I Start Counting
Photo: Courtesy of Mute Records

’80s Synthpop Duo I Start Counting Release Rarities on ‘Re-fused’ and ‘Ejected’

Thirty-five years later, twin albums of demos and outtakes from cheeky British synthpop duo I Start Counting have surfaced, and they’re not without their pleasures.

I Start Counting
25 March 2022
I Start Counting
25 March 2022

I Start Counting were not one of the more well-known artists to record for Mute Records during the British indie label’s mid-1980s heyday. That wasn’t because they were not worthy. Instead, it had more to do with their labelmates being Depeche Mode, Erasure, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Wire. That’s a tough crowd to stand out from.

At the time, I Start Counting, aka David Baker and Simon Leonard, were one synthpop duo among many. Between 1984 and 1988, they released two albums and a handful of singles, the first two of which were produced by Mute founder Daniel Miller. Later, the duo changed their name to Fortran 5 and scored a couple of early 1990s dance hits with “Love Baby” and “Heart on the Line”. Still, later, they released Kraftwerk-inspired minimalist electronic music under the name Komputer. They’ve never split up.

I Start Counting never bothered the British pop charts, but they must have retained a cult following. That might explain Re-fused and Ejected, companion albums of previously-unreleased demos and outtakes recorded in 1985 and 1986. That these obscurities from an already-obscure band should appear some 35 years later is unusual. That Mute did not combine the 19 tracks into a single release is strange. The explanation is likely that the albums originally appeared in 2021 as limited-edition cassette-only releases.

All this is actually a fitting reflection of the duo, who were always a bit unconventional. Re-fused and Ejected reflect a love of pop music in the classic sense but also reveal a fascination with the ability to subvert pop with the experimental possibilities afforded by synthesizers and samplers. Behind the often-bright arrangements, Baker delivers pithy observational lyrics in a droll, half-spoken fashion. The irony and self-awareness are thick and mostly on-target. If this setup sounds familiar, that’s because it is. I Start Counting were a bit like the Pet Shop Boys, only without the flamboyance and industry connections (PSB’s Neil Tennant was a music journalist).

The music presented here is predictably unpolished and of varying fidelity, but it is still quite listenable. It will intrigue not just Baker and Leonard enthusiasts but also fans of vintage synthpop. Despite the obvious presence of digital samples, Re-fused and Ejected have an analog feel, still falling squarely in the era before Fairlight machines and the like took the edge off a lot of synthpop. About a third of the songs ended up appearing in finished versions on the albums My Translucent Hands (1986) and Fused (1988), as well as a couple subsequent Baker/Leonard retrospective collections. Without exception, the album versions are better if a bit less scrappy. In any iteration, the teenage lust confessional “Million Headed Monster” is a treat, with Baker assuring a would-be love interest with lines like, “You can steal my records / And not laugh at my jokes.” The pounding, quasi-industrial rhythm on this version only adds to the tension even as it belies that the song is truly one of the lost hit singles of the era.

The collection offers up one other would-be pop hit in the form of “Talk About the Weather”. Its cleaner production suggests it might well have been intended as a single or album track. With an easygoing yet propulsive rhythm and the catchiest chorus the band ever wrote, it’s another ode to ennui, this time targeting a pretentious yet vapid companion whose primary talking point is a friend who “says he knows William Burroughs”.

There is something subtly brilliant about the way in which Baker and Leonard use modern technology to show up the emptiness and superficiality that very technology helped facilitate. “Modern Sunbathing”, for example, has gone from basking in nature to standing “on a public beach dressed to the nines, shield[ing] my eyes from the sun”. Later, on the same track, Backer says, “Someone must remember the title / Of the film I have become”, and the slo-mo ska of the synthesizers seems to be in on the joke. Most indie screenwriters can only hope to come up with lines as sharp as that.

Elsewhere, Baker and Leonard show their cheeky side with a well-played reference to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and a genuinely bonkers cover of the Rawhide television theme. Among both albums, only the obnoxious “You Can’t Write That Down” is irredeemably dated, showcasing the most grating kind of stuttering sampling technique.

Those who want a clear picture of I Start Counting at their best should track down the readily-available Catalogue compilation. Furthermore, Konnecting also ropes in Baker’s and Leonard’s Fortran 5 and Komputer work. Anyone who finds those compilations intriguing, as well as those with a taste for vintage synthpop, would do well to discover Re-fused and Ejected.

RATING 6 / 10
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