A Look Back At Pet Shop Boys And My Relationship To Daaaaaance Music

Classic PSB © 1987 Eric Watson

Classic PSB © 1987 Eric Watson

I’d like to say that I was an early disciple of smart synthpop duo Pet Shop Boys, but that would be lying. Like countless others, I first heard their single “West End Girls” when it got a US release in 1985. The group had an intelligence and reserve that marked them as contenders in my Record Cell. I was familiar with Neil Tennant since my a friend of mine was obsessed with the UK pop mag Smash Hits and I often read her AirMail subscription copies for pointers. He  managed to adroitly shake the curse of  journalists becoming pop stars. I bought the album “Please” and from that point onward, I bought any singles and albums that crossed my path by the group.

The time of their emergence was the mid-80s and there had been a sea-change in the music scene as post-punk finally ran out of steam. PSB appealed to me in that I enjoyed “electronic music” but I recognized that their approach was hundreds of not thousands of miles away from that of, say, Ultravox. Still my favorite band at this time. No, the dance pop that PSB proffered was much more musically lightweight, but where the group gained gravitas was in Tennant’s emotive, and intelligent lyrics. The pair were making lightweight music that was more than it appeared to be on first listen. Their dance beats disguised a caliber of songwriting that was exceptionally high.

It spoke reams that I consider the group to have a body of the finest non-LP B-sides of any group I’ve collected. While their A-sides were often brilliant, the B-sides utterly smoked the A-sides they were paired with, on more than a few occasions. If the A-side was a ballad, then the B-side could often be a storming dance track that would be A-list material in any other hands. Or vice versa. That they were productive enough to do this repeatedly without breaking a sweat, marked them as real talents of a classic stripe.

As I said, I bought dozens of their singles, primarily on CD single as they were one of the first groups to really exploit the format. Between local record shops, mail order catalogues, and record shows, I would buy every CD single that had unique material on it. Gathering more than a few US promos and the like. For some reason, local emporium Park Avenue Music always seemed to get their Euro/German single variants. That was fine with me. As long as it had a mix that appeared nowhere else in my collection, it got purchased.

By the late 80s, it was common for a UK single to have a pair of CDs to better enhance a single’s chart potential. This, coupled with the explosion in dance styles as engendered by raves and E culture, trebled or quadrupled the amounts of remixes issued, which had only kicked off with a vengeance during the FGTH era a few years earlier. On multiple CD singles for a release, it was now becoming common to have multiple remixes of even the B-sides to a single. For a few years it worked for me. I would buy a PSB album for $12 and over the course of the year surrounding that album, I would scarf up various CD singles; 2xCD UK commercial singles, the Euro or German variants, US promos with unique mixes, and even US commercial CD singles as the United States joined the game late [as usual]. It would not be a stretch to say that an additional $100 would be dropped on releases associated with that $12 CD album.

I didn’t care. I was young, gainfully employed, and had nothing but money at my disposal. It was exciting to have another 90-120 minutes of material that was associated with, but not part of an album by artists that I collected. And I was collecting dozens of groups. And thus the record cell grew and grew. But by the 90s, the deal started to sour for me. This was a result of the fallout of the Second Summer of Love. The nexus of MDMA and daaaaance music pretty much killed it dead for me. With warehouses full of people off their minds on E, the standards for dance music got pretty low, pretty quickly. I found house music, boring and uninteresting, compared to what it replaced. And it did replace what had come before as effectively as a virus replaces the healthy cells in its victims. I can’t tell you how I tired of 4/4 beats with italohouse piano and samples of vocals repeated over and over for long minutes at a time with little or no variation. Since I was not out of my mind on Ecstasy, it sounded boring to me.

