1978, London: Tough to get any of those punks to shut up and listen, busy as they are screaming and being gobbed at. A nonplussed Daniel Miller, billing himself as the Normal, pens two mono-intoned, electrodrone un-ballads in response: “Warm Leatherette,” a Crash-fetishizing anti-“Autobahn,” and the tele-snubby “T.V.O.D.” His deadpan acerbity extends to the label—”This is a Mute record” —that he stamps on his single.
2002, New York City: Another generation tries on the warm leatherette. Equally disdainful of hyper-inclusive rave culture and the Poindexter perfectionism of so-called Intelligent Dance Music, Electroclash, a compendium of tunes by local Casio-stoked fashionistas, hinges on dumb beats and cracking wise—for better and worse. As with any good put-on, these folks are funniest when taking the piss out of themselves; and like any sharp bit of couture, the quality of their cuts is best understood via a look at their predecessors.
The Electroclashers’ forebear Miller never released another record as the Normal. But Mute fast became a haven for extravagantly morose and frequently low-living musical eccentrics: Early signees included the Birthday Party and eventual introvert superstars Depeche Mode. Earlier still was Fad Gadget, the lone, Miller-minded Brit Frank Tovey; by 1983, Berlin-based industrial troupe Einstürzende Neubauten had joined the ranks. Neubauten’s newish Strategies Against Architecture III spottily revisits their ’90s output, while The Best of Fad Gadget sums up Tovey’s ’79-’84 career in singles and B-sides, plus superfluous remixes. Incidental, experimental, accidental, transcendental—all of it, some of the time.
“Einstürzende Neubauten” translates as “collapsing new buildings.” By the time Tovey penned the referential, not reverential, “Collapsing New People” for his last and best album, Gag, the fad of caustic industrial music culture seemed to have overwhelmed both him and his gadget. But in the meantime he had put his amachurlishness to the best possible use, translating the misanthrope’s ghetto of the mind he either could not or would not escape into broodylicious, perversely exuberant electropop. (Neubauten, meanwhile, were stuck in Berlin.)
When he put his fingers to synthesizer—an instrument that he purportedly chose not as a formal or symbolic gesture, but as the easiest means to his expressive ends—Tovey merged his identity with that of his music. Frank imagined himself a modern-day Punch—he appears as the smirking puppet on his second LP cover—leaping headlong into the face of Thatcher’s retrograde empire. The result: Bashed noggins, black eyes, torn ligaments. All Frank’s. Audiences awash in freshly yanked pubes—also Frank’s. Not to mention a chain of singles that ingeniously exhibited the lurching strut of an escaped marionette tripping on its own strings.
Or, as Tovey himself later put it, “a visionary/as blind as a bat.” “Back to Nature,” Fad Gadget’s earliest song—which weds woozy, chattering synthlines to a loping disco beat—turns on its title’s dual meaning. Modern romantic Frank ponders turning his back on musty bucolic longings, as he and his sweetie snog “in the shade of a rubber tree”—possibly grown from a seed, possibly made of old tires (or, perhaps, bearing the rubbers that catch one’s seed). The number sputters out amidst the gleeful whooping of an analog jungle menagerie, Tovey’s ambivalence coyly multiplied rather than resolved. Come 1983 and “Collapsing New People,” Frank’s willingness to play the clown for kohl-eyed antisocialites who “stay awake all night/but never see the stars” had clearly waned, though the beguiling pulse of his tunes had not. And so the disaffected kept dancing as Fad Gadget limped offstage and into semi-obscurity.
Einstürzende Neubauten, on the other hand, continued refining their explorations of sound forged from objects musical and otherwise. While Tovey occasionally integrated electric drills and razors into songs, Neubauten—even after embracing conventional melody—still assemble tracks from the manipulation of jet turbines, steel coils, air compressors, burning oil, and Blixa Bargeld’s occasional whistling-teapot squeals. As their name suggests, perpetual, revolutionary action initially concerned the group more than toying with personal identity. This is the essence of the industrialism they subverted: progress without regard for preservation of the past or human individuality.
