Ten days ago, commenter Rob C made an eloquent defense of Detroit’s Figures On A Beach and little did he know, but his words were only a portion of the FOAB event horizon that I find myself in at this point in time. Commenter JT grew up in Cleveland, so he had been exposed to the sleek, upbeat synth-rock that the band offered in his neck of the woods prior to their signing to major Sire Records in 1987 and subsequent flight to Boston. He talked of the remastering of a tape that their Detroit indie label Metro-America had issued before FOAB flew the coop to Sire here. It’s two months later and I have a CD-R of the material in question.
I think the first time I heard FOAB, was when I bought the third Sire sampler, “Just Say Mao” and the killer pop track “Accidentally 4th Street [Gloria]” was on it. I certainly liked the track, but offering 1983 New Music aesthetics in 1989 wasn’t enough to snare my ears at the time. It was a bit later when I finally bought the first Sire sampler, “Just Say Yes” with a track from their 1987 Sire debut, “No Stars,” on it. For years that was all I had of FOAB in my Record Cell. It was probably a dozen years later when I got the RetroActive vol. 2 compilation that had the unreleased club mix of “No Stars” featured.
Truthfully, by this time, FOAB were, in the rear-view mirror, a more engaging prospect as time had taught me that paying attention to music I missed or ignored the first time around, payed dividends in the fallen present world we now inhabit. The thought of buying some FOAB CDs now began to have some allure, and lo, this cassette of their early singles and EPs [“Paradise And Other Four Letter Words”] has fallen into my lap. What’s on it, you ask?
Figures On A Beach: Swimming US EP 
- Swimming – 5:08
- Feel Like Glass – 4:32
- Decay – 4:58
- Everything But Heaven – 5:34
Their first EP had “Swimming” as the lead off track. The pulsed synth bass and syncopated hi-hat will have you caught up in a Flashdance timeslip. It really recalls “Maniac,” but vocalist Anthony Kaczynski adds some Marian Gold/David Sterry chops to the track, though ultimately it’s undercut by the disastrous production decision to swamp the track in ever increasing synth filtration to give it an “underwater” feel. Much to its detriment. Perry Tell of the band has hosted a few tracks on his Soundcloud page, so why not sample one?
Far better were the other three tracks on offer. “Feel Like Glass” is a nice, methodically paced slow burner. “Everything But Heaven” almost feels like the sort of thing that Duran Duran were attempting on “Last Chance On The Stairway.” In comparison, this seems even breezier and uses vibes better to boot. “Decay” has great synth leads by Chris Ewen to lead it through its paces. I would have enjoyed this had I heard it in 1983. It would have been next to the Moev vinyl on my want stack at Crunchy Armadillo Records if any copies had ever made it down to sunny Florida from the rust belt.
Figures On A Beach: Swimming US 12″ 
- Swimming [wet mix] – 6:30
- Swimming [radio edit] – 3:37
- Swimming – 5:08
Amazingly, the EP’s A-side was spun off onto a separate 12″ with exactly the same name and cover art!! Talk about saving a few pennies, but the extended wet mix by producer Ivan Ivan managed to add some extra Simmons drum fills and more importantly, it dialed down the annoying post production effects that alienated me from the EP track down to virtually zero. Net result? If you really liked the cut but disliked the production, you were better off buying the 12″ in addition to the EP! Crafty. For the record, the 7″ edit is missing from the tape compilation.
Figures On A Beach: Breathless US 12″ 
- Breathless – 5:46
- Breathless+ – 3:59
- Breathless Beats – 2:36
The band’s second single was produced by Detroit kingpin Don Was as one of his earlier external productions. “Breathless” was present in three mixes on the 12″ with only the “Breathless Beats” mix not making the cassette I’m currently listening to. “Breathless” may have enough Simmon’s drums to count as synth-porn for those of a certain age and persuasion, but it’s also saddled with a singsong melody that is far less fluid than the material on the previous year’s EP. The lyrics cleverly reference the Godard film, surely a textbook case of the influence of New Wave on New Wave? Then again, let’s not forget that the US remake of Godard’s “Breathless” starring Richard Gere had been released immediately prior to this. This single might have just been part of the zeitgeist.
