As with every revival or post-mortem continuation of a musical career that spawns an album, the consumer is always the one left asking the question, “Do we really need another (insert classic or retro artist here) album?” In most cases the label that owns an artist’s music has decided that it’s cheaper to produce a collection of previously recorded material and release it to rapid retro fans and those who will believe whatever an album cover will tell them, especially if it uses words like “essential”.
This is absolutely, positively, most-definitely not the case with Alphaville’s Stark Naked and Absolutely Live. Although this disc has been available for half a year, it’s not like Alphaville is a contemporary flash-in-the-pan that’s going to be dated when the radio spews up some more artists to consume. Alphaville is already dated. Blissfully, perfectly, wonderfully dated in a way that spells timeless. The one thing that Alphaville truly has going for them is the fact that they are a historical footnote in ‘80s New Wave synth-pop history. That kernel of credibility has allowed them to maintain a Cerebrus-like, three-headed existence in music for almost 20 years.
Unless you’re a member of Alphaville’s small legion of die-hard fans, or have some deep obsession with German synth-pop, you’re probably unaware that Alphaville have reformed and been recording new music for the past five years. Actually, Marian Gold, lead singer for Alphaville from the beginning, managed to gather some musicians around him and revive Alphaville for stage and CD. The band has been touring the world for the last five years, and touring doggedly at that. It may not have renewed Alphaville’s commercial viability in the US, but they’ve played to enormous stadium crowds in Europe and Asia. And like Steely Dan’s move to the stage, this posthumous career is actually a new direction for a band that originally spent its time in the studio and rarely played live.
If you’ve come this far in the review and still can’t remember who Alphaville is, or was, think the pair of “classic ‘80s” songs, “Big in Japan” and “Forever Young” from 1984. Oh yeah! Them! But…like…who cares now?
Well, the reformed version of Alphaville released a few new studio albums in the last few years, namely 1994’s Prostitute and 1998’s Salvation. Although these discs never received much attention in the US and are more or less import-only status to your local record store, they kept Alphaville alive in other regions long enough for them to decide to go on a massive, half-decade long touring schedule. This bliss of these two albums is that, unlike some retro acts who upgrade their sound to try and appeal to contemporary audiences, Alphaville’s newer albums sound exactly like 1984’s Forever Young, 1986’s Afternoons in Utopia, and 1989’s Breathtaking Blue. It’s like stepping back to a time when flipped-up collars on leather jackets and Flesh For Lulu hair-dos are just plain cool. What makes it even better, some decade and a half later, is that unlike other bands whose one-hit-wonders cycle through Greatest ‘80s compilations (I always recommend the “Living in Oblivion” series), there’s not a hint of the self-parody that haunts any reprise of, say, Flock of Seagulls.
Marian Gold seems to have remained blissfully preserved in a time capsule (anyone ever see that MST3K episode with the giant Tupperware to keep rock stars angst and sexiness fresh?) that allows him to make synth-pop a stadium rock experience once more. I’m sure that plenty of Alphaville’s shows over the last few years were played to small, intimate audiences of true fans, but there’s still a sense that 800,000 people are singing along and holding up day-glo lighters. And if the press releases and web site are to be believed, sometimes there were.
Stark Naked and Absolutely Live‘s most “essential” quality is that synth-pop bands just aren’t supposed to sound so good live. This is on the level of perfection for live sound that only Depeche Mode’s 101 tops in the realm of techno music. Although this is a “compilation” version of a live album, with the best tracks culled from massive archives of live recordings and put together almost seamlessly to create the illusion of a live show, the album doesn’t suffer much from knowing that up front. Occasionally some of Gold’s banter with the crowd seems slightly off-kilter, as if you’re only hearing the punch line of a joke, but for the most part it’s almost believable as a beginning-to-end experience.
Opening with a massively rousing version of “Sounds Like a Melody” that’s stretched to an impressive seven minutes long (hey, this was a simple pop song once, remember that!), the listener is quickly drawn into the size of the sound that comes out of Alphaville’s live performances. It helps immensely that this isn’t just a keyboard and a drum machine making all this noise, but is instead a full band, but the synthesized sound is always at the forefront, something even Erasure couldn’t make sound good live.
The album doesn’t rest on the laurels of Alphaville’s ‘80s hits either, although the requisite versions of “Big in Japan” and “Forever Young” are certainly included in this set. Songs like “Monkey in the Moon”, “Flame”, “Guardian Angel”, and “Wishful Thinking” come off of their most recent releases, but sound as simultaneously old and wonderfully fresh as the rest of the album.
While Alphaville doesn’t roll out a masterpiece of a live album the way Pink Floyd does, if you listen to Stark Naked from start to finish, you’ll be suitably impressed with the choices that Gold and company have picked out to flesh out this album. If you ever liked Alphaville, you’re sure to like this disc, right down to the audience sing-along during “Forever Young” and its perfectly rendered signature synthesized orchestra part. If you miss the simple honesty of ‘80s keyboard techno pop, this album will seem like a breath of fresh air. Even if you want to ironically contemplate the seemingly cheesy musical stylings of the past, this CD will not disappoint.
Beyond that, I can only say that I welcome the chance to actually see Alphaville play live after listening to this disc. Before I heard this I would have passed it off as a pathetic attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Now, I realize that sometimes a little bit of nostalgia can go a long way, and in a rare case like this, a great way as well.
// Notes from the Road
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