[29 May 2003]
Sex Bomb Boogie
It’s one of the greatest unsung stories in rock and roll. The scam of the century. An epic tale of musical hijinks and hijackings that embarrassed an industry and catapulted conceptual art to corporate consumer levels. Oh yeah, and a band, too.
The story differs depending on who tells it. Critics, fans, record companies and music historians who saw it as an insult to all they hold dear generally pass it off as a cultural blip, a sign of the murky waters where the bottom-feeders of the music industry prey on unsuspecting executives. Others, myself included, see it as a plan of marketing genius and a vision of concept art, a coup ahead of its time, and a reflection of 1980s postmodern zeitgeist—in other words, a sign of the times.
With the break-up of the mildly successful late ‘70s British punk band Generation X, frontman Billy Idol decided to take his act to the United States, trying his hand at a solo career. Fellow Gen X founder and bassist, Tony James, decided to stick it out in the UK, formulating his next schemes for musical stardom. The details of this time are intricate and too complex to recount here, but they follow a path through the punk/new wave England of the 1980s, touching on the lives of many variously infamous figures, and, like that ubiquitous icon of punk, are as calculated and ambitious as the conception of the Sex Pistols.
The Second Great Rock and Roll Swindle was a product of the rapid convergence of media and the cultural excess of the Cold War 1980s, all filtered through the somewhat twisted but far-seeing vision of Tony James and a luminous cast of contributors. The result was Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Taking the name from a news clipping about a Moscow street gang, a move that fit into the Clockwork Orange fascination of James perfectly, Sigue Sigue Sputnik was conceived as the media creature, a force of nature that would capture the imaginations of the information age, artificial idols par excellence. Sputnik, or SSS, was corporate philosophy, logos and brands, plastic and fantastic, lifestyle pushed to the farthest edge. Glossier than the slickest magazine. Style for miles. A cash machine of cultural consumption.
The Future of Rock and Roll
It’s the concept of Sigue Sigue Sputnik that most of the naysayers overlook, and it’s the concept that is the most brilliant aspect of the band. In fact, Sigue Sigue Sputnik might have been a high-art love child of Warhol and Koons had it been able to maintain a purely virtual reality. James’s vision was a band that crossed the ultra-glam and gender-blurred sexuality of the New York Dolls, the synth-rock of Rev and Vega’s Suicide, the ultraviolent futurism of A Clockwork Orange, and the style aesthetics of cyberpunk in a mishmash of Bladerunner and Road Warrior. James envisioned Elvis for the 21st century, revamped as a Giorgio Moroder death disco rock band. It was visually arresting, culturally challenging, and, although it seems hard to believe nearly twenty years later, completely in step with the times. Sigue Sigue Sputnik was, or was to be, the future today. Then.
The problem was, Sputnik didn’t actually exist. James had recruited a guitarist who shared his vision, the ironically-named Neal X, and after months of scouring the streets looking for just the right look (no talent necessary), they spotted Martin Degville dancing in his clothing boutique, YAYA, and in a Sex Pistols parody, the Future was born. Degville was actually the source and inspiration for the look that would come to define Sputnik, but at the time they were also looking for a singer. Early recording sessions with the grandfathers of the ‘80s synth sound—a PRO1 synth, an 808 drum machine and a cheap, four-track PortaStudio—and the sound was born. One of the other great pieces to the Sputnik mythos was the introduction of the drummers, Ray Mayhew and Chris Kavanagh. Reportedly chosen for their looks, in spite of their complete inability to play drums, James infamously locked them in a rehearsal space for two weeks until they learned enough to play. For a band that was all about drum machines and sequencers it may seem like an odd move, but James wanted a fully live band without sacrificing the vision of image before ability.
That the marketing of Sputnik was as wildly successful as it was speaks to either the creativity and luck behind it, some mad genius of inspiration, or a greedy, consumption-heavy entertainment world. Probably some combination of all of the above. Whatever the case, it worked. James carefully controlled the press release of the band, scoring points with the band’s freakshow image and philosophy via the British press. They appeared on talk shows. Live concerts were turned into media events. The end result was a bidding war for the chance to land this from-the-future sensation, and the conclusion was a lucrative contract with EMI that reportedly was for an exorbitant amount of money, although to date the exact amount remains a mystery. All of this before the band had any music beyond the rough demo stage.