psb - librationUKCD1AIt was during the time of Pet Shop Boys’ “Very/Relentless” album and its attendant singles that I reached the end of my PSB rope. I was buying each single in the common CD1/CD2 paired approach, and was, particularly by this time, enjoying the results of my $10-12 per disc spent less and less. For every glimmer of dynamic pop and wit inherent in the group, there was now reams of reductive, unemotional dance porn. When I bought the penultimate single from “Very,” that was the straw that broke this camel’s back. Specifically, “Liberation [E Smoove mix].” 12:33 of a mind-numbingly repetitive house track that had exactly zero percentage of Pet Shop Boys remaining in it. What it did have was a wailing diva. A rapper who referenced Pet Shop Boys [the only link between this track and the band]. And lots of repetitive four to the floor beats, which had the scantest variation over the interminable 12:33 length. Just at the 8 minute plus point a normal reaction would be, “my gawd – this has to end soon, right?!” But you’d be wrong.

So when the amount of CDs exceeded the space on the racks to hold them, large collections of groups migrated to the off reck ghetto of the Record Cell. Dozens of PSB singles among them. And there they stayed until this year, when the long percolating plan to sell off music to fund things I actually want to hear at a time when I have no money otherwise to pursue this goal became reality. I’ve already sold several PSB rarities on eBay [see sidebar link] that have funded my purchases in the last week or so. Right now I’m listening to these singles for what may be the last time and I’m struck by two things.

psb - alternativeOne, I was absolutely correct to stop when I did. And two, those B-sides are some superb writing! The execrable “Liberation” single contains the brilliant B-side “Decadence.” For this late period in my collection, it remains one of the finest songs that PSB have written. It’s full of subtlety and proffers a witty and wise look at aspects of the human condition as seen through the compassionate, intelligent lens of Neil Tennant. As I plow through the stack, I feel that as I divest myself of these PSB singles, I would do well to replace them with the two PSB B-side collections EMI thoughtfully compiled over their long and storied career. I remember when “Alternative” was released in 1995, after I had bailed from the good ship Pet Shop Boys. I liked the limited edition flicker cover, but didn’t buy it as I had over 90% of the contents on the CD singles I already had. Now would be a good time to rectify that oversight.

psb - formatLast year the group had another 2xCD comp of their B-sides and rarities since 1995 and the “Format” compilation also has my name on it. I’ve not heard a note the group have recorded since then. What I’ve read suggests that many fans view their albums as being a mixed bag since then. But the group were always generous with killer B-sides, and I think this new package will probably have a lot to offer these ears.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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30 Responses to A Look Back At Pet Shop Boys And My Relationship To Daaaaaance Music

  1. Tim says:

    Pleased to see this post. I was an early adopter, I had two friends who were DJ’ing here in Wisconsin who turned their noses up at the PSB as I was scarfing up everything that I could find. I absolutely agree with your assessment of the “Liberation” single but I have to say that there was a trend at that time with a lot of acts to have these dull soulless mixes or often a trance mix, a house mix, etc. most nearly all of them overlong and/or unlistenable. I thought that the magic went away with the “Release” album which easily could have been pared down to another entry in the “Disco” series. I bought the next album on autopilot and honestly didn’t even give it a proper listen for maybe three years after I bought it, whenever “Yes” came out. Quite enjoyed “Yes” and am in the minority of liking “Elysium.” This new one, the PSB go Goldfrapp, I am not impressed.

    When “Yes” came out it rekindled me to dig through the library and I did installments in my “Re-Made, Re-Modeled” series for the whole lot of albums (subsequently updated to include “Elysium”). All of the albums have the b-sides integrated, fanmade mixes (including many of my own) incorporated and often an altered tracklisting.

    I’m really hoping that they surprise me with “Electric” although I am very afraid that it will be “Release, Volume 2.”

