Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sigue Sigue Sputnik Launch A Chart Assault

During the mid 80s U.K. outfit Sigue Sigue Sputnik took the concept of self promotion and hedonistic excess to new heights, and in the process became a pop-rock sensation. The band was the brainchild of ex-Generation X bassist Tony James. After Generation X had released their third album ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ in 1981, vocalist Billy Idol (see future post) went on to pursue a solo career to great success. James, who had been a founding member of Gen-X, then set about formulating a group to rival Idol’s new found profile.

He started brainstorming with publicist Magenta Devine, sparking the right idea, devising a concept around that idea, and fleshing out that concept into a band. Along the way Tony James made several aborted attempts to modify pre-existing vehicles, played with various and sundry artists such as Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls, and did some production work for the Sex Gang Children among others. Slowly but surely James began to piece together the line-up of players/personalities that would eventually gel into a group. First on board was guitarist Neal X (Whitmore), who James discovered through an advertisement in Melody Maker magazine. The pair then spent a period of nine months through 1982/83 searching for a vocalist for their proposed creative enterprise. One of the singers James approached was Andrew Eldritch who was in a small band called the Sisters Of Mercy. Eldritch declined but he and James remained friends over the next decade, and would later collaborate when James joined the Sisters Of Mercy for a short stint during 1991. Annie Lennox also jammed with James one afternoon, but James decided he didn’t want a female vocalist - probably as well or Eurythmics may never have come to be.

Enter Martin Degville, self appointed freak and weirdo, the perfect front man for any prospective pop agitators. Degville was at the time running a clothing/fashion shop called Ya Ya, and pushed the boundaries of postmodern/sci-fi futurist fashion. Still this trio who aspired to become pop-rock revolutionaries had no name, a potential drawback to creating a profile. They gathered as much inspiration from films such as Pink Flamingos, Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner, as from the music of Bowie, the Pistols and the Cramps. Their underlying ethos was to be at the cutting edge of everything before it happened. Flaunting convention, this unnamed band had come up with a bunch of song titles, more concepts really, but hadn’t gotten round to writing the music to accompany. The old Gene Vincent number ‘Be Bop A Lula’ became the basis for the next evolution in the group’s sound, over which layers of contemporary electronic sounds would be laid.

The then trio played their first official gig during 1983, with a marathon set of three songs. Soon after drummer Ray Mayhew answered the call to arms for the future ‘fifth generation of rock and roll’. Mayhew couldn’t yet play the drums but he had the look to match the overall image of the group, and that was what counted. What’s better than one drummer who can’t yet drum - two drummers who can’t yet drum - enter Chris Kavanagh to complete the band’s line-up. The whole two drummers thing had already been done a number of times, including Gary Glitter and Adam & The Ants. The band continued to rehearse dub versions of rock and roll standards, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ among them, and slowly began to supplement that with their own original material. A key ally then came on board to assist in honing the band’s sound - Mick Jones, who had just been sacked from the Clash (for the first time), started assisting James and the boys with sound mixing - actually you can hear the connection in Mick Jones’ later band Big Audio Dynamite (and II).

So now the group’s line-up was in place, they had a growing set of songs, a valuable ally as a sound mixer, a blueprint for a mind blowing image - but still no name! A friend of Tony James then showed him a newspaper article about a Russian street gang calling themselves Sigue Sigue Sputnik (meaning ‘burn burn satellite’) - the band now had their name, and James even designed an official logo. Via Mick Jones, the newly dubbed Sigue Sigue Sputnik gained access to a new Pro1 synthesizer, immediately opening up seemingly endless possibilities in the sound the were developing. Among the first songs written and recorded to incorporate the new technology was ‘Love Missile F1-11’. Around the same time several girls, among them ‘Amazon Woman’, Yana and Ace, joined as auxiliary members/road crew for live performances, and became known as the Ultravixens. Most group’s would have to already be famous to have their name on t-shirts, but Sigue Sigue Sputnik dispensed with that convention as well. It helps when one of the band members is still running a clothes shop, but it’s another example of the campaign of relentless, flagrant self promotion S.S.S. were embarking upon. Mick Jones then gifted Tony James a guitar capable of producing a synthesized bass sound. Dubbed by James ‘Elvis 1990’, the ‘space bass’ would prove another key component in the evolving Sigue Sigue Sputnik sound.

