Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: A Flock Of Seagulls

A Flock Of Seagulls and their hair (where applicable) It was all about timing: the post-punk New Romantic movement, with its legion of bitchin’-haired snappy dressers practicing their best cod-Bowie croon, was uniquely suited to take advantage of the infant form of music video. While it wasn’t quite “money for nothing and chicks for free,” as was widely assumed, the lure of being in a band and being on T.V. (and, by extension, an instant fashion-plate to an impressionable audience of millions) proved irresistible to hundreds of struggling musicians in the U.K. at the time.

While being good-looking and/or seeking to draw the maximum possible attention to ones self was hardly a revolutionary idea in the music industry (even during this time), there existed a handful of bands that ran a bit wild with the style-centric angle of New Romanticism. Among this select clique, none achieved the level of fame (or infamy) reached by A Flock Of Seagulls, one of those unfortunate acts whose utterly bonkers visual aesthetic (two of the four original members worked as hairdressers for day jobs, which undoubtedly gave them a leg up on the competition in that department) almost completely overshadowed their music, at least as far as 95% of the record-buying public was concerned.

As with countless other groups of English origin, A Flock Of Seagulls was centered around two brothers, in this case Mike and Ali Score. The band started off in 1979 in Liverpool as a trio with Mike on the keyboards and vocals (and the occasional guitar) along with Ali on the drums and Mike's friend Frank Maudsley on bass. Realizing quickly that their sound needed to be “filled out” a bit, the band brought aboard guitarist Paul Reynolds after a few months of looking around for a suitable addition and then went about the usual business of writing songs, playing clubs and trying to land themselves a record contract.

One of the most striking aspects to A Flock Of Seagulls is that their music is really quite simple in construction, and executed with hardly any flashiness on behalf of the band. While the resulting clean, basic sound may well have been due to their limited abilities as players (I think it’s safe to say that there were no virtuosos in this lineup), it nevertheless made them stand out even more so from the rest of the emerging field, who tended to fill up the spaces in their music with sequenced arpeggios or extraneous electronic percussion effects. Rather than follow this lead, A Flock Of Seagulls chose to leave those spaces wide open, resulting in a sound that soared and conjured up visions of limitless night-time starscapes rather than fancy clothes and swanky night clubs.

A Flock Of Seagulls and their hair (where applicable) Balancing their vast sonics with a pop songwriting standpoint, A Flock Of Seagulls came off as more of a synthrock band than many of their peers ever dared to be, and it was in this area of that Reynolds became the band’s secret weapon: some of his solos recalling the direct, yet celestial sound of David Gilmour (he also seems to share a bit of the latter’s love for delay and reverb effects). With such a stinging, distinctive tone layered onto atmospheric synth chords and a propulsive rhythm section topped off by the band’s “futuristic” stage appearance, the Flock soon became one of the first signings to the newly-created indie label Cocteau Records.

Not long after the (uneventful) release of their kinetic debut single “(It’s Not Me) Talking” in 1981, the Flock released a debut EP with production handled by ex-Be Bop Deluxe leader and Cocteau Records co-founder Bill Nelson. While this EP made no discernible impact on a commercial level, enough attention was garnered at dance clubs by the pogo-friendly single “Telecommunication” to start turning heads a bit higher up the music industry food chain, and within a few months, the boys found themselves signed to Jive Records and recording their debut album with ex-Gong bassist (and budding New Wave guru) Mike Howlett producing.

Listen Most of the debut EP (including “Telecommunication”) made its way in re-recorded form to the combo’s full-length debut album, which was released in the spring of 1982. From the outset, A Flock Of Seagulls initially went nowhere as the band could not find any purchase at radio for the first single, the grandiose alien abduction epic “I Ran.” This problem was quickly solved by the content-starved MTV cable network, which at the time was voraciously adding just about anything thrown at it in order to fill up airtime. With “I Ran” now in the channel’s rotation, the band then set out on tour as the opening act for fellow U.K. pop lineup Squeeze.