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  2. Echorich says:

    I completely understand your boredom with dance music entering the early 1990’s. I would require really thorough investigation – weeding through the chaff to find the golden grains. I thoroughly embraced dance music as Post Punk and it’s dress up step-child Goth finally lost their supernova brilliance. I tried to get into Madchester/Britpop – found Stone Roses a bore, Oasis a pale WHO/JAM/ZEPPELIN pistache, and only Suede interesting from the London bands. Add a complete disgust with grunge (it doesn’t deserve a capital g) and I was open to those 4/4 beats. PSB as well as New Order may have actually sparked my interest, but living in NYC, real, soulful, house music was readily available and still is to this day.
    Back to PSB. I drank the Kool-Aid once I heard the B-side to West End Girls – A Man Could Get Arrested – my favorite of all their catalogue to this day. I agree that by Very, they were a bit overly obsessed with the dance “culture” – issuing Happy Hardcore, Handbag and Deep House remixes on a regular basis. But this really wasn’t as long lasting of an obsession as you may believe. While Bilingual continued much of the dance fascination of Very, Nightlife, its follow up, found the Boys attempting to fulfill their dream of writing a modern musical song cycle. It was during this period that they recorded a touching version of Somewhere which I cherish. Release was a bit of a cleansing of the uber-beats and found them writing songs in a more acoustic vein. PSB have a habit of reversing course one album after another and. Release was followed up with another installment of the Disco series and culled together some rare tracks and some remixes. They then went orchestral with the soundtrack to Battleship Potemkin and then some very intelligent pop on 2006’s Fundemental. 2009’s Yes is one of their greatest efforts and has no duds as far as I’m concerned.
    Finally the sheen and beauty of Elysium, while not a perfect album, found PSB in an introspective, reflective mood. I am sure that Electric will be filled with Moroder-esque and Kraftwerk(ian) references. Neil has stated that Electric is a reaction to Elysium and I can’t wait to hear it.

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  3. As one who grew up in the gay dance culture of the 70s and 80s (the 90s? Puh-lease!), I probably have a bit stronger tolerance for this period of PSB than others, but even I fell off the wagon for a while. Since I never collected all the remixes, I liked Very just fine, and even enjoyed Bilingual (probably thanks to my years in Miami), though I would add that it was a lesser effort than what came before it.

    There’s always in my opinion been some good a- and particularly b-side material on even the weakest PSB albums, but where I jumped off the “buy each release” bus was with Nightlife. It too has some good songs, but just too much filler. I heard some tracks from Release that I liked but by this point PSB albums were on the “buy if it’s dirt cheap” list and the deluxe editions didn’t hold much enjoyment for me. I’m always disappointed when I feel a band is kind of “phoning it in” and when it seemed like every other PSB release was a remix disc that’s when I knew their hearts weren’t in it anymore.

    I still don’t own Fundamental, despite absolutely loving the two tracks I have heard, “Minimal” and “I’m With Stupid,” both supported by completely brilliant videos. The two tracks seemed like a return to form so I will definitely get the album at some point. Didn’t get into Yes due to a lack of tracks I heard that caught my ear. Wasn’t interested in a second CD of dub mixes either.

    So after a few-years break, Elysium helped get me back into the swing of PSB with the lovely “Winner” song (and, again, a pretty damn fine music video. I still love me a good music video). The album overall is a bit hit-and-miss with me but a good PSB effort that continued their evolution back to where they started. They weren’t always “grabbing” me, but I’ve always thought of them as a “singles” band (ie, their a-sides and b-sides are all you really need) and this affirmed that notion.

    In part because of the long litany of excellent a- and b-sides, in part because of some awesome concerts (including one of the best I’ve ever seen in my life) and in part due to a largely excellent collection of videos, I continue to be interested in PSB and look forward to the new release. They’ll never be a band I have to own everything of, but when they hit it they often knock it out of the park and they’ve proven repeated that — at least for a song or two — they can still thrill me.

