Greater Than / Less Than
During its mid-to-late 1980s heyday, Chicago’s Wax Trax! Records was, like most of the seminal independent record labels, its own sort of cult. The risk-taking, dancefloor-friendly releases were the sound of industrial dance music. And the absurdist, anything-goes attitude of many of its artists gave the label its own, unique aesthetic. So well-established and readily-identifiable were the look, sound, and feel, that you could blindly buy a Wax Trax! release and have a pretty good idea of what you were going to get.
Now, 20 years later, it’s easy to forget that much of the time you got burned. Wax Trax! put out a lot of stuff that was, even at the time, filler. For every intriguing innovator like Front 242, there was a forgettable also-ran like Mussolini Headkick; for every Ministry, a Controlled Bleeding. Greater Than One, the London husband-and-wife duo of Lee Newman and Michael Wells, fell most decidedly into the latter camp. Like many loosely-categorized “industrial” acts, Greater Than One was actually a self-contained multimedia unit. They did all their own sleeves, posters, and videos, and also dealt in performance and installation art. Taking up a proletariat, anti-capitalist cause, their work was heavily sloganistic and iconographic. They took advantage of the newly-unleashed synthesizer and digital sampling technology, using it to make statements in music and sound. Their approach, while rare these days, was not new at the time. Acts like Einstürzende Neubaten and Laibach had been making politically-inspired, avant garde noise for years. The only real unique aspect of Greater Than One was that they hailed from England, while most of their counterparts were European.
Though Newman and Wells went on to score British and European hits in the 1990s under names like Tricky Disco and Technohead, Greater Than One remains a largely-forgotten proposition. That obviously wasn’t the case for Brainwashed founder Jon Whitney, who at one time operated an unofficial Greater Than One website. Whitney has launched the “archives” arm of Brainwashed with his dream project, namely, a complete and comprehensive reissue of all the material Greater Than One licensed to Wax Trax! in the United States ... and then some. And you can say without reservation that Whitney and company have done an outstanding job. Totaling seven CDs, one DVD, a free-with-purchase mp3 download, and packed with ephemera in the form of enhanced CD content, this three-part series has to be among the best-executed reissues ever. The packaging and artwork are exquisite, the remastered sound is spot-on, and there’s plenty of new-to-CD / previously-unreleased material to go around. Wells has been personally involved, even digging out some of his old Betamax master tapes.
Sadly, the redoubtable presentation cannot overcome the fact that most of Greater Than One’s music was never particularly distinguished in the first place, and has aged badly. In the mid-to-late ‘80s, the sampler was so new that the samples alone came across as cutting-edge, regardless of how they were arranged or incorporated. But now, the relatively haphazard, cut-and-paste method of acts like Greater Than One sounds primitive and, more troublesome, helplessly stiff.
All the Masters Licked Me, from 1987, and previously available on cassette only, has the distinction of being the most interesting and yet least listenable of the three packages. Riveting, metallic drums, cathedral organs, chants, and operatic moaning attempt to pummel you into another state of mind ... or submission. It’s the sound of a very European, very high-minded sampler having a nightmare. Song titles like “Exorcising Julie” (Newman’s real first name was Julie), “The Sweet Smell of a Supermarket on Fire” and “Lost Underground” leave little to the imagination. In fact, “The Rape of Sam the Fox (Theme)” sounds exactly like you would expect it to. While the title of “We Hate America and America Hates Us” seems relevant again, the “song” itself is a humorless chant of “The kiss of death tastes of Coca-Cola” laid atop “The Star Spangled Banner”. The lack of subtlety would be chuckle-inducing were it not so often harrowing. The graceful synthesizers on “Kill That Parent” provide some respite, and the traditional African percussion and chanting coupled with an electro pulse on “Sweet Satellite” suggests Newman and Wells had some good ideas. By 1987, though, another male/female duo, Dead Can Dance, had already spent a few years shaping and expanding a similar blueprint into something far more evocative. Trust, also included with this set, is a dry run for the album proper. It incorporates many of the same sounds, only presented as two long, continuous tracks.
London, from 1988, comprised of the same year’s Dance of the Cowards album plus assorted EPs, and 1989’s G-Force incorporate house, acid house, techno, hip-hop, and dub. Also, the duo’s absurdist sense of humor makes its way into the music. All the Wax Trax! material is here, and while it’s certainly more accessible than All the Masters Licked Me, that doesn’t necessarily make it better. You couldn’t make it on Wax Trax! if you didn’t have a bunch of “found” samples of Martin Luther King, televangelists, old movie dialogue, and Mission Control communications, and they’re all here, along with other industrial dance trademarks like synth zaps, scratching, and Kraftwerk samples. Greater Than One, though, didn’t hit as hard as peers like Front Line Assembly or A Split Second. Consequently, tracks like “Now Is the Time” and “Kunst Gleich Kapital”, come off as a cross between Ibiza-period New Order and Snap’s “The Power”.
London mixes up these tracks with moody experiments like “Truth” that sound like early OMD. Occasionally, the samples are employed in genuinely clever ways, as on “Song For England”, which employs the maverick English comedy duo Derek and Clive, and the “John Brown’s Body” variation “All Men Are Boys”. The G-Force material adds acid bass lines, hip-hop rhythms, and breakbeats, making for a more lively experience. “Joy” is basically a redux of M/A/R/R/S’s seminal “Pump Up the Volume”, but “Pathways” is entertaining, while “I’m Gonna Whoop Your Ass” is influenced by the visceral Electronic Body Music sound. Amid all this barely-controlled chaos, “Black Magic” actually manages a low-key, minimal vibe. Still, these five (!) discs worth of material manage to sound like it was all composed from the same set of interchangeable parts; or, more accurately, the same bank of samples. The rare soundtrack material here, including the Duty EP, is darker, deeper, and less danceable. It also comes closer to the act’s original aesthetic as laid out on All the Masters Licked Me. And for that chuckle, don’t miss the video for “Pure” on the DVD. Flight of the Conchords couldn’t have done it better.
Really, there’s so much material here that you could spend a long weekend getting lost in it. The entire series is like a very specific time capsule from 1987. While that might make for some great cultural history, as music it’s a lot less successful.
All the Masters Licked Me
- Multiple songs MySpace