Boiling forth from a doomy, ominous instrumental intro, “I Ran” was for most of America a real blast of fresh air in the increasingly soft/corporate rock-dominated climate of 1982. An imaginative use of aluminum foil and floor mirrors, the promotional videoclip for the song was certainly not a big budget piece in the mold of Duran Duran's “Hungry Like The Wolf,” but it contained enough direct iconic imagery to make it memorable (and of course we cannot go without another nod to Mike Score’s hair, the shape of which was now beginning to resemble that of a seagull in flight) and it soon became one of the most popular videos on the network. Between MTV exposure, resultant airplay from rock radio stations being bombed by listener requests to hear the song, and the band’s ongoing road work, “I Ran” began to build a good sized head of steam that finally got it into the Billboard Hot 100 by midsummer, with A Flock Of Seagulls nearly outpacing its performance on the albums chart.

Winning markets over one by one, “I Ran” took a long time to reach the national Top 10: initially charting in July of 1982, the song finally crested at No. 9 for a couple of weeks right at Halloween with A Flock Of Seagulls reaching the Top 10, selling 500,000 copies as well and staying listed on the album survey for a year.

A Flock Of Seagulls While “I Ran” remains to this day the song they are best known for, A Flock Of Seagulls have some real gems buried away in their catalog, some of which, like their follow-up single “Space Age Love Song” and the Grammy-winning (!) surf-tinged instrumental "D.N.A." were in a similar melodious, epic vein as “I Ran.” A decent-sized follow-up hit, reaching the lower end of the Top 30 in February of 1983 (following a similarly lengthy climb as its predecessor), “Space Age Love Song” was a more outwardly emotional, even romantic piece that featured Reynolds’ guitar work effectively making the five-word choruses work in spectacular fashion.

By the spring of 1983, the band's follow-up album Listen was ready for release, and was presaged at radio and MTV by the single "Wishing," which is quite possibly the most affecting song in the band's canon. While it didn't glide quite as gracefully as their preceding singles (the drum sound here was far more robotic and mechanical in nature than what had come before), "Wishing" was a more hypnotic kind of work that was all about scale and austerity. It also featured a gorgeous, 2 1/2 minute instrumental coda with Reynolds' oddly-muted guitar presence emerging from the background like a pitched-down whalesong. While "Wishing" stalled disappointingly at the bottom of the U.S. Top 30 (a little below the peak of "Space Age Love Song"), it became the first and only of the band's singles to be embraced by their home country: reaching the Top 10 of the U.K. singles survey.

Listen Those awaiting more of the same on the second Flock album were in for a bit of a surprise as Listen offered up a rather different listening experience than the debut. It wasn’t hard to identify that this was the same band or anything: that intoxicating sweep and sense of space was still there, but the feel of the music was colder, darker, and more overtly synth-driven than what had come before, which was fully the band's intent. A lot of this is likely due to the record being recorded in Germany in the studio owned by legendary Krautrock producer Conrad Planck (though Howlett was manning the boards again). Listening to other tracks like the failed second single "Nightmares," the bracing techno-rocker "Over The Border," or the chilling instrumental "The Last Flight Of Yuri Gagarin," it's easy to hear echoes of Neu! and Kraftwerk in the final mix.

That said, Listen remains to this day my favorite of the band’s records (and apparently the same goes for Mike and Ali Score, judging by the liner notes in the CD), possessing some pretty forlorn, spatial landscapes that admittedly lack obvious pop hooks, but not without a few hidden gems, one of the shiniest of which was the absolutely sublime electro-ballad “Transfer Affection.”

Listen was viewed as a commercial letdown in comparison to A Flock Of Seagulls, even though it reached to #16 on the album charts and was listed for five months, but it was on the 1984 album The Story Of A Young Heart that the wheels really started to come off. Listen may have been a alienating to those who wanted more of "I Ran," but The Story Of A Young Heart offered up more of the "classic" Flock sound, but a complete drag regardless. While the group appeared to be trying to reclaim lost ground in already-changing times, their charming shortcomings had started to become a bit glaring, particularly in the areas of songwriting and artistic growth. By switching back to their "classic" sound, A Flock Of Seagulls weren't at all rejuvenated, but instead sounded like they were running out of gas. Apparently the public agreed, as the The Story Of A Young Heart flamed out at #66 on the album chart, ten notches below the peak position on the Hot 100 of its one and only single “The More You Live, The More You Love.” Both album and single represented the last appearance of the Flock on the U.S. hit parade.