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  4. Taffy says:

    i can’t be silent on this one, as the Pet Shop Boys have been one of my very favorite recording artists for a good quarter century now. I do agree with your assessment of their remixes, and remember being appalled at that 12+ minute Liberation track which bore no resemblance to the the original! Frankly, that time period was quite ghastly for remixes in general, and I was particularly disappointed that the Pets (along with Erasure and other synthpop acts) were often reduced to being barely heard on their own songs. I wanted to hear extended versions as I knew it from the 80’s, not this crap!
    The devoted completist (and maniac) in me requires that I own every single physical product the Pet Shop Boys have released; the shittiness of many 90’s remixes balanced out by those superb b-sides. I love all their albums (even the most unloveable among fans, Release), and think that recent ones (Fundamental, Yes, and Elysium) are worthy additions to the catalog. Super excited for Electric to come out in July, and the fall tour.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – That period of the early 90s was instrumental in making me look backward for the first time in my life at the music of the past… and therefore instrumental in my transformation into The Post-Punk Monk. By 1992, I became more interested in the music I’d missed earlier, which just had to be better than endless house remixes… which was the musical lingua franca of the day. It was as if it were mandatory that everyone in the market follow that tiger, no matter how ill-equipped they were to do so. Of all the acts I loved, only The Blow Monkeys ended up without egg on their faces. They actually made house music that worked like a fiend for me.

      But I also have the collector’s sickness, so by 1993, the massive cognitive dissonance I was feeling, coupled with the high cost/low pleasure factor of collecting artists out of habit in spite of not liking the product, took its toll and I went cold turkey on many artists whom I’d invested heavily in over the previous dozen years or so.

      Remixes have been fairly toxic to me from ’87-’07. In the last five or so years I’ve been finally hearing some that were musical again. I’ve even heard some that smoked the original tracks! The Fred Falke mix of Bryan Ferry’s “You Can Dance” is actually an improvement to my ears! I also notice that many remixes are not terribly long. Those days of “can you top this” at 10-12 minutes at a time, when not everyone brought Trevor Horn chops to the table seem to be over, thank goodness.

      So you might be a good judge. Do you thing PSB’s “Format” will make me smile? I have to admit that the B-sides on all of those singles I’ve been listening to thus far sure do. The band is just highly talented if they’re allowed to do their job.

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  5. Echorich says:

    I’m with Taffy here…you can not dismiss, in my mind, any of PSB’s albums. While I agree that Release may be their album which I least listen to, it did provide us with The Night I Fell In Love where Neil’s protagonist finds himself in a one night stand with a rapper modeled after Eminem and is a powerful and wry endictment of Hip Hop cultures homophobia. Also included is London which reflects the shifting sands of that cities cultural make up with Eastern European migrant workers and illegals under the backdrop of a love song. The song also takes the auto-tune to such extremes that his voice is almost like a sequenced synthisizer.
    The other album I felt let down by at the time of release but have come to really love is Bilingual. It seemed like the first album where the Boys were following trends rather than setting them. It is produced by house producer Danny Tenaglia and ventures into batacuda, and samba which were kind of all over the place the year before in the clubs. But it also includes Red Letter Day and Saturday Night Forever. The latter track ends every PSB playlist I create. Most importantly it includes one of the greatest AIDS related songs written to date in The Survivors. The album singles also included 3 amazing b-sides in The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On – which reminds me of my nights in Latin drag clubs in NYC in the 90’s, Delusions Of Grandeur, which is thoroughly single release worthy, and The Truck Driver and His Mate which is pure PSB cheek!

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    • Taffy says:

      thx echo, for namechecking…
      The Truck Driver And His Mate is sheer genius. i always thought of it as a most perfect fuck you to the lad-rock of Oasis and their ilk. or at least their meat-headed fans. This song could never fit on an album, but as a b-side it’s perfection.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich/Taffy – Please don’t misconstrue me. I’m not at all dismissive of PSB. I just became dismissive of “collecting” them when remixes weren’t doing it for me. I’m sure that all of the albums following “Very” would have something to offer me. I just drew a line in the sand arbitrarily against obsessively collecting the band going forward. With 60-70 PSB discs in the Record Cell, I guess I just took a loooooooooong break from their career… for 19 years! The notion of buying “Alternative” and “Format” is a sign that my rigidity on the issue of PSB has thawed. After that, why not pick up cheap used copies of the subsequent proper albums? I never thought the group was lacking; just the remix styles of the times.