Fleece the World
Immediately, the problem was the music. James was the only established musician in the band, and while the idea of marketing the image first was working, it couldn’t be continued without product. With the grand record deal in place, it was time to release. In a media flurry, first came the classic single, “Love Missile F1.11”, introducing the band’s effects-laden, sequencer-heavy dance-rock sound, and through a combination of the band’s hype and the timeliness of such a sound, the single rocketed up the charts, scoring #1 and #2 spots throughout Europe, Asia, and even cracking into the United States thanks to a brilliant image marketing campaign using early MTV as the vehicle. The song is still found on ‘80s compilation discs today, and more people have heard it than actually know it thanks to its inclusion on the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack.
Instant success was quickly followed by backlash, however, as the band finally put out its debut album, 1986’s Flaunt It. Today that disc is often referred to as a footnote in ‘80s music history in recognition of its sound if not its impact. It’s also famous for being the first, and only, album to sell the spaces between songs as commercial spots, with Flaunt It! featuring brief spots for iD magazine and Studio Line hair products, as well as fictitious Sputnik Corporation promos. Does anyone remember Max Headroom? Sputnik was there first. However, the album was immediately blasted as the gap between ability and image was made clear in the collection of songs. Neal X’s one-note riffs, the standard 192 bpm sequencing, and sample-heavy dub sound seemed particularly one-sided to critics and audiences, and the album became another example of over-hype and flash-in-the-pan success in many people’s eyes.
James and the Sputnik Co. tried again two years later with Dress for Excess. To many, it was a telling sign that the cover for the album featured the slogan, “This time it’s about the music!”. Sadly, it really was. James had always wanted Sputnik to be a band, and Dress for Excess found SSS refining their core sound with more attention to detail and melody, producing a collection of songs that might have succeeded (in much the way the album’s nearly-ironic single, “Success”, proclaimed) had it been the first Sputnik product. Audiences, however, didn’t buy it. It was a situation of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”. And so Sputnik dissolved.
Is This the Future?
The remaining years were sparse for the band as they went their separate ways. Originally asked to be the lead singer of SSS, Andrew Eldritch returned the favor to Tony James by inviting him to play bass with the Sisters of Mercy on their Vision Thing album/tour. Degville dropped out for a while, resurfacing briefly with a failed solo album. One of Sputnik’s lookers-turned-drummers, Chris Kavanagh, hooked up with Mick Jones (one of James’s closest friends and an early supporter of Sputnik) to play with Big Audio Dynamite II. Ray Mayhew disappeared into his old anonymity. Neal X, James’s original partner in crime, eventually wound up playing guitars for Marc Almond.
The intervening years saw a lot of stop-starts for James. He tried unsuccessfully to start new bands, still searching for the perfect star to sell to the world, but the music business was through with him, still believing him to be last century’s scam artist. Among them was Fin de Siecle, the high fashion sex rock band that seemed to capture the imagination of musicians all over the industry, but which couldn’t land a record deal to save its life. There were even some hastily aborted attempts to reinvent Sputnik, catering to a particularly strong Japanese fan base. A few versions of a scattered demos collection, First Generation, some combined Flaunt It/Dress for Excess CD reissues, and of course the ubiquitous ‘80s one-hit-wonder compilations, but for the most part Sputnik was nearly invisible now.
What was less obvious was the influence that the band had. “Love Missile F1.11” had been covered by the much-beloved Pop Will Eat Itself, whose techno-rock obviously owed a lot to the Sputnik style. In fact, while Sputnik can’t claim sole responsibility, they were either too much too soon, or they’d laid the groundwork for the techno-rock that flourished in the early ‘90s in bands such as Jesus Jones and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Primal Scream confessed to being huge fans. Literally, at all turns, it seemed that pieces of the Sputnik sound wound up incorporated into the musical flavor of the moment, from the birth of electronica (James has cheekily noted some similarities with the Prodigy) to the recent wave of electroklash. And then there were the fans….
21st Century Boy
James’s own version of the story goes that Sigue Sigue Sputnik received its official resurrection when he bought himself a Mac in 1995. After immersing himself in his 20-year-old first love, computers, he discovered the Internet. Upon entering “Sputnik” into a search engine, his brainchild took on new life. Fan sites littered the Net, with the scraps of history and myth surrounding the Sputnik heyday archived and fanatically discussed. The value of influence on other musicians was little compared to the praise of the public, and the Sputnik dream breathed anew.