Ten hut! The next couple of years for the band weren’t pleasant for anyone involved as some pretty massive changes fundamentally altered the direction and sound of the band, the most damaging being the departure of Paul Reynolds. A bit of a fragile soul during the best of times, Reynolds apparently descended into serious drug and alcohol abuse as a result of stress and constant rigorous touring. By all accounts, Reynolds was a physical and mental wreck and leaving the band probably saved his life. At the time, however, the loss of his highly distinctive guitar work (a crucial part of Flock’s signature sound) really took the wind out of the band’s sails.

The magnitude of this loss became glaringly apparent (as did a few other things) when the band’s fourth album appeared in the spring of 1986. At the time, I never would have thought that a new Flock Of Seagulls album would make The Story Of A Young Heart sound like a Herculean achievement, but unfortunately no one was prepared for Dream Come True. Recorded in Philadelphia, co-produced by Mike Score and a guy named Wayne Braithwaite (who has also worked with the likes of, uh, Billy Ocean and Kenny G) and with a far different sound and approach than any of the albums preceding it, Dream Come True was a clunky, misguided disaster on just about every imaginable level, from the embarrassing, over-shellacked techno-funk production to the frankly hideous cover art. It was pretty obviously the endgame for A Flock Of Seagulls and they knew it, but what a shame that they had to release this album to figure it out.

Following the complete dissolution of the band in the wake of that fiasco, Mike Score laid low for a while and then, surprisingly, resurfaced in 1989 as A Flock Of Seagulls with an entirely new band installed around him. This new lineup would change regularly around Score over the years, with the odd single (“Magic”) or album (The Light At The End Of The World) to flog for a small group of remaining die-hard fans. Otherwise, one could convincingly argue that A Flock Of Seagulls got a jump on the competition one last time as they became, whether they like it or not, the first traveling 80s nostalgia show.

Buy The Best Of A Flock Of Seagulls from

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Taco

TacoVery few biographical details exist anywhere about Taco Ockerse, so we'll cut to the chase fairly quickly: born in Indonesia (yet of Dutch descent) and raised in Germany, Ockerse studied theater and dance before making a name for himself around Hamburg as the frontman of the band Taco's Bizz.

Apparently, Taco Bizz's nightly setlist of re-imagined swing/crooner-era oldies performed in the swankest nightclubs in the city began to attract some record company attention, and Ockerse soon found himself recording a radically modern-ized solo cover of the Irving Berlin standard "Puttin' On The Ritz" (last made popular by Fred Astaire in 1946) for a single release at the end of 1981.

Astutely realizing the commercial potential in Ockerse's neo-retro schtick, RCA Records green-lighted an album to be created around "Puttin' On The Ritz," serving up a mixed bag of similarly-retooled Depression-era pop tunes from the Taco's Bizz repertiore alongside a few original songs. With Ockerse now simply billed as Taco, After Eight was released in Germany at the end of 1982.

About seven months later, the unexpected happened as "Puttin' On The Ritz" improbably managed to cross the ocean and became one of the biggest surprise hits of 1983 in the United States. While a nod for this breakout success is certainly due to rotation on then synth-crazed MTV, "Puttin' On The Ritz" was also a bona-fide radio and retail hit, reaching #4 for two weeks on the Hot 100 that September. A crisply recorded, vocoder-sprinkled work of charming robo-pop cheese (with a tap-dancing break midway through in an apparent nod to Astaire), "Puttin' On The Ritz" managed to sounded utterly unique on the radio despite the plethora of foreign synthwave acts swarming over American airwaves at the time.