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  6. WHEN ARE WE GOING TO HAVE MONK-CON 1?? I have to meet some of these fine contributors of yours!!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      chasinvictoria – “All who wish to volunteer to coordinate Monk-Con 1 step forward!” [entire room except for chasinvictoria steps backward]

      “Congratulations, son! I always knew you had it in you!” [The Monk vigorously shakes the limp hand of the hapless “volunteer”]

      Well, we have a coordinator for Monk-Con 1. Anyone know any VC sugar daddys for some capital? At the very least, when John Foxx + The Maths are confirmed for their US live debut at Moogfest 2014 next year [thanks to our efforts, among others], I’m sure that fact alone will be catnip to my lovely readers and commentators, so we can schedule Monk-Con 1 to coincide with that august event!

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      • Echorich says:

        JF+M at Moogfest and I am there! I’ll even venture to drive in unfamilar areas with a GPS (I am not GPS friendly – yes I have thrown them out of a car window on more than one occasion)…I have no firm international vacation travel set for 2014 – oddly I do for 2015 – so visiting the great state of NC or even a suitable venue anywhere for turning this amazing blog into an amazing get together would be on my cards!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – You flatter North Carolina. I’ve lived here for a dozen years now and I’ve seen this state, never the finest in the Union, devolve in the last year into a Koch Brothers financed hell-on-earth!

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  7. Tim says:

    Here’s some screencaps of two of my Re-Made, Re-Modeled editions if anyone is curious. Sorta my equivalent of Mr. PPM’s BSOG efforts. As you’re able to see, I’ve done some serious rejiggering of tracklists and whatnot.

    http://s1272.photobucket.com/user/regularjoe13/media/OhSoVery_zps67d77413.jpg.html?sort=3&o=0

    http://s1272.photobucket.com/user/regularjoe13/media/MayIHaveThePetShopBoysAlbumPlease_zpsdfeb44fb.jpg.html?sort=3&o=1

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Thanks for sharing those! I especially like the title you gave to “Please,” echoing Neil’s brilliant concept. And the art is even more minimal! You kids reading this should try this at home. It’s fun playing “record label” and calling the shots with your favorite bands.

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      • Tim says:

        I posted a few more, maybe by the end of the day I’ll have most of them up in the photobucket thinger.

        Comments on the three new ones:
        “Nightlife” is an album that didn’t thrill me much, I incorporated the “Closer to Heaven” material and it works a bit better for me with the inclusion of that.

        The “Release” rework was kinda on autopilot, that’s my least favorite of their albums. I worked in “Disco 3” and split it into two disks, one is the quieter share of the music and the other is the dancier items.

        “Yes,” which became “Yes, No, Maybe” was a joy to work on and I love how it turned out. These have all become my go-to versions for when I listen to PSB albums.

        I’ve done the same thing with a lot of other 80’s centric acts, TFF, Bryan Ferry, Depeche Mode, Pulp, Swing Out Sister…..

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    • Echorich says:

      Excellent Tim!!

      Like

  8. Tim says:

    Here’s 3 more. “Nightlife” was troublesome as I wasn’t horribly enthused with the album to begin with and I also wanted to somehow work in the “Closer to Heaven” material.

    http://s1272.photobucket.com/user/regularjoe13/media/CloserToNightlife_zps72ddfaa9.jpg.html?sort=3&o=2

    “Release” is their all time clunker for me. Again, a tough one to work with and I tried to split it into efforts by marrying it with the contemporary “Disco” series release, ending up with one disc more contemplative and one more dancey.

    http://s1272.photobucket.com/user/regularjoe13/media/DiscosWithoutBorders_zpsf8b2dced.jpg.html?sort=3&o=1

    And then there is the rework of “Yes.” I really enjoyed this one more than a lot of the other RMRM sets I made.

    http://s1272.photobucket.com/user/regularjoe13/media/YesNoMaybe_zps1881a50b.jpg.html?sort=3&o=0

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  9. Tim says:

    Sorry for the duplicate post, funny that the one that is a dupe (the one immediately above) was posted before my reply to PPM.

