Bronski Beat: Hundreds and Thousands
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The collection of tracks which eventually coalesced into the 1985 vinyl of Hundred And Thousands, and then into its present augmented form, started off as a couple of interim singles to be released before the second album, which was fated not to happen. The recordings started with Jimmy on board, continued after his departure, and concluded with his virtual reappearance thanks to fresh new sampling and disk-recording technology. The tracks were made in 1984/5, just as the CD was changing the rules about the format of an album and what we expected from the music contained by it.
In late 1984, Bronski Beat were experiencing a rough ride after the huge success of Age Of Consent earlier in the year. Personal friction seems an inevitable companion to both success and failure. Jimmy in particular was less compromising than most, but everyone was content for now to continue the recording process. The first delivery was a single, yet another re-recording of I Feel Love, yet another flirt with this iconic track and possible camp disaster traps. This time, it was a vocal duet with Marc Almond, who had experienced a quiet period since the demise of Soft Cell after their third album and whose vocal style had influenced Jimmy considerably.
It was good to see Marc again, a very articulate and intelligent person with unusual gifts and a strong, sure musical instinct. Unfortunately, he was still managed by Stevo, a character who I felt, thanks to my experience with Soft Cell and The The, to be destructively devious and self-serving. After my split with those groups within the same week, essentially triggered by my final falling-out with their manager, I had sworn never again to work with anyone associated with him. Tracy Bennett, the A&R man, suggested that all would be fine and that I wouldn’t have to deal with Mr. O, so off we all went.
The medley formula was extended to incorporate a slow introduction as Love To Love You Baby, Donna Summers’ first seventies hit. The whole would grow to be almost ten minutes long, unashamedly embracing some pure camp. You can fool around more on a single. A professional dominatrix brought in her heels for the sound effects of arrival and departure at beginning and end (which are actually a recording of her walking in a circle round the microphone with added artificial reverberation varying to give the distance clues of coming and going). We didn’t have so much success trying to record her whip crack for the cowboys in the Johnny Remember Me section, engineer Peter Griffiths giving himself a painful swipe in the line of duty, so we eventually gave up on that. The track itself was shortened by an unknown, careless mastering engineer on a CD reissue ten years later. Some versions therefore omit the ladies arrival, which makes the sudden door slam and departing footsteps at the end completely incomprehensible.
Inherent in any duet is a little looseness, since two singers who don’t normally work together don’t have the developed musical shorthand communication that comes with time. It took Jimmy and Marc a little time to sort themselves out and to decide who was going where, and who was taking which verse. I thought as it was happening that Marc’s heroic second verse delivery sounded like a perfect way for him to return from the wilderness. But Stevo would eventually beg to disagree.
Some weeks later, when the mix was completed, with the record mastered and ready for release, I had an exasperated call from Tracy Bennett. Stevo considered that I had unduly favored Jimmy in the mixing and mastering to that Marc was playing second fiddle. My pretend re-equalization in the mastering studio apparently calmed everything down, albeit with wasted time and money. It transpired later that the complaint wasn’t about balance. Stevo had taken a stopwatch to compare the solo times of the two singers. Very helpful.
At the same time as I Feel Love, we had recorded another potential single, Run From Love, which would be finished eventually in New York. It would be the last collaboration between the three of them until reuniting on stage at Wembley during a Communards concert in 1987. It’s a beautiful song, but the vocal was causing Jimmy a little trouble. Take after take went by, his delivery never rising above being dispirited and mundane. I asked him discreetly what the problem was. The problem was the law.
Late the previous evening, he and another had been misbehaving in Hyde Park. After being arrested for public indecency or something like that, he had been escorted to Bow Street Police Station in Covent Garden, which is coincidentally the place where newsworthy action seems to happen more. He had practically no sleep, since once the police realized who they had pulled in there was a constant stream of requests for autographs. Eventually, he was released and, despite the record company’s best efforts at damage limitation, the story hit the papers, although mildly. The public didn’t really bother at all.
Tears of pain, once tears of joy
Emptiness and a boy destroyed
A heart lies lost and slightly soiled
And still I cry to hold you
Paradoxically, at this distance the recording feels like one of the most personal statements of the three group members. Jimmy’s vocal is passionate, but even more so is Steve Bronski’s first accordion performance on record. He was not a happy person at this time. An intense and moral character, the emotional turbulence of group and pop-star success had affected him from Why? onwards, sometimes resulting in real tears. In his accordion solos which occupy the traditional middle slot and the long end refrain to the fade-out, he’s naked. This is simple, basic, unashamed emotion, and it still wipes me out.
Jimmy’s real concerns at the time were about his departure from Bronski Beat. As with any personal breakup, I preferred not to take sides. He quit Bronski Beat to form the Communards, after which they adopted a new singer (John Jon, using full voice, not falsetto) and I found myself working with both of them for a frantic couple of months of Kissinger-level diplomacy. There was little rancor between the two camps, just a need for change and distance.
It’s routine now to take an established track and remix it to make it more dance-friendly. A whole industry has grown up around manipulating a track into a specific club style, which may be one of many esoteric sub-divisions. It wasn’t always this way.