Immersing himself in the cyberspace that he’d championed a decade earlier, James rebuilt the Sputnik Corporation as a web entity through the Sputnikworld website, and with the help of designers and friends, revived the band, featuring the original core members James, Neal X, and Degville. First came live gigs, including an unlikely re-debut at the annual The Inns of Court Ball, a high society charity event. Then a remix album, The Ultimate 12” Collection, released through the website to the Internet faithful. More live shows and songwriting inspiration followed, the result of which was 2001’s Pirate Space, the first album of new Sputnik studio material in thirteen years. It sounded like 1988 all over again, as if the empty years between had never happened, and the fans rejoiced. Later that year, SSS returned with a new album, Blak Elvis vs. the Kings of Electronic Rock and Roll, which saw Sputnik going back to their roots, pre-Flaunt It days, and recording Sputnik-style electronic covers of Elvis tunes.
Now, in 2003, Sputnikworld is releasing two new discs for the faithful. The first is Ultra Real, the fourth proper studio album of all new material from Sigue Sigue Sputnik. The second is the long-lost This Is What I Like . . . album from James’s other concept band, Fin de Siecle. This is the Sputnik story, but there’s something about the charm and exuberance of the Fin de Siecle project that is a reflection of Tony James overall, so we’ll tackle that first.
If Sigue Sigue Sputnik was James’s version of the King in the future, then Fin de Siecle was his take on Prince. Conceived of as a band that would espouse a high society hedonism in the form of music that leaned heavily on Sign O’ the Times, Fin de Siecle could have been an over-sexed sensation. Unlike the futurism of SSS, FdS was an organic funk band, propelled on some serious Eurotrash winds and doing away with whatever subtlety might have made some of Prince’s material radio-friendly.
Tracks like “Fuck of the Century”, “3Some”, and “You Know You Want to Be Seduced” leave little to the imagination from the titles alone. For those who are only familiar with James through Generation X and/or Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Fin de Siecle might come as something of a shock. Most of these songs are R&B/funk grooves, slow grinds that work on sensual beats and stripper-worthy bass lines, peppered by some symphonic synths and pianos. Additionally, all pretenses of social decay, hypercapitalism, or teenaged rebellion are gone. This album is about sex and sex alone. There are a couple of near-ballads to give the disc a loving touch, but even these are love odes to doing the nasty. For better or worse, This Is What I Like… is funk music to get it on to.
Keeping in mind that this disc is simply roughly mastered copies of demos, there are two things which keep this album from being immediately successful on its own. The first is simply the recording quality. Straight from demos, the levels are weak and the tracks watered down a bit, making the vocals seem a little distant and flat at times. However, you can’t fault a demo recording for these failures. The other problem is vocalist William Hamer. For 90% of the disc, Hamer’s voice is decent enough at conveying the smooth and seductive mood of Fin de Siecle’s music, but when he reaches for the highest ranges of his falsetto, well, he’s no Prince. Again, this can also be attributed in part to the demo quality of the tracks. However, as a fun, sexy album to throw on in the background while you’re looking to do the nasty, it works. Fin de Siecle is an extension of the same James persona who wears homemade “Womb Raider” T-shirts while playing with SSS, and it’s yet another footnote in James’s long struggle to find a concept niche in the music industry.
But the real excitement is a new Sigue Sigue Sputnik album. During the creation of Pirate Space, James noted that he didn’t want to be a reunion band from the past who totally changed their sound to fake being contemporary. He was successful with that album, and he’s successful once more with Ultra Real. If anything, Ultra Real is a testament to just how much James and Sputnik love their core sound. The bass sequencer is every bit the same as the breakthrough of “Love Missile” for the first few tracks. The drum machine is set to the traditional 192 bpm. The vocals still have that signature escalating reverb effect. In a neat time loop, the future in the past is now the past in the present.
The lead off track and first single, “Mickey Mouse is Going to Hell”, seems at first like it might be a quick attempt to draw some legal ire from the Disney folks, but these days it seems that James is less interested in controversy. In fact, the song is a dancefloor ready-made. While the backbone remains all Sputnik, a few things are noticeable. The sequences are crisp and less jumpy, and the samples are at a minimum. But what’s more obvious is that Degville is finally the confident vocalist James had hoped for back in the early 1980s. Moreover, Neal X’s one-note riffs have matured, and while the guitars still work like sound-clips over the beat, filling in like keyboard samples, they’re more developed and well-articulated.
