taught Wright the famous single-finger keyboard technique. Then together, they made pop history.

The Human League Mark II

Don’t get me started on the resulting album, “Dare.” I could go on and on about that LP, how it’s nearly the most perfect pop album made, how it broke ground by being the first all-synth LP to hit number one and result in Top 40 hits, how it’s to this day still as fresh and vital as it was in 1981. Like I said, don’t get me started on “Dare.” And since “Dare” featured that song, it can’t be quite considered “Lost in the ‘80s”…after all, millions bought and heard it.

The follow-ups, however…

“Dare” was a hard thing to match. When you hit near-perfection, where do you go? The League Mark II had some luck with their next follow-up singles, “Mirror Man” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” But when it came album time, severe writer’s block set in. This set a pattern that continued through most of their recording career; incredible singles surrounded by sub-par and sometimes even cringe-worthy tracks.

Three years after “Dare,” the group finally delivered “Hysteria.” The album is disjointed to say the least, with some real gems like “I’m Coming Back,” “So Hurt,” and “Betrayed” successfully recreating some of the chromeo-pop majesty, alongside things like a remake of James Brown’s “Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again (Six Times),” which was as truly awful as it sounds. For the lead-off single, they chose “The Lebanon,” a song that instantly betrayed the League’s mission statement – it featured guitar, front and center.


“Hysteria’s” second single, while not making any big noise chart-wise, was noticeably more listenable. “Life On Your Own” is a sparse, desolate sounding track, nicely bringing home the point of the song’s narrative. It also manages to accomplish the neat trick of being Motown-ish while using no acoustic instruments. Try pulling that one off sometime. While “Life” charted a respectable #16 in the UK, it failed to chart at all in the States.

Now, how do you follow-up a flop follow-up? In the League’s case, it involved a lot of hand-wringing, internal squabbling and what may have sounded at the time to be an inspired decision to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were just leaving The Time for a production career. They needed a crossover pop band to work with and the League needed a hit. Badly. Thanks to Jam & Lewis, they got one. “Human” sailed to Number One worldwide and made the League viable again.

Then came the album.

“Crash” couldn’t have been more aptly named, to go for the completely obvious joke. It seems as if the League put themselves completely in the hands of Jam & Lewis, who had no idea what to do with them. The magic of the League was that they were perhaps the least funky, whitest band on the planet, and that exact mechanical nature, that very lack of funk, made them in fact quite funky. Kids breakdanced to drum loops pulled from “The Things That Dreams Were Made Of” and “Hard Times”. They did not dance at all to the horrific, forced-funk of “I Need Your Lovin’,” perhaps the worst song the League ever recorded (and it took SIX people, including Jam & Lewis, to write it).

But, like all Human League records, there’s at least one hidden gem. “Crash’s” came in the form of “Love On the Run,” another Motown-inspired song that mirrored “Mirror Man” and is an instance of what the Jam & Lewis/League teaming could have been. On this song, the producers do what was previously impossible…they pull an emotive performance out of Mr. Roboto himself, Oakey. It’s also, unsurprisingly, one of the few tunes on the album actually written by the League (though it should be noted, they didn’t write “Human”). Naturally, when it came time for a follow-up to “Human’s” massive success, the song chosen? “I Need Your Lovin’.” Ugh.

It took mere months for America’s cutout bins to be filled with copies of “Crash”. It’s currently out of print. Surprise.

Since then, the League have been fairly consistent…put out an album every five years or so, get one Top 40 hit off it, have the record company pick a horrid follow-up, repeat. In 2001, the League broke this streak by releasing “Secrets,” an excellent album from front to back, easily their best since “Dare” 20 years earlier. Reviews were stellar, appetites were whetted, and a killer first single, “All I Ever Wanted,” was chosen.

Weeks after the album’s release, their new record company went bankrupt.

Give them a year or so. They’re due for another hit.

Download "Rock 'n' Roll/Nightclubbing."
Download "Life On Your Own".
Download "Love On The Run".

”Dare” peaked at #3 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.
”Hysteria” peaked at #62 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.
“Crash” peaked at #35 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart and at #28 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
“Secrets” failed to chart.

Learn more about the Human League at the totally tubular Secrets Online.

”The Very Best of the Human League” is being released Stateside this Tuesday, March 22nd. Highly recommended, along with the DVD of the same name.

posted by John, 11:12 PM | link |

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Frankie Say...No More.

It was tough being one of two Frankie Goes to Hollywood fans in my suburban/rural Ohio hometown in 1985.

The popular musical force at Elyria West High School was hair metal. The slicker and hookier, the better. Iron Maiden, Metallica and W.A.S.P. had their fans, but Def Leppard, Dokken and Bon Jovi ruled the Art class airwaves. Whenever I would bring my Walkman cassette player and mini speakers to play Echo & the Bunnymen or R.E.M., there would be a near riot from anyone working at a table near mine. Even though we were all art students, these kids hated this music. They especially hated anything by The Smiths and their most popular target of derision, Frankie. You see, while the favorite insult of choice for this type of music was “That shit’s gay,” in Frankie’s case, it really was.

And that was much scarier to a teenager, including myself, than any Blackie Lawless lyric.


I was insane for Frankie’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink Trevor Horn production, beefy bass, Holly Johnson’s croon, Paul Rutherford’s butt. And the gestating marketing geek in me loved the S&M-tinged, dangerous image, from the single sleeves to the jockstrap-wearing photo sessions.