Puttin' On The RitzIn true "one-hit wonder" fashion, Taco seemed to vanish just as quickly as he had appeared. Despite After Eight climbing up to #23 on Billboard's album chart and ultimately selling half-a-million copies, Taco became persona non grata at Top 40 radio from the instant "Puttin' On The Ritz" slipped off of the hit parade. Another cover tune, "Cheek To Cheek" (which probably sounded too much like "Puttin' On The Ritz" for its own good) was worked by RCA as a follow-up single, but there was no interest whatsoever from the public and the song failed to list on any chart stateside. Ouch.

In a futile effort to reverse Taco's immediate decline of popularity in the U.S., a second album, Let's Face The Music, appeared in the summer of 1984. While the new album sported a noticeably slicker, funkier, and even more-polished sound (if that can be imagined) than After Eight, RCA quickly found that getting anyone to so much as look at a copy of Let's Face The Music was about as easy as trying to sell Christmas trees in April. Hell, the only way I knew there even was a second Taco album at the time was by catching the video for the slinky title cut on an episode of HBO's half-assed time-filler show Video Jukebox one afternoon that fall. Needless to say, I never saw it again.

So, what killed Taco's career so completely after one single that he never charted another record in the U.S. again? You might as well ask what kills the momentum of any one-hit wonder: the reasons are legion. In this case, however, I'll venture a couple of guesses ...

1) If you listened to the "Cheek To Cheek" mp3, you probably thought to yourself "hmmm, maybe this was a cute idea taken one song too far." Now imagine a whole album of that same idea. In the case of After Eight, at least 500,000 people picked up a copy (a pretty good haul for a full-length album by a flash-in-the-pan artist), and hardly any of them came back for seconds.

2) Pardon the pun, but the sheer novelty of "Puttin' On The Ritz" might have sated the public's appetite for Taco right then and there. I can vouch for this reason personally, as listening to "Puttin' On The Ritz" once in a blue moon during a radio station's "All Eighties Weekend" is goofy fun, but actually sitting down and listening to an entire Best Of Taco collection -- yes, these things actually exist -- can be a rather ... emasculating experience (and this is coming from someone who likes a lot of totally fey bands from the same time period, mind you). Without a doubt, this is some of the fruitiest electropop in the history of the medium.

The Best Of Taco! No, seriously!Abandoning the U.S. market, Taco concentrated on the German market from that point forward, starting with 1985's Swing Classics In The Mood Of Glen Miller, and, it is said, recording the soundtrack to a movie called Whiz Kid. Incidentally, one of these albums sports a truly dreadful disco rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" that is so awful I just had to share the pain ...

See, this is why the internet exists, friends: so you can learn absolutely useless trivia while listening to records no one ever wanted to hear twenty years ago, let alone now.

From sketchy information, it appears that there may have even been another album or so from Taco as the 80s wore to a close, as his Best-Of collection also features a disturbingly Stock-Aitken-Waterman-scented hunk of Limberger called "Got To Be Your Lover," which dates from 1988. There are also accounts of Ockerse dropping the robopop and trying out a more R&B-leaning style of music, but information on these latter albums is nonexistent (or written solely in German).

As far as what Ockerse is up to these days, all I have been able to glean from a scouring of the web (including the one and only website dedicated to his life and work) is that he still lives in Germany and is prone to performing music on the odd occasion ... but your guess is a good as mine as to whether "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" is still in the setlist.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Autumn Is Upon Us

An October Rainbow (and friend)
Well, it's October again. Time for an indian summer (I think we're getting one starting yesterday as a matter of fact), and steadily, stealthily cooling evenings that drag you into winter without your realizing what is going on. Then, next thing you know, it's November first and freaking cold out and you realize that you'd better busy yourself winterizing the car and maybe start planning Christmas shopping expenses before too long. Damn it.

O.K., I jest a bit: I actually like October a's just too bad that November has to follow, you know?

