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Sigue Sigue Sputnik

Is there more to Britain's latest megastars than a barrel-load of hype, a few jars of hair gel and a clever Giorgio Moroder production job? After talking to the band, Tim Goodyer thinks there is.

Are Sigue Sigue Sputnik a bunch of talentless poseurs cashing in on front-page controversy, or are they simply a group of well-meaning individuals giving the flagging horse of rock 'n' roll some of the impetus it so badly needs?

Now, more than ever, the nation's pop consciousness is littered with controversial, hyped-up acts whose only talent lies in grabbing headlines, dressing up and getting rich quick. Style is orders of magnitude more important than content, and record companies are as likely to sign an act on the basis of a photograph as they are on the evidence of a demo tape.

This would appear to leave the art of musicianship in something of a sorry state. Nowadays, you're almost at a disadvantage if you can actually play an instrument, write songs and sing them. Or so the mass media would have us believe, anyway.

The truth of the matter, though, is that while bands like Sigue Sigue Sputnik may openly seek scandal and denounce musicianship at every available opportunity, they aren't advocating the selling of image for image's sake.

Contrary to popular belief, the Sputniks care about the music they make, and not just because it's helping pay the bar tariffs. Their 'non-musician' stance is no different to that of any other artist who feels it's better to get thrown in the deep end and learn about music the hard way than it is to spend years studying for degrees.

Sigue Sigue's reputation still follows them around like a stray dog behind a food truck, though. In the week leading up to this reporter's meeting with the group, Your Soaraway Sun had been hassling them for juicy stories and juicier quotes, and in the middle of a series of gigs, singer Martin Degville was left nursing stitches after a bottle was slung in his direction by a 'fan'.

But gutter press and broken glass notwithstanding, here I am, sitting on the floor of a tiny Birmingham hotel bedroom with guitarist Neal X. Immediately, I find him articulate and eager to give his side of the story. He avoids disclosing the actual amount that EMI finally agreed to give the Sputniks, but the events leading up to the signing come quickly to the tape recorder.

'We've been together for four years now. First we spent a lot of time living together, planning and learning each other's personalities.

'We'd been together for three years, walking around telling everybody about the band before they'd had a chance to hear us. Unlike Frankie, we actually had an album's worth of material, but we didn't approach anyone. We just talked about ourselves and made sure other people were doing the same. Then the record companies started phoning us up saying: "can we meet you, can we hear something?". And we said "no, no, when we're ready for you". They sent their scouts down to see us live, and then the main A&R guys came down...

'When the time was right we arranged a meeting with every record company, didn't leave tapes with any of them, showed them the video and said: "nice meeting you, we'll think about it".

'In the meantime we got ourselves a very, very good lawyer and told him we wanted a great deal: as good as Spandau Ballet, as good as Sade, as good as Duran, then twice that because it's 1985 now.

'Then the A&R men were ringing him up and asking how much we wanted. The head of A&R at EMI said it was the first time he'd nearly hit a lawyer. He was very upset, but they came up with the money. It's a substantial amount, but we need that to do what we want to do. I think we're a good investment for EMI.'

So while thousands of bands slave for years and get nowhere, the Sputniks have taken Mrs T's message to heart and gone into business, sacrificing their art at the altar of economics. Not bad for a bunch of eighties punks. Whoops! Shouldn't have said that...

'I think punk rock killed itself because of its nihilistic attitude. We're saying there is a future and let's make sure we're all in the driving seat to enjoy it, instead of letting someone else get up there.'

Point taken. None of the Class of '76 had the nous to show record companies clips from their favourite films, cut together to produce a taste of the excitement they wanted to convey. In Sigue Sigue's case, the result was an unashamed collage of death and destruction. That and the video to the 'Love Missile F1-11' hit, not to mention the band's advocation of ultra-violence, has left the Sputniks wide open to allegation of inviting trouble.

Neal X is at pains to draw a simple, crucial distinction between what the band term 'designer violence' and the real thing.

'What we are actually encouraging is fantasy violence. I think it's great to be able to go to the cinema and watch a film like Rocky 4 because it helps get it out of your system. It's a different thing: watching Terminator is great, watching someone being hurt in front of the stage is sickening.