For a closeted gay teen, Frankie were a godsend. Granted, they weren’t the best of role models, but at least they were honest about who they were…to a point. Much of what they did and said were part of a marketing construct by their label, ZZT, which flooded the market with press releases, oodles of remixes and variants, and yes, “Frankie Say” t-shirts.

I proudly ordered by airmail the “Frankie Say War No More” t-shirt, since the “Relax” one was too obvious. I proudly wore that t-shirt to school at least once a week in late ’84-early ’85, where the reaction was either “What the heck does that mean?” to “Who’s Frankie?”

Imagine my horror months later when “Relax” finally hit the top ten after floundering first, and Spencer’s Gifts helped flood the school hallways with bootleg Frankie shirts. People who just a few short weeks ago mocked my favorite band were now suddenly cool with it all. It was my first taste of indie scorn. I never wore my original Frankie shirt again.

Besides, “Relax” was old news to me. I had already moved on to “Two Tribes” (“Are we living in a land / where sex and horror / are the new gods?” Well, duh.) and the current single “Welcome to the Pleasuredome.” I remember rushing to Midway Mall and Camelot Music every Friday to see the new Billboard Hot 100 posted, tracking the movement of each single, thinking Top 40 status would finally confirm my position as Elyria West High’s musical tastemaker.

“Two Tribes” petered (heh) out at #43, while “Pleasuredome” only got to #48.

Undeterred, I continued to champion Frankie as more than a one-hit wonder. My best gal-pal Tricia and I even lied to our parents to see the band play during their first American club tour, stopping at the grimy old Variety Theater in Lakewood, playing to a crowd of leathermen, drag queens, new wave kids and jaded punks. It was a wild show, much raunchier and more fun than their second pass through after “Relax” hit, this time at the larger Music Hall where Belouis Some opened and Frankie played as teen idols, rather than gay underground renegades. The thrill was gone.

When the second Frankie album “Liverpool” was finally released after much hand-wringing two years later, it was almost an afterthought. I was excited to see how they could follow up their epic double-LP debut, but when I heard Trevor Horn was only “executive producing,” I feared the worst.

Well, it wasn’t horrible. But it wasn’t all at that great, either. I think the band/producer got a little creatively paralyzed at the prospect of following up such a massive debut, so they played it a little too safe. First single “Rage Hard” merely repeats the “Relax” throb and vibe, complete with double-entendre title, only to become somewhat forgettable. After that flopped, the second single “Warriors of the Wasteland” aped “Two Tribes,” even lyrically. Another flop.

The last stab at a hit, though, ended up being the best song on the album. “Watching the Wildlife” was different than anything Frankie had done. It was almost a straight-ahead pop hit, even reminiscent of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. It had a horn section, a break down, an oddly prescient swing part, verses, a chorus, everything Frankie songs normally lacked. It didn’t even chart.

Soon after, Frankie disintegrated. Holly Johnson had a few solo hits in the UK, and even Paul Rutherford put out an album with a surprisingly pleasing single called “Oh, World” that got some club attention. But until an almost reunion courtesy of VH1’s “Bands Reunited” last year, Frankie has said no more.

I’d kill to have that old shirt now.

Download “Rage Hard”
Download the single version of “Watching the Wildlife"

”Rage Hard” peaked at #42 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Maxi Singles Sales Chart.
“Watching the Wildlife” did not chart.
posted by John, 4:22 PM | link |

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

I'll Show You Something Special...or not.

Sometimes you go through your old albums and run across one that leaves you scratching your head, wondering “why did I buy this?” This happened to me the other day when I stumbled upon my vinyl copy of Balaam and the Angel’s “Live Free or Die,” released in 1987.


I can vaguely remember being introduced to Balaam via my metal-loving fellow Wendy’s employee friend Tony, who I talk about in length, here (part two is coming someday, I swear). Tony knew I didn’t care much for metal, but figured with my new wave/goth/alt. leanings, Balaam might be right up my alley.

Admittedly, they did carry some Cult-isms about themselves and wrote some catchy little melodies. I remember shocking Tony when I mentioned that the single, “I Love the Things You Do To Me,” sorta sounded like the Replacements. In fact, in retrospect it sounds like something off of “Don’t Tell A Soul,” a Replacements album that wouldn’t come out for another two years. Tony didn’t see it that way at all…after all, the Replacements “sucked hard” and this “rocked.” Okay, then.

I recall liking this quite a bit at the time, but I’m hard-pressed to explain why now. It’s really not that good, outside of the two singles posted here. Some of it dovetails into completely banal pseudo-pop metal a la Poison, complete with “oh, yeah”s and “uh!”s, but wrapped in a semi-pretentious goth sheen. It was also mastered VERY. LOUDLY. so even if you had the volume fairly low, you had to turn it down even lower to make anything out besides sonic sludge. However…

…Balaam did hit two homers with the singles. Both are more power pop than anything else, goth, metal or otherwise. Lyrically, meh, but your toes’ll tap a bit. This was one of the first albums I ever bought in the CD format, but that CD has been long lost in one of my several moves since 1987, so I grabbed these tunes off my still-virginish vinyl (and yes, they were on Virgin).

Balaam had an album and an EP before this release, and a couple of LPs since, but I’ll be damned if I ever heard ‘em.

Download ”I Love The Things You Do To Me”
Download ”I'll Show You Something Special”

Find out more about Balaam & the Angel at Balaam & the

”Live Free or Die” peaked at #174 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart.
Neither single charted.
posted by John, 12:45 PM | link |