Shine On: Frank Tovey

by coldwarnightlife


Frank Tovey made art ahead of its time but didn’t stay long enough to see the world catch up to it. As Fad Gadget, his gadfly alter ego, Tovey came to attention by marrying electronic music to performance art, using it as a vehicle for biting political and social criticism. He wrote about the devastation of the environment (“Pedestrian.” “Wheels of Fortune”), the use of the working class as cannon fodder (“Life on the Line”), consumer manipulation (“Swallow It”) and patriarchy (“Saturday Night Special”) with cutting insight. Although, as the first signing to Daniel Miller‘s Mute Records imprint, he was closely associated with synth music, Tovey’s humanist instincts eventually led him to eschew keyboards and sequencers and wash off Fad’s stage face, searching for a musical form better aligned to his social concerns. Commercial success eluded him, though he left a trail of critical plaudits, and he could only look on as those he inspired overtook him in the charts.

As a live act, Tovey was notorious for total performance, and on occasion he would have to be helped from the venue with broken limbs or patched up after colliding with equipment. He gave the audience part of his soul but also his body, as he swang microphones around his head, tore hair from his body or leapt from speakers. This commitment made performing as Fad Gadget a punishing experience, but it also contrasted with the robotic alienation affected by many of his Futurist contemporaries. As a student of mime in the mid-70s, Tovey had learned to use physical movement to get his point across, and as a singer he put that experience to unrestrained use. Boyd Rice of NON noted:

He was a great performer. You know, the other people doing electronic music were kind of standing there cold and emotionless where he was being over the top, running around the audience screaming, yelling at people. I don’t think the like of that has been seen in electronic pop since.

Tovey passed away in 2002, shortly after reviving his Fad Gadget persona. He left behind a young family and a legacy of music characterised by both experimentation and integrity.

10. Fad Gadget – Pedestrian

The first Fad Gadget album, Fireside Favourites, was recorded at Blackwing Studios, which was the main base for many classic Mute recordings in the first half of the 1980s. Daniel Miller had discovered the studio, in a church south of the Thames, when looking for a facility with sufficient space to set up the synthesizers for Silicon Teens. The studio’s owner, Eric Radcliffe, and his assistant, John Fryer, are credited with performance on the album, as well as production and engineering duties.

The songs on the album are not exclusively synthetic, and Tovey’s approach to the vocals is engaging. This confounded the expectations of some who identified Fad Gadget with the machine-driven, stoic stylings of the Futurists like John Foxx, Gary Numan, and even Miller in his incarnation as The Normal. The general trend might have been towards Kraftwerkian alienation, but Tovey’s own tendency was towards humanisation: his “Pedestrian” hero is fighting for space in a world clogged with traffic, instead of watching cars burn in Ballardian images.

9. Fad Gadget – Ladyshave

“Ladyshave” was released as a double-A sided single in 1980, paired with “Make Room,” following the Fireside Favourites album. Named after a depilation device aimed at women, the song reflects a feminist critique of body image pressures. Its backbone is a repetitive sequence, based on a single note repeated eight times to a bar, over which layers of synth runs and a sinister bass line come in, while Tovey purrs his anticonsumerist message. It is a work of absolute genius that still stands up today.

8. Fad Gadget – Swallow It

Taken from the second Fad Gadget album, the John Fryer co-produced Incontinent, “Swallow It” is a bass groove with a serious message about accepting the authority of media and a social role as a consumer. Tovey’s lyrics cut to the quick, but it’s the rhythm section that carries the moment here, even if it does make it a little bit like dancing to Noam Chomsky.

7. Fad Gadget – Love Parasite

Under the Flag, which came out in 1982, in the shadow of the Falklands conflict, is arguably the Fad Gadget meisterwerk. Produced by John Fryer and featuring Anton Corbijn imagery before U2 and Depeche Mode got in on the act, the album is stripped back poptronica, balancing choral tones (with input, notably, from Yazoo’s Alison Moyet) and sequenced electronics to devastating effect. There were two singles released from Under the Flag, including “For Whom the Bells Toll,” which featured this track on the reverse. “Love Parasite” is a typically off-centre expression of Tovey’s experience of becoming a father, in which he is cast as a loving anthropologist.

