Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flaunted

Well, my good chum Spiros has suggested to me that I write a “classic” album article on the debut release of infamous 80s band Sigue Sigue Sputnik. As he is a very sensitive chap, despite being very good with colours, I’ve decided to postpone my review of the expanded edition of Blast (sorry, Holly) to accommodate his wishes, so to speak.

I am not at all sure that a piece about the (relative) merits of Flaunt It in itself would be all that interesting, but here we go with a look at the interesting rise and predictable fall of one of the more curious bands of that golden decade for music.





It is arguably the case that not since The Sex Pistols was a band more a product of their era than Sigue Sigue Sputnik. The mid-80s socio-political scene was ripe for their sensational approach, designed by the accepted genius of founder Tony James, to be a big, big hit. Let’s have a look at the time leading up to the eventual release of their debut single (Love Missile F1-11) and album (Flaunt It) in early 1986.

By 1984, Thatcher had all but taken a stranglehold on Britain, the likes of which are rarely seen by leaders who have actually been elected rather than seized power. With a sense of nationalistic jingoism after the “successful” Falklands military campaign and in the face of weak political opposition from the Kinnock-led Labour and revived Liberals, Thatcher and her Conservative government were more or less unstoppable, and my how they used that power. Legislation was passed – most notably in regards of Sigue Sigue Sputnik the Video Recordings Act of 984 – which created formidable barriers to freedom of choice but, in the best newspeak you could wish for were presented as “setting parameters to allow one to enjoy the freedom of choice.”.

Added to the above, of course, was the miners’ strike, in which Thatcher broke the power of the Unions and indeed any idea of a state supported socialism (“socialism works fine until it runs out of other people’s money”, she said), and the cold war paranoia and apparent threat of nuclear war (thanks, BBC, for advising schools to show Threads to us schoolchildren) was at its height. With football retaining the lingering elements of hooliganism from the 70s (increasingly handled “by any means necessary” by the police), music was one of the few outlets and provider of a glimmer of hope and happiness for people at large.

Ripe circumstances, then, for a band to seize the initiative and create a phenomenon out of the paranoia.

Despite not actually releasing anything until 1986, Tony James commenced the buzz around his new venture as early as these dark days in 1984. Mindful of how appearing “threatening” to the status quo helped The Sex Pistols become a great big cash cow, and indeed how publicity, promotion and seeming to celebrate sex and violence assisted the rise of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, James unleashed a band whose motto was as simple and as honest as “fleece the world”. He saw there was a stack of money to be made from the record labels and record buying public, and he wished to get his hands on as much of it as possible. It’s unlikely that Tony James subscribed to Thatcher’s dream of a “free market nation” where only the strong survive and prosper, but if there was money to be made, well, why not?





Across the later parts of 1984 and much of 1985 Sigue Sigue Sputnik, a name which alludes to a notorious Soviet street gang, managed to keep in both the music news and the general press without doing particularly much. A well crafted image, cultivated mostly by Tony James but you would imagine frontman and fashion designer Martin Degville had a had, mixing the cyber-punk look from the at the time often overlooked film Blade Runner with the post-apocalyptic menace of Mad Max 2 horrified the “middle classes” and excited a world of teenagers. It was a visually stunning and striking look, making sure that they were well worth publishing pictures of. Reports of Sigue Sigue Sputnik gigs were bizarre, often ludicrous – you couldn’t at the time buy a record by them, but you were warned against going to one of their concerts as the tabloids reported that “the front rows regularly get tear-gassed by the band” and indeed covered in unspecified liquids, the nature of which were hinted at by the more downmarket papers.

EMI, perhaps mindful of the money lost by infamously backing out of a deal with The Sex Pistols, despatched PR men to one of their concerts with the mission being to sign the band “at all costs”. Music to the ears of Tony James, really. Depending on which legend you believe, EMI signed the band and gave Mr James an advance of between £1,000,000.00 and £4,000,000.00. Even by the standards of the “gimme gimme” 80s, and even if compared to the large amounts of cash the controversial Frankie Goes To Hollywood raked in, this figure was then, and now, considered insane.





When an actual Sputnik product was made available to buy it came in the form of the debut single Love Missile F1-11. As I recall, one of the most favorable reviews it received was “it is the sound of someone playing Space Invaders for 3 minutes”. To us music fans, though, it was probably the most exciting thing we’d heard since Frankie Goes To Hollywood vanished as “tax exiles”. In a world lingering in the aftermath of the noble but ultimately sanitizing effect of Band and Live Aid where music was all of a sudden expected to be safe and unthreatening, the aggressive, catchy simplistic beat of the song, the random and mostly meaningless lyrics and the sinister film dialogue samples from movies that were banned or hard to see (and indeed “withdrawn from release” in the case of A Clockwork Orange), it was sheer brilliance. It annoyed parents and it sounded really, really good when played really, really loud. This was particularly true of the amazing 12” for it, which is the only time you get to hear the line “a mondo chino giving head” uncensored, as obscure as that particular slang term was in the UK at the time.