As you might have guessed from all the pics here, I'm a big fan of October colors: it's the prettiest month of the year as long as the weather keeps from getting all gray, wet and blustery. October makes me think of caramel apples and funnel cakes and rickety carnival rides at the It's Better In Mentor fair (which usually happens in September, but was always the true benchmark of the beginning of autumn for me as a teenager) and also of standing around small fires to keep warm on cool, damp nights. Most of all, October always brings up fond memories of the old cider mill my family and I used to frequent every year around this time when we were living in Southfield, getting thick apple cider and hot cinnamon-tasting donuts that were absolutely delicious and always worth the trip (now is when I start thinking about jumping in the car and making the 3.5 hour trip to the northern suburbs of Detroit to get some more, heh heh).

October also makes me think of baseball and playoffs and the World Series, but this year finds me once again in the position of having no teams to root for, and only teams to root against, thanks to the Indians falling apart at exactly the wrong goddamn time of the season. Ah well, at least with this team, saying the words "maybe next year" doesn't have that hollow ring of "yeah, right" to it.

Autumnal River
Sarah and I have now been in the condo for over a year now: that particular anniversary came and went unheralded at the end of last August. After a rather blistering summer, the weather has been absolutely perfect over the last few weeks, which means we have not been running the AC much at all, and that makes me a very happy camper.

While we're on the money subject, I am finally seeing the end of the tunnel in getting myself out from underneath the crushing load of my car's repair bills. By the end of this month, I should be able to clear Bill Week with a decent positive balance ... maybe even enough to take care of the two other problems that have sprung up since that godawful final week of July: an apparent coolant leak of undetermined severity and the similarly undetermined state of my rear brake system. Yay.

In better news, my work schedule has recently taken a delicious turn for the better. Brian's job working for that electrician guy apparently was an utter wash from Day One, and he was recently laid off. This doesn't come as a huge surprise as things he's said offhandedly over the last couple of months seemed to indicate that all was not quite working out as planned. What makes this news notable is that he now needs more hours to work and, as a result, I now have two day weekends (Sunday & Monday) for the time being. Weeeeoo!

I could get used to this real quick...

Pumpkins And Other Weird...Things
In other store news, things are moseying along alright in a business sense, though by "moseying" I mean we've just finished up an utterly flat September (missed the target figure by 93 stinkin' dollars, damn it). Our pace for the year is still comfortably ahead of target, and thus our magic number of half a mil is still within our sights, though it might involve an extra push at some point to achieve. Last year it was the week after Christmas that saved our asses, thanks to all the godawful snow days beforehand ... here's hoping we don't get pushed up against the wall the same way this year.

Of course, November will also bring about The Return Of Inspector Scene and a part of me is just breathless with ancticpation as to how this year's inspection sweep will pan out. I have my suspicions that the assertions I've heard to the effect of "don't worry, if he checked something last year, he won't check it again this year" may not hold a lot of water since nearly all of the work we did to the doors in this condo to make them close correctly has come rather undone over the last six months or so thanks to the gradual, imperceptible sinking of this place into landfill. Thus, a part of me thinks that we will certainly hear about the doors, and yet another part of me answers that with: "yeah, so what? What the hell can I do about it now?" Needless to say, you will certainly be reading updates on this should it come into play.

NP Depeche Mode Playing The Angel

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Amii Stewart

Amii Stewart, 1997Amii Stewart may have one of the most recognizable smash hits of the Disco Era era to her name, but her career as a stateside Dancing Queen (or even Pop Singer) was a very short-lived affair.

Musically inclined from childhood, Stewart initially made a career for herself in the arena of dance/theater. Having taken dancing lessons after being taught to play the piano by her father, Stewart enrolled in "workshop" programs to hone her talents while still attending high school in her native Washington D.C.. Shortly after starting college, Stewart left school to work full-time with the D.C. Repertory Dance Company.

Working with the D.C.R.D.C. eventually let to other breaks, and Stewart began to make a name for herself internationally through her work as lead actress (and ultimately assistant director/choreographer) in the play Bubbling Brown Sugar which she performed in Miami, London and New York, followed by a role in the New York-staged Toby Time.