But James knew there was still one element missing from the whole package, a visual montage to accompany the band’s live playing (anyone thinking ‘Zoo TV’?). He set about creating a video tape comprised of snippets of all of the band’s favourite movies, combined with TV clips. Originally James had only intended for the video montage to play as a visual background, but by chance during the dubbing process he hit upon the idea of using some of the sound bytes from the film and television clips. The result was a new improved version of ‘Love Missile F1-11’ complete with explosions, gunfire and dialogue. Tony James felt that it was the audio-visual package that would sell Sigue Sigue Sputnik to the record companies, so it was a demo video tape that he presented to the label suits. It was eventually EMI that decided to take a punt on this virtual pop-rock sideshow. Soon Sigue Sigue Sputnik would take their outrageous sideshow to the world.

‘Love Missile F1-11’ unleashed Sigue Sigue Sputnik on the mainstream music scene. The band were marketed, as had been their own way, to the absolute hilt, saturating every media outlet and medium with their visual and written slogans, and if 24 hour cable channels had been more accessible at that time, it’s a fair bet Sigue Sigue Sputnik would have had their own dedicated network, with an endless stream of their own rhetoric. Possibly the only pop act more adept at self promotion during the 80s was Madonna, and both weren’t averse to using shock tactics to raise their profile. Sigue Sigue Sputnik were self declared darlings of the media, and for a while the media themselves believed it. But behind all the hype it shouldn’t be forgotten that they were a real band - they may not have been so at conception, but a long period of musical gestation had resulted in a group of dedicated, even skilled musicians. ‘Love Missile F1-11’ was a truly brilliant construction of music - I’d say song, but though melodic and catchy and rhythmically infectious, it could not be contained by the parameters of being a mere song - it was a multi-media experience that was indeed futuristic, albeit a post-apocalyptic future.

Britain fell in love with ‘Love Missile F1-11’, the song exploding at #3 on the charts there in the first half of 1986, whilst in Australia it found its range at #32. A quote on the cover of the single said it all: “Being the adventures of a young group whose principal interests are: ultra violence, video nasties, affluence, rockets, home computers, excitement.”. If you didn’t see through the surface of that mischievous deployment of provocative prose, then chances are you wouldn’t appreciate the sound within for what it was - shock rock cyberpunk from an artificial future.

The follow up single ‘21st Century Boy’ (UK#20) didn’t quite ascend the great heights of ‘Love Missile F1-11’, whilst the follow up singles ‘Massive Retaliation’ and ‘Sex Bomb Boogie’ came after the shock and novelty values had worn out. All featured on Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s debut album ‘Flaunt It’ (UK#10/OZ#70), produced by Giorgio Moroder. In keeping with their self proclaimed cynicism of the music business, whilst paradoxically selling themselves flagrantly to it (all part of the inside joke), Sigue Sigue Sputnik auctioned off advertising space between album tracks. The ads that made the cut were a combination of further self promotion such as ‘The Sputnik Corporation’ and ‘The Sigue Sigue Sputnik Computer Game’, with real companies such as i-D Magazine and L’Oreal also coming on board.

The single ‘Success’ (UK#31) was released late in 1988, and mischievously featured the words ‘Sputnik Aitken Waterman’, in reference to the production team behind the track, Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It featured on Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s sophomore album ‘Dress For Excess’ (no understated titles with this band), which featured the cover slogan “This time it’s music’, in reference to Tony James and the band aiming for a slightly more polished sound. But album sales were disappointing (UK#53), as were the 1989 follow up singles ‘Dancerama’ (UK#50), ‘Albinoni Va. Star Wars’ (UK#75) and ‘Rio Rocks’. Like so many who initially use the insatiable appetite of the media to their advantage, Sigue Sigue Sputnik to a degree became a victim of their own grand plan. The fascination and hype turned to derision and dismissal, with the band’s internal politics also conspiring to bring about a premature end to the caper. As Tony James stated on the official Sigue Sigue Sputnik website - “we couldn’t sustain this pretend bastardized version of Sputnik”.

Following Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s demise, Tony James went on to play with Sisters Of Mercy for a time. Chris Kavanagh joined Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite II. In 2001 James reformed Sigue Sigue Sputnik with Martin Degville and Neal X, releasing an album of new material titled ‘ Piratespace’. In subsequent years they’ve continued to record and tour sporadically, whilst Neal X has also worked with Marc Almond (ex-Soft Cell), and Tony James formed the group Carbon/Silicon with old ally Mick Jones.

There’s no doubt that Sigue Sigue Sputnik were original, albeit a constructed brand of original, that drew on the influences of Yello, Kraftwerk, Suicide and Devo. Though they weren’t at the top for a long time, they carved themselves a small but memorable niche in the evolution of popular music - Sigue Sigue Sputnik truly were ‘21st Century Boys’ about fifteen years ahead of the timeline their contemporaries were following.

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