6. Frank Tovey – Ricky’s Hand

The original version of “Ricky’s Hand” was released as a 7″ single in 1980. It is an essential step on the path of British electronic music, combining an octave-jumping sequencer and a Black & Decker power drill, glued together by unique sounds crafted from Daniel Miller’s ARP 2600. Tovey’s lyrics are in a simple story-telling tradition, charting the uses of a hand that was separated from its owner after an episode of drunk driving. The darkness of the theme was one of Tovey’s connections to the alternative music scene, which later found full expression with “Collapsing New People.”

This version is actually an acoustic rendering, released as the B-side of “Sam Hall” at a time when Tovey was exploring the traditions of rebellious folk songs, such as those popularised by Pete Seeger during the Great Depression. Adapting the track to the style of Irish rebel music gives it a curious feel, which highlights the attempt by Tovey to move in a popular direction – in a political rather than a commercial sense of the term.

As a bonus, here is Fad Gadget miming to the original single on Belgian television. If you look closely, you can see Jean-Marc Lederman of The Weathermen and Mari & The Ghost playing the role of a synth player. Lederman was part of Tovey’s original live band.

5. Frank Tovey & The Pyros – Worried Man

By 1992, Tovey had refined his post-electronic style into a fusion of blues, folk and rock. He recorded Worried Men in Second-Hand Suits, one of his finest albums, with The Pyros, an Irish bluegrass band that had relocated to London. “Worried Man” is premier-league material: Tovey’s vocal delivery is touched with a plaintive quality, while mournful guitars stretch out anxious notes. Given the tentative economic situation Tovey typically found himself in, it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t an autobiographical impulse behind the song, but the richness of his poetry and story-telling comes through with a sense of wider sense of dread:

Wears a hat to protect him
from the sky
But there ain’t no leather
can protect him from the earth

4. Fad Gadget – Collapsing New People

The fourth Fad Gadget album, Gag, was recorded at West Berlin’s Hansa studios. Daniel Miller had discovered that recording in the walled city was economical, compared to arrangements back in the UK, and British engineer Gareth Jones (who had worked on John Foxx’s Metamatic album and was on-board for Depeche Mode’s Construction Time Again) liked it there. At that time, Berlin was an alternative music centre, with groups like Einstürzende Neubauten subverting pop music with an industrial aesthetic while hard drugs freely circulated. Tovey and team absorbed the environment and reflected it back through “Collapsing New People,” which celebrated the sounds of Neubauten while gently mocking the scene:

Takes hours of preparations
To get that wasted look

3. Frank Tovey – Luxury

“Collapsing New People” became an underground hit for Tovey, but he never managed to break out of the box that the music industry had put him in. A valiant attempt was made in 1986, when Tovey first shed Fad’s skin for Snakes & Ladders, an album made under his own name. Featuring songs written by Daniel Miller, and with Eric Radcliffe, Flood and Miller all playing studio roles, the album had clear commercial intent; but, despite the catchiness of the lead single, “Luxury,” it failed to penetrate the mainstream. It was the first and last time that Tovey aimed in that direction, and his subsequent work became part of a search for authenticity along completely different lines.

Some of Tovey’s frustration has been captured in this German TV clip, in which he reacts to being asked to mime to a recorded track.

2. Frank Tovey & Boyd Rice – Extraction 7

Back in 1981, Tovey found himself in Blackwing Studios with Boyd Rice of NON. Rice, a controversial figure in the industrial underground, was a friend of Daniel Miller and a fellow Mute artist. The results of their collaboration didn’t see the light of day until 1984, when Mute put out Easy Listening for the Hard of Hearing, and many were baffled by it. Rice explains that Tovey had wanted to do something more abstract than his poptronica work, while Rice was interested to make poppier music. They performed the material live in 1985, but this was deemed to be of specialist interest only and the project attracted little attention from the mainstream.

1. Frank Tovey – Back to Nature

The first Fad Gadget single was a science fiction-inspired commentary on the devastation of the environment. Ecological themes had come up in electronic music before – Cerrone’s “Supernature” being just one example – but Tovey’s approach was to write a love song set within the domes used to take refuge from the polluted world. It’s a dark, brooding track with Miller’s influence clearly in evidence in the instrumental lines, including rhythm sounds familiar from his live show as Robert Rental & The Normal. It’s just too bad the warning wasn’t heard in time.

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