It was while in London working on Bubbling Brown Sugar, that Stewart laid down a few tracks on a lark with producer Barry Leng. Even though Stewart was a bit under the weather while auditioning, her powerful vocals must have convinced Leng that there was potential and she was offered a contract with Hansa Records. A handful of tracks were eventually recorded for future album release after her first single "You Really Touched My Heart" generated sufficient interest from the label for more material. Ariola Records, desperate for a lifesaving hit, optioned the release of Stewart's music in the American market, which at the time was fully in the sway of Disco Fever.

Working with another writer named Simon May (whose 1976 U.K. Top 10 single "Summer Of My Life" had also been a Leng production), Leng created some original songs for Stewart to sing, and began rearranging a smattering of oldie covers in a more contemporary musical vein. The first (and by far the most successful) of these covers selected for release was a rendition of Eddie Floyd's 1966 R&B classic "Knock On Wood."

Knock On WoodWhile it's fair to say that Stewart's striking vocals would probably have drawn attention to this song no matter what the production style, this production was designed from the ground up to grab attention, which is exactly what it did. While Floyd's "Knock On Wood" was a midtempo bluesy number that simmered on the radio like a sultry July evening, the Leng-produced Amii Stewart version moved like a relentless freight train, indiscriminately mowing down everything in its path. Most importantly, "Knock On Wood" just sounded incredibly huge in a dance club, with its thundering beat, oddly-creaking synthesizer lines, laser-bright horn sections, insistent percussion effects, and ominous underlying bass hum all compressed together into an explosive mix that Jeff Lynne himself would have killed to create.

Released to radio in January of 1979, "Knock On Wood" went down a storm, ultimately reaching the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for one week that April, and selling an estimated 8 million copies internationally, not to mention powering its attendant (and wisely similarly-titled) gold full-length album into the Top 20.

Seeking to capitalize on the runaway success of "Knock On Wood," another cover song from Stewart’s London sessions was selected to be the follow-up single. In retrospect, perhaps this was an ill-advised choice as the rocket-like momentum of Stewart's career vanished almost immediately when her cover of the seminal Doors smash "Light My Fire" (paired with a new song titled, er, "137 Disco Heaven" to create a medley, in effect) not only failed to match the success of its predecessor, but fell way short of the Top 40 as well, sputtering to #69 that summer. That being said, it bears mentioning that "Light My Fire/137 Disco Heaven" did far better overseas: in fact, it actually placed a slot higher in the U.K. tallies than "Knock On Wood."

Things slipped even farther when Stewart's follow-up album, Paradise Bird failed to reach the Billboard's Top 200 album chart that Christmas, instead "peaking" at #207 on the magazine's Bubbling Under list. Despite the same production team and formula of orginal songs with a few re-imagined oldies as before, there were also no hits or even almost-hits from Paradise Bird, a lot of which was blamed on the impending collapse of Ariola Records, though it should also be pointed out in fairness to them that Hansa version of Paradise Bird wasn't exactly setting the surveys afire over in the U.K., either.

I'm Gonna Get Your Love (produced by noted cheese-dancepop maestro Narada Michael Walden) nearly got Stewart's career back on the upward track again, but ultimately could only generate one song of any impact whatsoever in the hybrid duet (think "prehistoric mash-up") of "My Guy / My Girl," recorded with the recently-late Johnny Bristol. While the two singers alternated songs in the "verses" and "choruses" to cute effect, the rest was a rather horrifically-overcooked mess and the song eventually became Stewart's second (and last) U.S. chart dud, barely cracking the Top 60 in the waning summer of 1980.

PearlsFrom that point onwards, Stewart never returned to the U.S. music charts, though she eventually found herself popular enough overseas that she was able to keep a career going on that level alone. Within a couple of years, she had reached the point that her Georgio Moroder-produced 1986 album Amii never even saw the light of day on these shores (nor have any of its follow-up projects with such luminaries as Ennio Morricone, for that matter). With the writing on the wall now too big to ignore, Stewart eventually left the United States for the rolling landscapes of Italy where her multi-faceted singing talents have yielded her an ongoing career that extends to the present day.

Buy The Best Of Amii Stewart: Knock On Wood here.