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.
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!"
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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