The extended dance mix really caught on in the eighties, after disco had introduced the idea that a track could be longer if it held your body’s attention on the dance floor. Rug-cutting attention spans were longer, paradoxically. At the time, there was a spate of remix albums, extended and varied versions of the main album, starting with Soft Cell’s Nonstop Ecstatic Dancing (after Nonstop Erotic Cabaret), and Human League’s now out-of-print reworking of Dare.
The record company in general, and Tracy Bennett in particular in the front line, were shocked by the split and the subsequent realignments. Normally, an artist might get a hit album and then carry on profitably in the same rhythm and circumstance. Not so Jimmy Somerville. Millions of pounds Sterling had evaporated with Jimmy’s decision to quit Bronski Beat. How do you parlay the good will and fan base generated by earlier successes? Tracy Bennett’s good idea was to do a remix album, but one which played to my prejudices: it incorporated new material.
The first step was to identify tracks which could be extended to occupy a danceable LP side without getting boring or, worse, provoking accusations of ‘exploitation’. (In those days we had technical limitations to the sound on a vinyl side, which at 33 rpm would start degrading if you crammed in more than 18 minutes of loud music.) Appropriate cases for treatment fell into two types: those which could easily be extended thanks to the depth of the basic material and those which had been hits, were therefore known, and could therefore have their material twisted knowing that the person listening would probably recall the original. Two sides of the vinyl LP would each have three tracks, played continuously.
Heatwave in its first version on Age Of Consent is a chirpy, summery Boys’ Town track that puts everyone in a good mood. We had heard that it was being used in fitness classes. Obviously, it was a good idea to use a fitness class in the remix. The Jeff Martin Studio, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side was the perfect place to trade a recording of Michelle Hiegel’s dance aerobics class for a credit and a box of LPs, but it wasn’t as simple as just bouncing along.
We wouldn’t get much of Michelle’s cheerleading and the shouts of the stars-for-a-session if we were recording the original music playing as well as her and the exercise effort. So she had to start the music and then keep the class going after switch-off. Another slight complication was that the music was just a little too slow for that perfect bounce, so we had to speed it up then slow down the result back in the studio to match the tempo of the original track. Cultural confusion was completed with a complementary swing horn section arrangement from Jimmy Biondolillo. Our satisfying result was a little self-contained party and the perfect start to the record.
There was more mayhem in the reworking of Junk. Like other similarly-treated tracks, an extended version was made by selectively copying the two-inch master tape with its 24 audio tracks and stringing the results together. Space was allowed for new material, in this case a guest appearance by Miss Wendy Wild, then an East Village performance artist. For her, the raw material was on the outside of the cans and packets on the supermarket shelves.
I’d like some nacho cheese-spam croissants
And some crispy-fried marshmallow rings
Er one road kill sandwich and a frosty pine tart
Contains 0% of the US RDA requirement
Any performer needs to research material, write and prepare. No performance comes out of thin air. Wendy’s words, with several exceptions thanks to poetic license, came straight from the overheated promotional descriptions or the prosaic FDA. Her delivery took about ten minutes to get right, so funny that it was very hard to hold it all together and concentrate on the musical job in hand.
At least that was one slow afternoon. The car squeals and crashes in Cadillac Car had been laid in this Why? B-side months earlier, but at 6am on the last possible session at RPM Studios. Each effect was under a particular key on the electronic keyboard, which took considerable preparation but meant that a whole freeway pile-up could be played live (including the sound of the motor cyclist who is still trying to start the bike as the track fades out). There were tears in the eyes from so much laughter. Maybe our brains had been softened up by an 18-hour recording session, but it felt really good.
By the last completed track, Jimmy was completely out of Bronski Beat, refusing even to sing vocals on a fully-realized version of Hard Rain, a song which had been demoed but never worked out. We had our synthesizers and the multitrack tape of the demo, and nothing else.
The first attempt at catching the music was using the copy and edit technique as before, but the time-code track, through which we would lock everything from the drums upwards to the tape, could not be edited in the way that our previous simple click tracks had been. Plan B. We laid out the whole track much more ambitiously, and eventually it would last over eight minutes.
The whole structure incorporated instrumental ideas from all over, but the only vocals were taken directly from the demo recording. Since there were not many lyrics, Jimmy had originally varied his delivery to keep interest going, and had also recorded a second version in uncharacteristic full-voice version (at that point he claimed to be getting bored with his constant falsetto delivery). This meant that by overlaying similar phrases sung on different notes we could generate vocal harmonies which had never existed before.
The instrumentation is similarly creative, and the arrangement sounds as novel and rich as anything done by the group around that time. The orchestration varies dramatically between minimal and thick, between dreaminess and power-dance. We even co-opted a sample from Mahler (the opening string chords of the sixth symphony) to use as the piece’s underlying throbbing. After all this technical shenanigans, it’s satisfying that the piece holds up, but even after 15 years it continues to sound solid, coherent and passionate.
This was the among the first times that such large-scale sampling reconstruction had been done. Being very accustomed to working as a team with the artists, and not taking the ruler’s role which is the style of some producers, I had some aesthetic doubts about manipulating the performance of a singer not involved in the actual record. Eight minutes of fidgeting through the completed mix with Jimmy in my New York basement felt like a long time. He liked it, and thus closed a chapter in Bronski Beat’s story.
Turn your head, look around you,
Can’t you see things are falling apart?
What will you do?
– MT, December 6 2000.