'We're not looking to attract a violent crowd, we're looking for an audience that's there to be thrilled and excited. People seem to have taken us a bit literally and thought the term "ultra-violence" means bottling the person next to you, which isn't really what it's about. I haven't seen anybody throwing bottles at a cinema screen yet.

'Our gigs tend to lie somewhere between excitement and complete madness. It's like a house of cards that's trembling and may collapse at any moment. And sometimes we do cross over that line.

'Someone at the back of one of the gigs said they thought it was the most electrifying experience of their life, and that at any second 200 people at the front were going to jump up on stage and trash the place.'

Take a band enthralled by today's hi-tech videos and films, and you take a group of musicians with a passionate interest in tomorrow's music technology, too. All Sigue Sigue's recorded drums and sequences are the work of a Linn 9000, linked to state-of-the-art synth modules like the Yamaha TX816 and Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter.

'The equipment's great', Neal enthuses. 'Rather than have to run through 41 takes for Tony (James) to get it right, you just plug the machine in.

'Every group uses drum machines these days, even the ones that deny it: they probably just trigger a LinnDrum from a kit because it sounds better. The machines don't argue. You tell the Linn to play eights and it doesn't turn round and say: "I'm playing fours in this!". It saves you a fortune in studio time.

'Our record isn't perfect, though. It does have mistakes, but I think that helps. What does it matter if you've got a few bum notes in there? That's rock 'n' roll!

'I suppose the quote about us that's been most twisted is: "who cares about the music?". It's not that the music isn't important, but we're about more than just music, we're about atmosphere.

'When we came to recording, we set out to reproduce the feeling we'd captured in the early demos we'd done. We want to sound like going to the cinema and watching one of those glamorous trash violence movies like Rocky 4 or Rambo. It's a series of fast images cut together — all very bright. At first we thought we could do it ourselves but there was something missing until Giorgio Moroder stepped in. He took all the pressure off us and it came together really quickly.'

Moroder, undisputed king of synth disco since Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' made it big in 1977, took a shine to Sigue Sigue's early demos. So much so, in fact, that he broke his own rule of non-involvement in 12-inch re-hashes to mix 'Love Missile' in three days.

In sharp contrast to those technology-dependent recording sessions, the Sputniks' attitude towards live performance is simply that it should be, well, live.

Neal X's guitar histrionics are accompanied by the drumming skills of Simmons twins Ray Mayhew and Chris Kavanagh; Tony James' 'space' guitar; vocalist Degville and guest sound manipulator Yana. Not a click-track in sight, let alone a sequencer or drum machine.

'Apart from anything else, it's aesthetically better to play the instruments live', says Neal. 'I don't like seeing groups that use backing tapes, it takes away a lot of the excitement. And some nights we might want to slow a song down or speed it up a bit, so everyone has to be playing.'

The rhythms are all straight from the pads of two Simmons SDS7s, the sequences from the strings of James' Roland GR707 guitar synth. Yana takes care of the Roland Space Echo that's responsible for the more consequential vocal treatments, and a Portastudio for sound effects and excerpts from various movies.

'The idea is that, when you see us live, your mind will relate to the films you heard the sounds in, and it'll conjure up a visual image of those films.'

With one singles success already under their belts, but a scandalous reputation that shows no sign of loosening its grip, Sigue Sigue Sputnik are treading a thin line between delight and disaster. If the violent element of their audience continues to pursue them there's a danger the appreciative section will stay away. And if that 'anti-music' image gets too much coverage, their credibility will sink faster than the sales of pork luncheon meat in Golders Green.

But if the Sputniks can get their message across before the situation degenerates, then maybe Neal X has the best assessment of what the future will offer:

'Most groups have a couple of good ideas and they do OK, maybe even getting a hit single with those ideas. But I think we're creative enough to keep coming up with good ideas, over and over again.'

What was it John Lennon said? "Maybe six months, maybe a year even..!"

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Apr 1986

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler

Interview by Tim Goodyer

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