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Electronic

Feel Every Beat | Electronic

Are Electronic, mutant offspring of New Order, The Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys, the first electro-supergroup? Does it matter? Mark J. Prendergast ignores the hype, sidesteps trivial speculation, and talks technical to Bernard Sumner.



Some months have passed now. The music press have wrung as many inanities as they possibly can from the Electronic story. Will New Order break up because Bernard Sumner is chummy with Johnny Marr? Will the latter leave The The now that he's found a fellow Mancunian? Will they form a huge supergroup with part-time collaborators The Pet Shop Boys? If these questions bore you, then the cycle of drugs and drink stories were bound to deal the fatal blows. Marr had become an alcoholic and spent his time on a permanent bender since Morrissey wound up The Smiths in 1987. Sumner was on one long Ecstasy trip, bringing '70s disco and House together in his addled brain. It made for dreary reading, the music ignored in favour of gossip and dull, trivial speculation.

Perhaps it was a sign of indifferent times, but almost everybody ignored the music. Rather odd, given that Marr was the man who laid down those incredible riffs on 60-odd songs with The Smiths. 'Well I Wonder','Meat Is Murder', 'The Headmaster Ritual', 'Death Of A Disco Dancer','The Light At The End Of The Tunnel' and more were incredibly well crafted pop songs, the guitar riffs and parts forming an understated new vocabulary for that most overused of instruments. It was this fact that alerted Barney (Albrecht/Dicken/)Sumner to a possible future for the pair.

If Marr now confesses openly to using synthesizers with the rather rock'n'roll Smiths, then Sumner has his own skeletons to bring out of the closet, admitting his past admiration for Keith Richards and Neil Young. A listen to very early Joy Division on the Factory sampler EP will attest to Sumner's early fixation with heavy Les Paul feedback. This is mirrored in Peter Hook's searing bass work on the four classic New Order discs: Power Corruption & Lies, Low Life, Brotherhood and Technique. Other points of compatibility were the fact that New Order and The Smiths used almost identical road crews, played similar gigs, and did the occasional Factory recording session together. Such things as a common taste for rare groove and Italian house were more obvious connections, but it's amazing how many ignored the bare facts of the recording of the 10-track album, the real value of its contents and what was being achieved there.

But before I go into that, and recount Bernard Sumner's comments in a post-release fax interview (his favourite format), a little background would be useful. Johnny Marr had played on a good many sessions between 1987 and 1989, the year Electronic were formed. These ranged from work with The Pretenders to Keith Richard, Bryan Ferry to Matt Johnson, and there was even an aborted session with David Bowie.

During the early '80s Marr worked as a DJ in Manchester, spinning rather more James Brown and Chic discs than one might expect for the Smith's lead axe merchant. He first met Sumner on a Factory session for an obscure Mancunian band called Quando Quango in 1983, and New Order and The Smiths first appeared together at the Festival of Tenth Summer at Manchester's G Mex in 1986. It was during the 1988 U2-style New Order/Echo & The Bunnymen tour of America that Marr met Sumner in San Francisco and learned about a possible solo album.

Readers of Sound On Sound will be no strangers to New Order's history and their use of technology. Sumner, interestingly enough, is a huge fan of Kraftwerk, as was Ian Curtis, but after the latter died he felt that New Order should represent something more 'up'. Considering this influence, coupled with an enlightening exposure to Georgio Moroder on a New York dance floor in the early '80s, it seems obvious how the beat-ridden New Order style was formulated. In fact, it wouldn't be wide of the mark to say that both New Order and contemporaries Cabaret Voltaire blueprinted the House sound of the late '80s. It's a testament to both the success and pioneering nature of New Order's style that 1983's 'Blue Monday' is still played in clubs today.

The early days of Electronic are well documented. Working in Marr's Clear studio, the pair enlisted the help of the Pet Shop Boys who journeyed to Manchester to write lyrics for 'Getting Away With It'. It was Neil Tennant who dubbed Electronic a "Blind Faith for the '90s" — a sort of technological equivalent to the splendid 1969 improvisations of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Rick Grech and Steve Winwood. Both Tennant and Lowe also contributed backing vocals on the single, released in December 1989. Barney remembers this session vividly as being one of "coming up with the goods on demand". Besides doing well on this side of the Atlantic, the song also reached a Top 40 audience in America, where Electronic and the Pet Shop Boys played live in August 1990 supporting Depeche Mode.

The search in Sumner's case for a "private dance music" and in Marr's for a proper songwriting outlet led to the recording of the Electronic album between September 1990 and February 1991. Apart from the Sumner/Marr partnership, the musicians on the recording were drummers David Palmer (The The) and Donald Johnson (A Certain Ratio), chanteuse Denise Johnson, Royal College of Music oboist Helen Powell, and of course Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Sumner/Marr were responsible for production, and Owen Morris performed engineering duties. Additional programming was provided by Andrew Robinson.

