The first time I heard “Marlene on the Wall” playing on the radio, I fell in love with Suzanne Vega. The song was catchy, her voice was soft yet defiant, and the image of a Marlene Dietrich poster passing judgment on a woman searching for love stayed with me long after the song finished playing. Suzanne Vega’s self-titled debut was one of the best albums of the year, with tracks like “Cracking” (“my heart is broken; it is worn out at the knees”), “Small Blue Thing”, and the devastating “The Queen and the Soldier”. But none of the three singles A&M released from the album charted on The Billboard Hot 100.
Surprisingly, neither did “Left of Center”, her enigmatic but hypnotic contribution to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack.
So I was happily surprised when, a couple years later, “Luka” became a major hit, spending three months in the Top 40 and peaking at #3. Finally, other people were discovering what a phenomenal talent Vega was. The Solitude Standing CD peaked at #11 on The Billboard 200 chart, and she was poised to become a major star.
But the follow-up single, “Tom’s Diner”, didn’t chart at all, and “Solitude Standing” peaked at #94, spending only three weeks on the Hot 100. The bouncy “Book of Dreams” from her third CD (Days of Open Hand) also failed to chart, and I was disappointed to see Suzanne Vega go from being an up-and-coming sensation to becoming a one hit wonder. As a major fan of hers, I felt personally rejected when others didn’t appreciate her music as much as I did.
Then came DNA.
Neal Slateford and Nick Batt were two British music producers who had the inspired idea to add a dance beat to “Tom’s Diner”. Using the “doo doo doo doo” ending of the original a cappella version as a framing device for their remix, they turned a wistful, quietly heartbreaking tune into an infectious dance track. The reinvented smash stayed on the charts for five months, selling more than half-a-million singles and eventually peaking at #5 on the Hot 100.
The remix had one major flaw, at least for me. Vega’s song was truncated in the remix, finishing with “I am thinking of your voice”. The original version continued on with “and of the midnight picnic once upon a time before the rain began”, then after a long pause, ended with “and I finish up my coffee and it’s time to catch the train”. What seemed like casual observations in a local restaurant was really the attempt of a woman quietly mourning the loss of an ex-lover or an old friend to forget, if but for a moment, her grief in the minutiae of life. That realization was largely lost in the remix.
Still, it was wonderful to hear Suzanne Vega being embraced by radio again.
Ironically, by giving Vega a second major hit, DNA themselves became a one hit wonder.
Unfortunately, they also made virtually nothing for their work. According to Entertainment Weekly, Slateford and Batt initially reached out to A&M to get their remix properly licensed, but Vega’s record label never responded. So the DJs released their version illegally. After BBC Radio played the song on the air, A&M threatened to sue the pair, so DNA signed away all rights to the remix for less than $8,000.
Although they worked on a few remixes afterwards, DNA never had another single reach the Hot 100. Neal Slateford is now the director of LoveHoney Ltd, “the UK’s leading online adult retailer,” and Nick Batt is currently the director and editor of Sonic State, “a network of Web properties catering to electronic musicians.”
// Notes from the Road
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