No small point, then, that the percussive thrust and clamor of their music was wrung from the physical and cultural detritus of a city in which unfettered movement was verboten, and whose main architectural attraction was the one everybody wanted to see fall down. When the Berlin Wall finally crumbled, industrialism obviously didn’t stop short. There was suddenly room, however, for Neubauten to play at something other than politics.
Strategies Against Architecture III recapitulates the band’s quieter, snarkier post-Cold War period (’91-’01, specifically). Unfortunately, unremarkable outtakes and live versions compose two-thirds of this haphazardly sequenced and selected two-disc set. It’s mainly on the inherent strength of cuts like “Was Ist Ist (Extended Version)” (a pounding, choppy nonsense anthem with words for sound, not meaning) and “Ende Neu” (a diminishing spiral of agitated percussion cut by mournful synths and thrumming bass cable, performed live) that Strategies III succeeds at all.
As for playfulness, “Scampi Alla Carlina” and “Anrufe In Abwesenheit”—blithe conceptual exercises in which Neubauten caricature gourmet cooking and portable-phone use, respectively—take the impulse too far. Conversely, “I Wish This Would Be Your Color” and “Redukt” (both live) nix pointless affect to mix prettiness and the band’s singular gift for bombast. The former, an improvisation, wrings longing from tension and texture from clutter; the latter drifts dreamlike into a bellowed, clanging chorus. Here Neubauten are playing with what’s expected of them, not lampooning their past but coaxing a new direction out of destruction, collapsing beauty and cacophony.
Many of the 16 New York City artists who contributed to Electroclash conceptualize play in terms of getting some and the past as a destination rather than a point of departure. Paper and Vice—smarmy hipster rags both, and sponsors of last October’s Electroclash festival—have lauded these folks for their unrepentant art-foppery and explicitly recreational focus. Detroit Grand Poobahs, Chicks on Speed, Peaches (all of whom played the aforementioned showcase), DMX Krew, and Les Rythmes Digitales have made names for themselves on kindred dancefloors. A handful of Electroclashers deserve as much.
Just as Daniel Miller held his tongue— even if it was in his cheek—so, too, do his distant, apparently apolitical grandkids. That said, Chicks on Speed’s cover of Grace Jones’s cover of “Warm Leatherette” (not, unfortunately, included on the comp) turns the Normal’s frown upside down. Where Danny Miller pooped, Electroclashers party. Miller probably just danced in front of the mirror. Not that the ‘clashers refrain from checking themselves out, of course, but—in the same way that Miller’s aloofness couldn’t contain his robopop appeal—the best of them also capture the less seemly aspects of their glammer-puss images.
Take Khan—ride him, even. “Like a pony . . . like a dog.” Literally. The quavering, sitar-backed vocals snuffing the greazy bass of “Ride Me” sound about as seductive as barnyard sex. Less suggestive of coke-addled sportfucking than Robitussin-induced impotence, the tune perverts its own campiness by being as genuinely creepy as it is danceable. (Not as bestial, but still delectably aberrant, are Linda Lamb’s “Hot Room” and the tossed word salad of Robbie D.’s “Lotion.”) In contrast, Soviet’s “Candy Girl” posits crisp rhythms and melodic sparkle as the logical complement to the “sweet misery” of ersatz romance.
Electroclash isn’t entirely sex-obsessed. All but unlistenable— and all the better for it—Key Kommand’s hilarious “Buzz Junkie” takes what might otherwise be precious scene-mockery and renders it dead serious. Fork-in-the-eye cell-phone trills, toe-stub beats, and static-washed Soho-speak churn with the assurance of Neubauten’s harshest jackhammer suites, and cut as deftly to the paper heart of their milieu as Fad Gadget’s aforementioned swan song. It’s enough to make you see stars.
Mogul Electro, 518 East 6th Street, suite 7, NYC 10009; Mute, mute.com.