There are two sides to every story. For Mute Records’ boss Daniel Miller, wisdom comes with hindsight in this essential 10CD sonic history of the first five years of the record label he founded in the aftermath of punk. His plan? To seize the means of production, subvert the guitar-toting system and get back to the future with cheap analog synthesisers.
Miller’s first release, in his guise of The Normal, ‘T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette’, starkly soundtracked the man/machine, sex/metal matrix. His next incarnation, the Silicon Teens, was even more fictitious. Marketed as a boy/girl quartet, Miller again demonstrated how synthesisers could marry technology and simplicity, this time covering Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis Tennessee’ and other pop n’roll show-band standards.
Such Yin and Yang extremes have typified Mute’s oeuvre. For every double-holed, locked-groove noise-concrete provocation by John Cage inspired art-prankster and Diskono forbear Boyd Rice, either as himself or in his Non guise, self-made electro boy-band Depeche Mode twinkled into the charts prior to morphing into stadium-sized industrialists, while the departing Vince Clarke took things even further with his Erasure warm-ups, Yazoo and the Assembly.
With every Mute single released between 1980 and 1984 nestled together in such glorious incongruity, its easy to recognise how Frank Tovey’s prolific Fad Gadget persona bridged these two poles, as early sub-Suicide stabs in the dark morphed into New Pop. Beyond the hits, its hidden gems such as Die Doraus Und Die Marinas’ mini space opera, ‘Fred Vom Jupiter,’ made by a 16-year-old German boy and a choir of schoolgirls, that captivates.
Even more unsung is Robert Rental, the Port Glasgow born auteur who, with Miller and fellow ex-pat Scot Thomas Leer, became a low-level trinity of the UK’s burbling electronic underground. ‘Live At The West Runton Pavilion,’ taken from Robert Rental and The Normal’s Stiff Little Fingers support tour, and immortalised in Simon Frith’s seminal 1979 South Bank Show documentary on Mute’s fellow-travellers at Rough Trade records, is a lost lo-fi art-throb masterpiece rediscovered here.
Not included here is Rental and Leer’s ‘The Bridge,’ an album split, as with Mute, between instrumental atmosphere and song-based romance. After his sole Mute single, ‘Double Heart/On Location,’ which is captured here, Rental never recorded again.
Rental and Tovey are sadly no longer with us. Their music, however, like everything here, is past, present and future imperfectly personified at the flick of a switch.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic