Like ’60s garage and psychedelia before it, new wave and post-punk revival mania may continue to reign as long as CD-reissue programs hold out. Icons in vogue at any particular point in time, of course, are often also those who have new product in the bins. None of this year’s new bands influenced by Klaus Nomi? Time for a deluxe reissue of his first album with 10 extra tracks. Sales of the Bauhaus CD catalog down? Time for a new (“definitive!”) compilation.
New wavers perceived as lowbrow have been losing out, though. Lene Lovich was not as “art-school” as Lora Logic, you see. If perceived as having been a lowbrow singles band, you can probably forget about selling reissues of your original albums, and that compilation CD is only going to sell if you had a lot of hits. M lose out on two accounts. One, people suspect that they were a singles band because they only happen to know them by a certain mammoth hit that reached both number one on the pop charts and number two in the Voice Pazz & Jop Poll in 1979. Two, M remain unfathomable in spite of “Pop Muzik.” You may get a sense of who the Vapors were when you hear “Turning Japanese,” but M? Who the hell were M?
Obviously, M were the missing link between hippie folk, glam, prog, Eurodisco, and new wave. Leader Robin Scott started out as an underground folkie pal of Bowie’s who put out an album in 1969. (Bowie was also in his “Space Oddity” folk stage at this point.) Scott’s voice has been compared to Bowie’s in the past, and it’s interesting, given their background, that the first M single (“Moderne Man”) was a really cool glitterbeat stomp.
All four songs from the first two M singles show up on the new Pop Muzik: The 25th Anniversary compilation, and all four are unforgettable. Scott sounds a lot like Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator in “Satisfy Your Lust,” the B-side of that first 45. You hear that Hammill-like, operatic alien croak and those tasty chords on a song like “M Factor” (B-side of “Pop Muzik”), and the distinctions between prog-rock and new wave seem to dissolve. (Consider also: the Buggles’ connections to Yes and Asia, old prog stars like Peter Gabriel crossing over to skinny-tie crowds, Queen and Rush tightening up for a world of Cars and Police, etc.) Prog’s sci-fi and new wave’s modernism actually jibe with one another quite easily. Eurodisco had a sci-fi aspect too, and Scott had been a Giorgio Moroder fan. And when he aimed his second single at discos, he hit the goddamn jackpot.
The tracks on the new M compilation from the albums that followed “Pop Muzik” suggest that, like any good new wave prog-rocker, Scott parlayed his huge Top 40 success into an opportunity to use major-label money to make a couple of inscrutable, complicated electro-pop albums in the early ’80s. The Trouser Press Record Guide says, “Scott confirms his status as a doodler.” But it’s at least some pretty compelling doodling, and of course, calling him a doodler actually misses the point that he was a prog guy.
The CD’s tracks from the third M album, 1982’s Famous Last Words, are over-the-top, hypercomplex things played by the fairly astounding final M lineup of Thomas Dolby on keyboards, Tony Levin of King Crimson (more prog connections!) on bass, Yukihiro Takahashi of Yellow Magic Orchestra on drums, and Andy Gill of Gang of Four on guitar. It’s easy to see why Scott’s eclecticism, expanded here into world-music influences and late ’70s Bowie-in-Berlin experimentalism, could lead to the accusation that he was a muso. But hey, this is M we’re talking about; sweet computer blip synths and staccato, roboticized Andrews Sisters background vocals are always around the corner to redeem all!
A couple of Scott’s early-’90s dance music tracks round out the disc, suggesting he could have gone on to make eccentric disco albums à la Will to Power, if he hadn’t become an eccentric visual artist instead.