Album cover for Front By Front by Front 242

#107 Headhunter by Front 242, available on Front By Front, 1988 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

I’ve remarked before on the apparent atrophy of industrial music, a phenomenon that handily mirrors the ebbing away of the industrial economy, at least in the developed world.

When analysing decline the place to start is the peak. And for the collection of sub-genres that can be grouped loosely under the heading “industrial”, the late 1980s generally and this song in particular are that peak.

Belgian group Front 242 may not have coined the term “electronic body music” (it reportedly stemmed from Ralf Hütter’s 1978 characterisation of Kraftwerk’s new LP, The Man Machine) but their output defined and embodied EBM better than anyone else.

They – and contemporaries like Nitzer Ebb – set the blueprint for industrial music’s final revolution: a combination of the abrasive manufactured and found sounds of industrial music’s conceptual forefathers (Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire et al), the rhythms and structures of then-emerging dance music and testosterone-fuelled lyrics critiquing religion, political agit-prop of all persuasions and, of course, the military-industrial complex.

Headhunter – released in three versions on an EP and seminal EBM album Front By Front – followed this template, but optimised the production process to the extent that it it could not be improved upon using current technologies and techniques.

The scraping, sawing, bashing, puncturing, lathing and welding that form its sounds and rhythms seem to conjure the chassis of a mechanical cyborg whose mission is programmed by the mantra “Lock the target, bait the line, spread the net, catch the man”. It’s The Terminator in five minutes.

It was deservedly a huge club hit (by industrial music standards) and spawned a promo video (watch on YouTube) directed by Anton Corbijn, Depeche Mode’s long-time visual interpreter and creator of Joy Division biopic Control.

The song was effectively the last off the assembly line before the industrial music factory was retooled to serve a larger, rock customer base – not necessarily a bad thing (cf. Nine Inch Nails). But even the 21 (yep, 21) Headhunter remixes released in 2000 can’t re-animate the simple power of the originals.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Album cover for You And Me Both by Yazoo

#108 Nobody’s Diary by Yazoo, available on You And Me Both, 1983 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

Ah, melancholic synthpop how I love thee – stripped back yet full of nuance; machine-assisted and automated yet personal and expressive; artificial yet so damn real.

Vince Clarke is of course a founding father of this micro-genre, but though he found commercial success from the outset of Depeche Mode, arguably his best work came after he formed Yazoo (known as Yaz in the USA) with fellow Basildonian Alison Moyet. Her soulful, gospel-like voice (spookily reprised by Andy Bell in Clarke’s next major group, Erasure) was the perfect foil for the analogue sound and clean arrangements of Clarke’s studio work.

By the time of Yazoo’s second album, You And Me Both, Clarke and Moyet were sharing songwriting duties equally. Indeed, Nobody’s Diary – a song that would have been career-defining for the group had they not released Only You on first album Upstairs At Eric’s – was a Moyet composition.

An eloquent but doomed plea to save a relationship – to prevent it from being consigned to the pages of a to-be-discarded keepsake – Nobody’s Diary drips with desperation and then, beneath the lines “everything is gonna be fine/you’re gonna be mine/for a long time”, resignation.

The music is respectful of and complements Moyet’s vocal perfectly. Minor key chords and arpeggios evoke the lyrics’ angst while a resolute but wary rhythmic pulse provides the momentum required to see the conversation through.

The song doesn’t often appear on those ‘best songs of the 80s’ lists, which is a shame – it deserves a love resurrection to bring it to a new audience. Perhaps on next year’s X-Factor?

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Album cover for Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich

#110 Different Trains – After The War by Steve Reich, third movement of Different Trains (1988), performed by the Kronos Quartet [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

Steve Reich should need no introduction since he is probably the world’s (certainly America’s) greatest living composer, particularly following the sad death of Henryk Górecki last week. More than any other single artist he has defined what the concept of minimalism means in music, and as such has been instrumental in the development of subsequent genres that eschew traditional notions of theme, development and resolution: ambient, techno, post-rock and beyond.

Choosing just a single track of his for inclusion in this list feels wrong – each movement is expressly created to be heard, in sequence, alongside the others in the work – but rules are rules. So, somewhat arbitrarily, it is the final movement of Reich’s seminal meditation on the Holocaust, Different Trains, that makes the cut.

Alongside Music For 18 Musicians (1976), Different Trains is Reich’s most celebrated work (it was a Grammy winner). Weaving sampled oral testimony with a rhythmic quartet it compares the role of trains in America and Europe before, during and after World War 2, creating a deeply affecting poem that belies the common accusation that minimalist music is a soulless form that can neither articulate nor stimulate powerful human emotion.

Its musical conceit is its use of snippets of recorded speech – from Reich’s childhood governess, a 1940s Pullman porter and a trio of holocaust survivors – as jumping off points for melodic phrasing explored by the Kronos Quartet, juxtaposing nostalgia for a golden age of US rail travel (first movement America – Before The War) with personal recollections of being chosen for the “cattle wagon” journey to concentration camps (Europe – During The War).

Finally, with the war over, the third movement briefly reflects on the new-found peace before climbing on board the Pullman once again. Memories of what has gone before remain, however: “There was one girl who had a beautiful voice, and they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans, and when she stopped singing they said ‘more, more’ and they applauded.”

Reich’s decision to rescue this image of vitality and beauty from the horrors of that time captures the work’s devastating poignancy perhaps best of all.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Single cover for Our Lips Are Sealed by Fun Boy Three

#113 Our Lips Are Sealed by Fun Boy Three, single 1983 (available on album Waiting, 1983) [buy from Amazon.co.uk]

Co-written by Fun Boy Three (and former Specials) front-man Terry Hall and Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin, Our Lips Are Sealed is a song with a double life. Its first incarnation – the Go-Go’s version that reached the US top 20 in 1982 – was as a slice of all-American pop confection that sounds like it portrays high school secrets and locker room gossip.

Its second, gloomier, reading – from Fun Boy Three the following year – is perhaps truer to its (reported) real meaning: hushed advice from Hall to Wiedlin about their illicit romance, formed after the Specials and the Go-Go’s performed together in LA at the beginning of the 1980s (Hall also had a girl back home).

Both ‘original’ versions are wonderful – the song is so good that it would take a special kind of talent to ruin it (Hilary & Haylie Duff come very close indeed) – but the FBT recording (produced by David Byrne no less) wins.

Hall’s deadpan delivery; the congas and timpani; the foreboding grand piano chords; the staccato, toneless bass; and, oh, those mournful backing vocals – it goes beyond the perfect pop of the Go-Go’s version to become an almost gothic hymn to paranoid love (just compare and contrast their respective promo videos: Go-Go’s here, FTB here).

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

#140 Manchild by Neneh Cherry (taken from Raw Like Sushi, 1989)

Cherry appeared as if from nowhere to become UK R&B’s hottest star at the end of the 1980s. Both her sound, a more urban take on the trip hop beats that were to dominate the first half of the 1990s, and assertive lyrical style were a breath of fresh air in a chart dominated by plastic pop and what would now be called dad-rock (plus ça change).

While Buffalo Stance rightly takes its place as the stand-out club hit of the album, it’s Manchild (which also charted top 5 in the UK) that has endured, matured even, in the 20 years or so since its release. Co-written by Massive Attack‘s Robert Del Naja (3D), it tells the story of a self-pitying, introspective, fantasist – a man(child) yet to face up to the imperfection and disappointment of real life. Or that’s how it seems to me.

The lush orchestration and kind of ‘circular’ chord progression, as well as the opaque lyrics, give the song a uniquely unsettling atmosphere – one you can trace through to Blue Lines (Massive Attack’s debut album, released three years later) and beyond.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

#147 Left To My Own Devices by Pet Shop Boys (taken from Introspective, 1988)

This song represents the pinnacle of PSB’s many achievements as pioneering practictioners of post-modern pop parables (how’s that for alliteration?). The faux-symphonic/operatic opening, the matter-of-fact roll call of urban ennui, the strangely poignant chorus, all wrapped up in a dancefloor production that has aged incredibly well (22 years!).

It also contains the line “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”, a perfect expression of the ideal that serious pop – and, it seems, Neil Tennant (the literary half of the duo) – strives for. In the case of Pet Shop Boys, swap out Che for Balzac and you’re there.

Detail fans should note I’ve chosen the album version of this song over the inferior (but still great) single version.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.