Whilst the single was not the Number One hit that the band and the label might have hoped for, it did sell very well indeed. Perhaps feeling the need to strike whilst the iron was hot, or more likely knowing there would be a very good musical reason to maximize income from the whole venture, the debut album was released exceptionally quickly after the single.

Flaunt It is the very definition of style over content. By no means was it a “con job” and it wasn’t (quite) the case of “8 songs which sound identical” as some of the more lazy journalists wrote. It was a brazen, unashamed fashion item more than it was a proper album, and clearly thrust out for the sole purpose of selling and making money. This latter point is illustrated by the odd decision to sell the gaps between the songs to advertisers – an idea mooted as a parody by The Who with their Sell Out album a good two decades earlier. The difference being, of course, that a couple of the adverts were real – off the top of my head, i-D magazine featured. A special mention for the cover, too – Japanese Anime / Manga wasn’t exactly mainstream at the time, the imagery and the band name appearing in Japanese (cheers for the translation, R2) was ahead of its time in calling an influence that would eventually seep into Western culture.





As for the music on Flaunt It, well, as hinted at above, it didn’t go down too well with the critics. Yes, a number of the songs sounded like the single Love Missile F1-11 with different words on it, the biggest culprit, perhaps selected with a sense of irony or just plain urine removal, being the second single, 21st Century Boy. Other tracks on the album, notably Massive Retaliation and Atari Baby, showed that the band could depart from the “dudududududududu” noise they preferred to make when they could be bothered.

Stripped of the ability to cover the songs with further movie samples (they “hadn’t bothered” to get permission to use the bits they did on the single and thus were prohibited from including them on the album) Tony James went one better. A masterstroke, and perhaps the single thing that makes the album still worth a play today, was that they got celebrated film soundtrack producer and scorer Giorgio Moroder in to produce the whole project, presumably at the very great expense indeed of EMI. If the vision of Tony James was to fill a vast imaginary landscape with the sound of Sputnik, he could not have chosen a better man (outside, perhaps, of Trevor Horn) to help him accomplish it. The sheer sound of Flaunt It is a treasure to the ears, it being both lavish and sweeping. The influence of the sound created here has not, as far as I am aware, ever been given the credit it deserves. With the “dance” / rave explosion of the early to mid 90s, acts like Massive Attack, The Orb and The Chemical Brothers had a sound which was not too different from what one heard on Flaunt It.

The album sold moderately well in the UK, although not quite well enough to justify the advance the band got (no matter how much it actually was). As for the States, well, it did attain some cult following (the video for Love Missile was a big hit on MTV, the song itself cropping up in a number of films), but didn’t really sell too well at all. Single after single was churned out from the album, including one of the first ever “video singles” in the form of Sex Bomb Boogie (I have it stashed away somewhere), but each had perpetually diminishing sales figures. If ever a band personified, in terms of public interest, personified going from a bang to a whimper, it was this one. They didn’t so much destroy themselves like the Sex Pistols or implode via infighting like Frankie Goes To Hollywood; it was rather that people just couldn’t be bothered with them anymore. The light that burns twice as bright, to quote one of their favourite films, burns half as long, after all.





It wasn’t and it isn’t all over for Sputnik, though. They oddly enjoyed a brief resurgence towards the end of the 80s, when they employed the biggest pop producers at the time, Stock, Aitken & Waterman, to revive their career. Sputnik was an odd choice for them to take on, what with their production line of turning Australian soap opera stars into pop sensations being very lucrative, but one single from this time, Success, was a great hit and, to the ears of just about all, an actual, proper song from Sigue Sigue Sputnik.





Thanks to the joys of internet fan forums and an always bankable sense of nostalgia amongst music buyers, Sigue Sigue Sputnik remain very much active to this day, touring and performing on a regular basis. Every now and then they also get the hints of credit they rightly deserve – no less than David Bowie did a cover of Love Missile for the DVD single of New Killer Star, and didn’t do a bad job of it at all. Those, like me, who were impressed with them at the time cannot help but remember the band, the music and the time very fondly indeed. Inexplicably, as in the same sense as no one knows for sure why exactly the music of David Hasselhoff is so popular in Germany, Sputnik are one of the biggest, most popular bands ever in Brazil

Sigue Sigue Sputnik came along with the view “actually, we think graphic, designer and gratuitous sex and violence is excellent” at precisely the right time. It was an era of excess and indulgence, but only within certain boundaries that the government tried to enforce and Sputnik gladly waltzed over. Around the same time, the likes of Paul Weller and Billy Bragg were trying to get “the kids” interested in politics in general, supporting Labour in particular. The lifestyle offered by Sputnik was, shall we say, a good deal more appealing to the majority of us, as short-lived as it was.

This post isn’t meant to be a definitive history of the band or the time, although it does feel almost long enough to be such! My sincere apologies to the fascinating other members of the band who didn’t get a mention here – no offence at all, just trying to stop this article sprawling out of control!

Shoot it up, shoot it up, shoot it up……
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