Look Where You've Been
In a recent online discussion about the confirmation that Johnny Marr is currently working with Isaac Brock on new Modest Mouse material, my first reaction was to lament the lack of a new Electronic album instead. Only one other person seemed to know what I meant, but at least he agreed.
Sixteen years or so after their first full-length release, it seems odd that Electronic has seemingly been so quickly forgotten, considering that the band’s supergroup status seemed like a marriage of all the most beloved things about the Manchester music scene of the ‘80s. A partnership between Bernard Sumner of New Order and Johnny Marr of the Smiths was an exciting thing at the time, more or less forcing fans and critics to pay both attention and respect. Toss in some collaborative work with Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant for good measure, and Electronic seemed like the perfect union of dance-pop genius. That Electronic emerged in synch with (and as a reflection of) the sudden burst of creativity that came out of Manchester and fairly dominated the UK in the first years of the ‘90s gave the group the added value of focus and timing.
But by the end of the ‘90s, after years spent dabbling on and off again with the project and only three albums under its belt, Electronic more or less disappeared for good. A great deal of this can probably be attributed to the shifting tastes of UK and international audiences. With Marr fresh off the Smiths and New Order just cresting the apex of its heyday, the gravitas of their pairing in 1989 was immediate to most fans of modern rock of the period. And just as bands like the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, and Inspiral Carpets were igniting Britain with their music, Sumner and Marr’s connections to Factory Records and the ever-important Hacienda club put them at the right place at the right time to incorporate the most vital strains of late ‘80s UK pop. The initial release of Electronic’s debut single, the brilliant “Getting Away With It”, seemed to confirm that the collaboration would be both timely and mainstream enough to be huge.
Of course, the whole Manchester scene dwindled and died just after the eventual release of Electronic’s self-titled debut album in 1991, but Electronic was (perhaps luckily) not as closely-tied to the sound and scene as some of its adherents. And even after the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays either broke up or faded away, Marr and Sumner had gigantic reputations to fall back on, certainly buoyed by the fact that dance pop retained some commercial vitality outside of the alternative rock scene. “Get the Message” and “Disappointed” were hits at home, and well-received abroad, and Electronic seemed to have a life of its own beyond that of its early influences.
Much of the blame for lost momentum in the years following seems to be laid on the business of Marr and Sumner, each working on other projects, and the fact that Electronic was (and was treated like) a side-project. The 1996 release of Raise the Pressure wasn’t exactly treated with indifference, but it walked into a changed landscape in tastes and popular music not as interested in fey, mellow pop. Similarly, 1999’s Twisted Tenderness found Marr and Sumner developing an edgier, less lightweight sound, resulting in an album that easily rivaled their debut, but mainstream music had shifted focus once more, and the dance world was thriving on the ironically more electronic antecedents of bands like Electronic.
But as this Rhino compilation makes clear, Electronic can best be appreciated outside of the context of musical trends and simply enjoyed on its own as an accomplished dance-rock band with a slew of catchy singles to its name. True, Electronic always had a tendency to sound like New Order (or perhaps it’s only that later New Order came to sound a lot like Electronic), much of that having to do with Sumner’s fairly distinctive vocals, and despite Marr’s protestations in the liner notes that Electronic tried to forcibly remove overt influences from the pair’s host bands, the duo was obviously indebted to their past efforts (perhaps less so Marr, of the two). Nevertheless, this collection feels both cohesive and distinct as its own body of work.
Sumner’s notes to the effect that Electronic afforded both the opportunity to take leave of their high-profile past efforts and recharge the writing batteries feels more accurate. Tennant’s contributions to the band, co-writing and singing on “Getting Away With It” and “Disappointed”, may have been some of the greatest commercial successes and are two of the most memorable songs in the Electronic catalog, but they also wind up having the most Pet Shop Boys-ish stamp on them (certainly not a bad thing). But the Marr/Sumner compositions have some real gems among them, conveying the same sort of direct earnestness that the best of New Order managed, and the collection makes a wise choice leading off with “Forbidden City”—chronologically out of place, but lyrically a wistful look back to a past relationship given double meaning by the nature of this disc.
The early tracks are the most familiar here, testament to Electronic’s initial success, and hearing “Get the Message” and “Feel Every Beat” is a nostalgic journey backwards to a propulsively fun period in music that’s too often forgotten in the present. The latter is obviously indebted to the “Madchester” environment in both beat and the snippets of piano, while the former (remembered a couple of seasons back in an episode of C.S.I.) is probably the most distinctive guitar part Marr has written since the Smiths. Indeed, if “Get the Message” were simply a one-off single that Marr and Sumner had tossed out for a lark, it would still be among the best things either had written.
But plenty of time is spent revisiting the later Electronic tracks that have gone more by the wayside, and it proves that there was more variety in the act than history gives credit for. Compare the world peace, pseudo-soul vibe of “Second Nature” with the murky, near-tribal rock workout of “Prodigal Son”. The former reminds listeners (perhaps awkwardly) that New Order once produced a theme song for the English World Cup team, whereas the later reminds listeners that Marr can truly build sonic texture on guitar that layer and ebb with a raucous life (something that Electronic rarely foregrounded). If “For You” sounds a bit like a Beautiful South imitation, no matter, because “Imitation of Life” from the same period shows that Electronic balanced their pop with an eye on the dance floor and didn’t shy away from keyboards and effects, and “Twisted Tenderness” shows they were fully capable of mixing the both to produce a house-pop hybrid. And, mirroring the use of “Forbidden City”, ending the collection with “Late at Night” has a symbolically fitting lyric that gives the set a real sense of closure.
Electronic and Craig DeGraff, co-producers on this disc, are commended for knowing that the best way to highlight the value of these tracks was to mix them up on the timeline and concentrate on creating a disc with a real sense of movement. While Electronic might have developed their own sound to some extent, there’s a definite difference on each disc, and had they been placed in historical sequence, this compilation would have felt awkward and ponderous. But Get the Message: The Best of Electronic winds up being a collection of strong singles artfully arranged, and it displays all to their best effect.
As a collection, Get the Message has all the best songs (Marr even admits that the band’s drive was always great singles), and does the job of showing that, over the course of the ‘90s, Electronic managed to produce some great dance-inflected pop music. That this two-man supergroup didn’t wind up eclipsing either’s past fame isn’t surprising—it was never the point. But this disc does work to preserve the group’s legacy in its own right, and that’s only a good thing.
And as to future projects for Sumner and Marr, well, as I said, New Order and Electronic are getting harder and harder to distinguish, and there’s certainly some promise to Marr joining up with Modest Mouse. Perhaps, born in a specific moment, the pair shelved the project at the right time, leaving behind a good handful of great songs, and calling it a success. Message sent; message received. Time to move on to the next stage.