The next few tracks, “SSSelebration” and “Everybody Wants What Sputnik Wants” are the same. You know that this music could have been an extension of the Flaunt It and Dress for Excess years, but things are just a little bit better performed. Then things start to get really interesting. The beats change up slightly for “Family”, an anthemic crowd-rouser cheerleading for “S-E-X”, but the biggest change comes in “Violence is FUN(ky)”, with it’s menacing intro sample, lust for violence lyrics, and thick, dirty bass line. It’s a companion piece to “Massive Retaliation”, certainly, and while it doesn’t have the slick feel of “Ultra Violence” (my hands-down favorite SSS track), it’s a great reminder of the post-apocalyptic vision of the original Sputnik.
“Suicide SSShow”, “Fabulously WaSSSted”, and “Original Freekster” are all classic Sputnik as well, although cleaner and more melodic than some of their previous efforts, yet still with that sparse dance-punk signature. “Fabulously WaSSSted” is particularly different in that it starts with a light beat, low, rumbly bass, and almost Lloyd Cole-slinky vocals, only to break into full electric, metal power-chord guitar choruses. Oddly enough, despite being surrounded by hair metal bands in the ‘80s, it’s completely new territory for Sputnik, whose guitars were always best described as techno rockabilly.
There are also two slow tracks on the disc, and they show what a varied band SSS has become. The first is the only misstep on the album. “Amazing Lover” is, of all things, a Sigue Sigue Sputnik ballad. They came close to something similar with “Dancerama” from Dress for Excess, but this is basically a simple synth-pop love song. It’s not that Degville can’t carry it so much as it sounds out of place on Ultra Real. The other is the album closer, “Anything GoeSSS”. Easily the most sinister-sounding track Sputnik has ever recorded, this is truly the scary song that the shocked parents of 1986 were afraid of. A song of online sex stalking, “Anything GoeSSS” takes the spacey synth sounds of “Is This the Future?” and throws a fluid guitar track and a slow, steady beat underneath it. However, the freakiest part is Degville’s voice, which is intensely deep, whispering and more than a little demented. The result is a song that sounds like Lou Reed crossed with Barry Andrews in his Shriekback days, sung by an imprisoned psychopath still obsessed with the object of his affection.
History Will Prove Us Right
Sputnik2K may not be the international success that SSS was in the ‘80s, but a glance at the Sputnikworld website makes you think that maybe James is okay with that now. He suffered a great number of years being a pariah of the music industry while his vision withered away before him. However, in Sputnik’s Internet rebirth, we have one of the great stories of rock and roll made even greater, with chapters that keep adding onto the band’s bio as if it were an archetypal story of success, failure, and final balance. Sigue Sigue Sputnik may be the last name you’d expect to be associated with having found a music industry Zen, but then, as James contends, we don’t know Sputnik very well.
What we can learn from Sigue Sigue Sputnik, love them or hate them, is that sometimes a concept is all you need. Tony James took his dream and believed in rock and roll so fervently that he made it happen. It wasn’t really the scam he played it off as, and that mockery came back to bite him in the ass. But that’s rock and roll, baby. Yet even beyond generalizations, Sputnik’s story is unique. They advocated a future, and gave the world a form of rock and roll that no one had ever seen. It failed, in some sense, but in many other ways, we live in Sputnik’s foresight. If there is any proof needed for this, it’s that their vision of the future, cyberspace and electronic rock and roll, revived the band from the grave. Reanimated from the Internet, Sigue Sigue Sputnik is a reminder of past visions of the future, and the fact that we’re only on the cusp of some of them.
What’s more, we can see Tony James as one of the ultimate stories of rock and roll survival. From punk band to glam rock superstar to struggling artist, James held on to a belief in his dream and his creation. The price of fame and pranksterism took their toll, but his enduring faith in his living movie and his ability to sell that image allowed him to persevere. And, even if he may never convince those industry insiders who felt like they gave up the golden fleece to a con man, Tony James finally has the band he was looking for all along.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/030529-jamestony/