Figures On A Beach: In Camera Obscura US EP 
- Paradise (Extended Mix) – 6:41
- Paradise (Radio Edit) – 4:19
- In Camera Obscura (Dance Mix) – 6:10
- In Camera Obscura (Radio Edit) – 3:15
Finally, the contents of the third and final single the band released for Metro-America was also included on the “Paradise And Other Four Letter Words” cassette compilation that Metro-America released in the then-dominant format of the day. All of the band’s promise comes home to roost on this dazzling single! Every trait that they were advancing on manifests here with sure-handed aplomb. The beatbox and slap bass of “Paradise” marks it as a perfect signifier of its time and place, and 28 years later, it is pretty cool to behold. The delicate, airy synths float above the soaring vocals and the deliciously overstated Simmons counterpoint the delightfully fussy beatbox programming. The Simmons roll that heralds the line “listen to my heartbeat” before the middle eight is a thing of perfection.
But all of that pales next to the magnificent title cut. “In Camera Obscura” cuts a lithe figure of jaunty perfection and marks FOAB as the go-to opening act for Duran Duran on their Midwestern US jaunts. I can hardly imagine a finer opening act for the Fab Five if you didn’t want the frantic teenaged girls in the audience to bottle lesser acts off of the stage. Here, they match Double Duran’s facility with streamlined, synth-driven pop rock toe to toe with a cut that Nick Rhodes would have killed for ca. “Rio.” With a better singer besides! I’ll go so far as to say that it compares favorably to “Hold Back The Rain” which, if you know this Monk, is high praise, indeed. It’s no wonder Seymour Stein came running after them with a check when this dropped.
This cassette definitely encourages me to pick up their two full CDs the next time they cross my path. The fact that 1987’s “Standing On Ceremony” was reissued only in 2008 on Wounded Bird Records, encourages me to act quickly since their releases are always seriously limited and go out of print in a heartbeat, much to my wallet’s dismay. Their self-titled release from 1989, their final album, should be easier to get and I’ll know that it contains their amazing “Accidentally 4th Street [Gloria]” single, which I’d love to listen to right now… but regretfully, it’s at home in the Record Cell only on my copy of “Just Say Mao!”
– 30 –
The problem with FOAB is that they got signed to Sire during the same year that so many great post-punk or synth pop bands (most of them signed to Sire in the U.S.) spontaneously started to suck, usually correlating with their appearance on a John Hughes movie soundtrack album. New Order, Psych Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, OMD, Siouxsie, and a few others all jumped their respective sharks in one big leap (to be fair, some corrected their courses later on), and that leap was more or less exactly the same time frame when FOAB were poised to go from indie act to major players. When the FOAB album came out, my pals and I had already declared them a “sell-out” and ignored the record, preferring to preserve the holy relic of their indie years cassette. I’ve still never heard either of their LPs, but with the mellowing of age, I suspect I might be vaguely curious today. Thanks for the reminder.
JT – Yeah, I ignored FOAB at the time because I thought they were [like everything else, it seemed] past their sell-by date especially for that sort of “New Wave Rock Disco” sound.
Nice one Monk. I too think “Accidentally on 4th Street” is pure-pop genius and has some of the best bass lines since ABC’s “Date Stamp.” I’m sure you know, FOAB’s keyboardist Chris Ewen found a vitally appreciated vacancy with Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt’s synthy Future Bible Heroes. His talent contribution continues to define ‘twee synth’ brilliantly…… I too will be at OMD tonight in Atlanta. I should be sporting my checkered Vans sneakers. Be sure to say “Hi.” – Jeremy K.
Jeremy K – Long time no hear! I got to meet Chris Ewen after the great 2- night Magnetic Fields show in Raleigh. Maybe tonight I’ll finally get to meet you. Just look for the guy in the OMD tie.
Standing on Ceremony is on Amazon.com for $2.99 new albeit as an add-on item. Based on your recommendation I bought it off the .ca web site for CAD$7.99 (!!!) along with a few Julian Cope CDs. Enjoy the OMD show; I missed the Vancouver show in March due to kid’s hockey playoffs.
KeithC – I still need the FOAB albums. I always carry the hope that I’ll see them in a used bin somewhere. I’ve been buying all of the vinyl first.
Don’t part with the Don’t Say comp, the version of Gloria on that is a different version than the 7” edit (on the 12”) and may be different from the album version. Different mix and one track has lyrics that the other doesn’t.,
Tim – Crazy! The “Just Say” comps often had unique edits but they usually told you so on the packaging. I guess if they got teased far enough in advance and things aren’t nailed down yet. Glad to know that detail – thanks for sharing!
Wow! Time does fly…I can’t believe I posted that review 4 years ago but thanks for the recall! Now, if I can steer your attention to the joys of Sad Lovers And Giants…