THE INTERVIEW



According to Bernard the background work to the album was as follows: "The album was not actually demoed, but we kept everything on computer as long as possible to enable arrangements and keys to be altered when the vocals were written. On parts that were performed live, there was no rehearsal; for instance with a vocal the words were written and then immediately recorded on tape, although it would usually take a couple of hours to find the 'feel' of a song.

"The main concept behind this record was independence. A sense of freedom away from groups, sessions and pre-conceived notions."

Sumner has talked often about the liberty to perform and produce a batch of songs to his personal taste, although it seems that the results in this case were in some instances not that far removed from New Order. A video for 'Get The Message' was shot in the Maldive Islands according to their own pre-requisites and all photography and sleeve art was in their total control. The Pet Shop Boys' involvement was pure fandom. In fact, 'The Patience Of A Saint' was recorded mostly in a different studio, according to Bernard.

"We started it at Clear, which is Johnny's studio. Then we moved to The Mill, which used to be Jimmy Page's studio, near Slough. It had a Neve desk, 32-track digital, and it's residential. We just needed more room as there were more of us involved, and we wanted a change of environment."

The following are Bernard's enigmatic responses to a question I set about the specifics of recording certain album tracks, such as 'Patience...', 'Get The Message' and 'Feel Every Beat', in terms of their instrumentation and approach: "I will give a rough guide to our equipment, but I don't think we shall give everything away... We used S1000s; Korg T3; Juno 106; Prophet V; Voyetra Eight (best sounding poly analogue, but hard to program); DX5; Moog Source; MIDI Moog; Roland SH101 (red); Roland TR909; MT32; D110; Mac SE; Mac IIex; Sound Tools for stereo mastering, with Up Beat and Pro 4 for sequencing, though we have now changed to another sequencing package as neither of the two used previously worked correctly, a situation which I find extremely annoying. No one would sell you a synthesizer or a dedicated sequencer that didn't ****ing work!"

An important question was the essential differences between this and a typical New Order or Smiths album. According to Bernard: "The album took 200 days from beginning to end. It took quite a while at first because we were both completing various other projects, not to mention the odd holiday here and there. It also took some time to get to know each other's tastes, which is incredibly important.

"The difference between recording this and a New Order album was that this was a more fascistic (ha ha!, less dramatic) process in that if one or other of us had an idea it could be put down without the other member being there, although this wasn't usually the case. Also it meant that collaborations were possible, and if either me or Johnny wanted to do a track entirely on our own that also was possible."

Sumner contends that Electronic doesn't mean the end of New Order. So bang go all those music press rumours. "I see Electronic as an ongoing project, dovetailing with New Order. We have already started a New Order album with about three or four ideas on the way."

Performing the new material live must present the pair with major headaches, given that it is essentially the product of Sumner, Marr, and a good deal of studio time. The Pet Shop Boys recently tackled their live problems by using backing tapes, a lot of visual props onstage, and so forth. How does Sumner see Electronic solving the perennial on-the-road problem?

"We are in a quandary about adapting the music for the road at the moment. We want to use sequencers, but do not want to ship vast quantities of equipment around the world if the cost of doing that means that every tour we did would have to be a large one in order to pay the freight bills. We have a hit-and-run policy towards gigs, in that we want to be able to hire our equipment in many countries. The difference between using a digital recording in a sampler to that on a DAT player is a matter for debate, but I think we'll probably come to a compromise by using sequencers and samplers for our front line equipment, and DAT for backup — this will play certain parts of the music with us playing live over the top."

So Sumner is happy enough with Electronic. Despite the hype and the obvious Manchester scene connotations, the pairing has produced some immaculate sounding new rock. Electronic is a good album but not a great one. Waters have been tested with such great songs as 'Tighten Up', 'Get The Message' and 'Feel Every Beat'. Yet much needs to be explored in terms of the technology being used and the marriage of beatbox to electric guitar. Obviously Barney and Johnny are still experimenting, and we'll hear more from both in the future.

My last question concerned Barney's general attitude to music. "I occasionally listen to Beethoven, Ravel, Ennio Morricone, Wagner, The Las, MC Buzz B, Stereo MCs, MC Tunes, Young MCs, Kraftwerk, 808 State and Technotronic. Also many dance tracks by artist whose identity I'm unaware of! Usually when I've finished work the last thing I want to do is listen to music. I prefer to watch a film, or drive out somewhere and get some fresh air, or go to a club and get blasted.

"Does music play the same function in life as it did when I started out? Apart from some dance music I think generally music tends to be a lot safer now; everyone wants to be pop stars. Which leaves an interesting hole in the market!"

