I wondered, in finding information about Vivabeat while trying to decide whether to request this retrospective for review, if there were a case to be made that they were a great forgotten new wave/dance band. Forgotten, to be sure. Their only album, Party in the War Zone is out of print and the band hardly even came close to being a one-hit wonder in this country. They did hit the dance charts with “Man From China”, a record with a melodic, whistled hook which inspired Peter Gabriel to write “Games Without Frontiers”. Gabriel had helped the band get signed to his UK label, Charisma Records, and the single was also a radio hit overseas. I don’t recall ever hearing them on (then) “modern rock” or (now) “hits of the eighties” radio stations. They don’t appear in the Trouser Press Record Guide or any of my other guides to alternative music (I’ve got handfuls). None of their songs show up on the Just Can’t Get Enough or Living In Oblivion series or similar compilations of 1980s new wave and frankly, I had never heard of them before. I couldn’t even find very much on the Internet, though I did find enough to make me want to give them a try.
On first listen, I thought I could hear why Vivabeat were condemned to footnote status (I mean, apart from the truly stupid name). The second version of a song called “The House Is Burning” is the best illustration. It’s got Marina Del Rey’s thin, airy vocals and synthesizers, spray-on, Fixx-like guitars and a clapped-out, programmed drum sound. All of which combine to positively scream “1983!” to an extent that can be tiresome even for an “eighties man” like me. (and the Vivabeat web site, which I only found through the URL included in the liner notes as it didn’t turn up in the search engine, runs as though it had been designed by someone who believed all that the eighties-bashers say about style being more important than substance).
By the second time through, though (and the third, fourth, and fifth…), this record began to grow on me. Fun, unsophisticated songs with impressionistic lyrics run through it like the sounds that came out of pop radio on a really good day in 1981.
This record really reflects different versions of a band formed and re-formed around Del Rey (born Joanne Russo) and songwriter, bass/synthisizer player and programmer Mick Muhlfriedel. Vivabeat revamped itself some three times in the course of the eight years represented here, and 20 musicians are variously credited for the 18 songs. Guitarist Rob Dean, formerly of Japan, joined while what was to be the groups second album was being prepared, and backing vocalists Cindy Bernstein and Peggy McCellan were added for the subsequent tour. Original lead singer Terrance Robay left after that second album was shelved by their record label. When Muhlfriedel was solicited to write songs for a movie score in 1985, the band he put together slowly developed into what was very nearly a Vivabeat reunion, with himself, Del Rey now on lead vocals, Dean, Bernstein and McCellan. Because of Robay’s absence, however, the project was dubbed See Jane Run rather than Vivabeat, but the songs are presented here under the original wrapper.
Robay’s vocal histrionics are sometimes detached, sharp elsewhere and teetering on the edge of melodrama. But always very much in the then-fashionable new wave mold; think of Captain Sensible, or the lead singer of Device, or even David Byrne (by the way, if you know who all three of those singers are, you are so much the target audience for this release). Yet as much as Robay’s singing takes some getting used to, it is in some ways preferable to Del Rey’s deliberate, emotionless performance when she takes over as lead singer. Though backup harmonies from Bernstein/McCellan and multi-tracking increase her range, she remains an uninteresting singer, adequate and sometimes even fine, but monochromatic. Perhaps the best Vivabeat is to be found here on songs where Robay and Del Rey duet, such as “The House Is Burning” (the first of two versions, the second recorded without Robay) and “Gray Gray Gray”, in which the two run hot-and-cool with each other, delivering alternate lines like a warmer Human League.
So: No question on the “forgotten” front, but were they great? Probably not, no. Is their sound dated? Admittedly, yes. But bear in mind that Janet Jackson will sound tiresome in 18 years too (if it takes that long). Is The Good Life a whole lot of fun? Oh hell, yeah, especially for us “13th Generation”-ers or ‘Gen X”-ers or whatever the PC label is for men and women who were teenagers in the 1980s. My only real complaints are more quirks of preference: a chronological track order and more informative liner notes (and lyrics!) might have presented a slightly better package. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the songs that seemed to scream “1983” on first listen proved, upon reading of the liner notes, to date from almost five years prior to that. Which makes Vivabeat not only of their time, but possibly ahead of it as well.