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  10. Tim says:

    I’m a spammer now (maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh)!
    Speaking of the new album, I heard that they did Axis and one other in concert in Mexico, anyone know anything about the other new track. I am really underwhelmed with Axis and I hardly buy new music anymore so a new PSB album for me these days is something to look forward to.

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  11. jsd says:

    Pet Shop Boys have always been hit and miss for me. According to my iTunes library, “Fundamental” has 6 great tracks, “Yes” has 5, but one of them is on the “etc” extra disc and is a collaboration with Phil Oakey so it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll like it. “Elysium” was godawful, I couldn’t stomach it at all. The preview track from their new one is actually intriguing…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDCU17wXktY

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      jsd – I’m so far out if the loop on PSB that I can’t even begin to think about the 20 years of albums that I’ve not heard yet. I didn’t know about the Oakey collaboration though! Of course, I’m also out of the loop on Human League as well! Though I loved “Octopus” and “Secrets.” Haven’t heard “Credo” yet. I liked “Night People” but hated the second single.

      Like

      • jsd says:

        Credo is a decent-ish album but I haven’t listened to it much since it came out. Secrets was/is astounding and I still listen to it regularly. Here’s the PSB/Oakey track – it’s well worth your 5 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As5vxxiPRUM There’s very little of the last 20 years of PSB that I would consider essential. You can live without it.

        Like

        • postpunkmonk says:

          jsd – I’m an old school Human League fan. “Travelogue” is the bomb for me. I can’t say I wasn’t captivated by “Dare” in its time, but the band had half shed their old skin by that time. There wasn’t too much to write home about following “Dare” until “Octopus” arrived. It sounds like “Credo” is worth buying a cheap, used copy of, by your reckoning.

          Like

          • jsd says:

            Oh, I’m a super old school HL fan too. I wrote an album with a guy who has the actual System 100m modular synthesizer owned by Ware/Marsh and used on the HL/H17 albums (not just the same model, the actual unit). I nearly died of ecstasy just being in the same room with it! I can usually find some value in most HL output, although obviously very little touches the heights of Travelogue/Dare. (Both completely fantastic for different reasons.) Credo is worth hearing at some point. Cheap & used, sounds about right.

            Like

            • postpunkmonk says:

              jsd – Did he let you touch the keys?! That’s some holy relic, there! It sounds like we’re both of a similar mind on the Human League’s apex. Those two are exactly as you state; fantastic for very different reasons.

              Like

            • postpunkmonk says:

              jsd – I’m on a low budget. I try to buy everything cheap and used! So you wrote an album with the owner of Ware’s old System 100?! Anything we might have heard of?

              Like

              • jsd says:

                He didn’t let me touch the keys for the simple reason that there aren’t any :) Vintage modulars rarely have keyboards. I did get to play with it though! Our album is on iTunes http://bit.ly/YQJdQq, also Spotify http://open.spotify.com/album/5EpRrbMQdsfdq9Sr3aZS6J & Rdio http://www.rdio.com/artist/The_JDs/album/Education/ (The other “JD” is Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto) At this point I couldn’t tell you precisely which noises are from the 100m but they’re in there!

                Like

                • postpunkmonk says:

                  jsd – If it was a snake, it would have bit me! I stepped right in that one, even after typing “modular” in my response. So your partner on the LP was Jack Dangers? Nice. The JDs have a real Mute-goes-acid vibe that slots in nicely with MBM and Fortran 5 of the era that I have in the Record Cell. Thanks for the link. Don’t be shy about squelching your own synth here. I manually leave a sig on my Quietus comments since their CMS doesn’t allow reciprocal linking on comments. Why, I can’t say, since that’s fair to me.

                  Hey, did this post just get the longest comment thread yet at PPM? We should have a party. I just checked. It’s only #2! #1 remains after several years the infamous first “False New Wave” post! I’d put the link here, but the quote level is so deep, the URL won’t parse and gets cut off!

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