ELECTRONIC (FACD 290)

1. Idiot Country.
First example of new Sumner writing style as Bernard confronts the violence of Manchester's drug wars. Marr's jagged guitar is fairly pronounced before the song lopes into a typical soft New Order refrain. Hummable and danceable, it's a fairly commercial starter.

2. Reality.
Compared to 'Mr Disco' and 'Round And Round' from 1989's Technique, this sees Sumner almost coasting on formula. Yes, it's another song about love lost, and all the samples and fat drum beats are in the right places.

3. Tighten Up.
A cracker, no doubt about it. The first pronounced meeting of New Order splice beat and Marr's killer guitar. This is a great rock song — those chiming acoustic chords just glide underneath Barney's vocal like silk. Four minutes and 37 seconds. Donald Johnson plays additional drums and percussion here too.

4. The Patience Of A Saint.
A great Pet Shop Boys song with Tennant's familiar laconic vocals sitting perfectly in the chair of Chris Lowe's classically flavoured keyboards. But what is it doing here? Actually it fits quite neatly. Its softer contours provide a nice background for Sumner/Marr's more abrasive approach. The backbeat has all the hallmarks of latterday Tangerine Dream, and Sumner's vocal duet with Tennant sounds better than most.

5. Gangstar.
Beginning with the hard keyboard riffs and sampled strings of standard New Order fare, Sumner's furlined tonsils do nothing to dispel the feeling that this is an out-take from Technique.

6. Soviet.
In a period of Soviet upheaval this is a timely instrumental. Ominous electronic strings and countered impressionistic piano prove that Barney listens to more than House.

7. Get The Message.
A long version of the album's first single ('Getting Away With It' is not included). This is superlative material. Marr's confident acoustic strums give way to a hell of a frothy backbeat before mutating slightly into Ambient House, and then that monster bass groove. An addictive concoction, Sumner's plaintive vocal paean to marriage is heavily ornamented with true wide stereo Marr guitar, Denise Johnson's heavenly backing vocals and, as if that weren't enough, a screwball electric riff from Marr. Tremendous.

8. Try All You Want.
Another dance floor number aimed squarely at the clubbers. Busy mechanised beats are particularly bright at the beginning. Again Barney suffuses a melancholic romantic note with his trademark torn-in-love lyrics. In the hands of another this would be a standard white label 12-inch.

9. Some Distant Memory.
A very interesting track, with Electronic showing their more experimental teeth. Cheeky keyboard bass opens this up against a scattered house background. A great Sumner lyric about love turning sour is played out against a shifting musical canvas of bells and sweet acoustic guitar. This shifts to higher gear on an instrumental outro of pastoral oboe (courtesy of Helen Powell in the company of some sophisticated sampled strings). A sign of things to come.

10. Feel Every Beat.
A quintessential Electronic cut. Donald Johnson and David Palmer give their all in the rhythm department. Marr's programming is here it at its most sophisticated as bleeps and squeals meld with some ecstatic electric guitar chops. To finish the set Sumner again returns to a more direct lyrical style, addressing drug violence and the need for peace and harmony. As on 'Tighten Up' and 'Get The Message', one hears how two distinct voices can really gel.

GENERAL ALBUM CREDITS

Bernard Sumner
Vocals, keyboards, programming.
Johnny Marr
Guitars, keyboards, programming.


EQUIPMENT LIST. CLEAR STUDIOS MANCHESTER

- Soundcraft TS12 mixing desk.
- Soundcraft Saturn Multitrack.
- Sony DTC2500 DAT.
- Sony DTC1000ES.
- Urei Compressors.
- DBX 160 Compressors.
- BBS Compressors.
- Drawmer 1960 Compressor.
- Russian Dragon.
- TC Outboard EQs.
- BBE Sonic Maximiser.
- AphexType B.
- Roland Phase Shift.
- TC Spatial Expander.
- SRC/AT Synchroniser.
- Roland SBX80 Synchroniser.
- Akai S1000/S1100.
- Klark Technic DN760 Reverb.
- Yamaha Rev 7.
- Lexicon 480L.
- Lexicon PCM70.
- Yamaha SPX90.
- TC 2290 Delays x 2.
- Eventide ULtra Harmonizer x 2.
- Drawmer M500.
- Drawmer DS201 Gate x 3.
- Neumann U87.
- B & K 4007.
- B & K 4011.
- Beyer 201.
- Shure SM57.
- Beyer M88 (for Barney's vocals only).
- ATC SOA monitors.
- NS10s, plus various Sony speakers.



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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Oct 1991

Donated by: Bert Jansch / Adam Jansch

Artist:

Electronic


Role:

Band/Group

Related Artists:

New Order

Pet Shop Boys


Interview by Mark Prendergast

Previous article in this issue:

> Digitech VHM5

Next article in this issue:

> Opcode Galaxy Plus Editors


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