REDUX: Record Review – Sigue Sigue Sputnik – Flaunt It

June 14-23, 2014

Parlophone | UK | CD | 1986 | CDP 7463422

Parlophone | UK | CD | 1986 | CDP 7463422

Sigue Sigue Sputnik: Flaunt It UK CD [1986]

  1. Love Missile F1-11 (Re-Recording Part II)
  2. Advertisement: Tempo Magazine
  3. Atari Baby
  4. Advertisement [false]: Network 21
  5. Sex-Bomb-Boogie
  6. Advertisement: Pure Sex
  7. Rockit Miss U.S.A.
  8. Advertisement [house ad]: The Sputnik Corporation
  9. 21st Century Boy
  10. Advertisement: ID Magazine
  11. Massive Retaliation
  12. Advertisement: The Sigue Sigue Sputnik Computer Game
  13. Teenage Thunder
  14. Advertisement: Studio Line From L’Oreal
  15. She’s My Man
  16. Advertisement [false]: EMI Records

It’s time to stop beating around the bush and discuss the elephant in the room! It’s been almost 800 postings and I’ve barely mentioned Sigue Sigue Sputnik! I remember the high-pitched wave of hype that accompanied this band when then burst onto the scene right at the death-throes of Post-Punk. I was intrigued but wary, but when I finally saw the video for “Love Missile F-111” I certainly got over my initial squeamishness. This was possibly the most post-modern band conceivable. I had to appreciate Tony James chutzpah at forming a dream band after the implosion of Generation X, where Billy Idol took off for a solo career with manager Bill [“KISS”] Aucoin whispering sweet nothings in his ear.

What did Tony James do but think about what he really wanted to say while surrounding himself with multiple Billy Idol clones and late-blooming Blitz Kid Martin Degville, who must have grit his teeth watching Steve Strange, Boy George, and hell, even Marilyn get contracts waved in front of their faces and singles in the charts. James had a conception of Elvis in the year 2050 and armed with the sound of Suicide and a sampler, he set about creating that dream, all the while infusing the sound with a broken funhouse mirror reflecting the worst ethos of the Reagan/Thatcher era. Like any successful piece of satire, there is a double edged sword in invoking the future that you may not really want to happen. It often has a way of manifesting itself anyway!

The band were not without precedent. Public Image Limited were the first to mine the “band as corporation” vein and B.E.F/Heaven 17 certainly worked that angle with a mixture of self-aware irony and earnest belief. But SSS went much further in reflecting and magnifying the crass, commercial values that were being touted as the new god of the eighties. If it did’t make any money, what good was it? SSS would make a meta-statement on  commercialism not just by willfully embracing it, but by actually selling ads in-between the cuts on their debut album! Then they worked the hype angle in the press harder than most to the point where despite embodying what should be exactly the traits of their ideal target market [ironic, post-modern pseudo-hipster with too much education for his own good] I was none the less put off of actually buying the records without feeling like a mark.

When the album came out I made a point of telling my friends, when the topic of discussion moved to SSS, that “I’d love to have the album, but I didn’t want to buy it.” I was crestfallen when I eventually realized that none of my friends took the bait and bought the album for me. Eventually, I had to grit my teeth and buy the thing myself! I got the CD at a record show probably a year after it came out. With that Rubicon crossed, I made it a policy to also buy the 12″ singles when I saw them, but by that time the SSS hype train had certainly run off the rails as the band were deemed washed up as soon as they managed to reach the top five with their first single, “Love Missle F-111.”

SSS vs EMI

SSS vs EMI… who won?

“Love Missile F-111” was an audacious blend of Suicide with T-Rex in dub. So what if half of the album sounded like a remix of the track? There are more ideas per square inch here than with most bands of the mid-80s. Kudos to James for daring to create something that had a multiplicity of levels to investigate. At the simplest level, the songs were redolent of T-Rex, possibly the finest “lowest common denominator” for the entire punk generation. Some performers loved Roxy more than Bowie, or vice versa, but was there anyone who didn’t love T-Rex? Marc Bolan had the instinctive magic that cut through the charts and won the hearts of almost everyone in the process. His simplistic updating of blues for the switched-on, early 70s generation was inspired. And if you’re going to steal; steal from the best.

The media overload style that the band synthesized from Blade Runner, Terminator, Clockwork Orange, and Japanese popular culture wordlessly evoked the high velocity zeitgeist of Eros/Thanatos that was now driving Western Culture ever closer to the edge of the precipice in the fat, complacent middle of the Reagan Thatcher era. One might even say in the way it saw the coming age of media overstimulation, that the album manifested pre-millennial tension years before it was trendy to make the attempt.

At the very least, it is obvious that James was drinking the same water as the writers [George Stone + Steve Roberts] of the prescient TV film “Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future.” Both efforts, which were concurrent and independent, were darkly satirical examples of the coming techno-overload style which they both cribbed no doubt from “Blade Runner, but with the added frissons of black humor. Myself, I suspect that all of them were probably readers of the American Flagg comic book by Howard Chaykin. It hit the comic shops like a bomb in 1983 and very much laid the groundwork for SSS and the Max Headroom film.

Looking back to A Clockwork Orange, “Love Missile F-111” [and therefore the entire album] has the cheap, tawdry vibe of the sort of bands that Alex disdained; preferring the majesty of ol’ Ludwig Van B. Beethoven gets plundered as well with what sounds like samples of “Ode To Joy” and the “William Tell Overture” as Mooged up by Wendy Carlos [both from the Clockwork Orange OST] surfacing throughout the album. But there is a glimmer of humanity surfacing in the track almost unnoticed amid the sex and ultra violence. As Mr. Degville is extolling “Blaster bombs, bombs, bombs ahead” he follows it with the line “Multi millions still unfed” almost casually in the second verse. If it goes unnoticed, blame the heavy use of crass samples and deep dub effects. That line is crucial, because without it, “Flaunt It” would posit a deeply cynical, amoral universe not worth paying attention to.

With it, it transforms the work satirically, given that Tony James has let his guard down and slipped in the truth among all of this synthetic hypercandy. of course, like any good post-modernist, how much he is commenting negatively on what he sees while actively celebrating certain stylistic aspects of it is in the eye of the beholder. Fortunately, the repetitive, machine-gun-like production of Giorgio Moroder [?] keeps the wheels rolling forward.

Which is important, when the album has its tracks interrupted by advertising! In a sad example of just how ahead of its time that this album was, only five of the eight ad slots were sold to outside concerns. Two were false “house ads” for EMI and The Sputnik Corporation, and the third was for the never-released SSS computer game. For years I thought the “Network 21” spot for “low power TV” was a nod to Max Headroom, but I’ve just learned that it really was a pirate TV broadcaster active in London! Of all of the ads, the best are the spots for I-D Magazine and L’Oreal’s Studio line of hair care products.

I used to read I-D Magazine, back in the day and it was a very congruent fit with the SSS universe. But the best ad of all was the L’Oreal ad, which was a straight version of their TV/radio campaign for their Studio line of products. The rapid-fire techno style of the spot’s delivery was intrinsically what the whole SSS aesthetic was satirizing, and its inclusion here was icing on the cake as it helps the album attain an acme of self-referential satire that is well-nigh unreachable on the face of it.

RAGNAROKWell, the album is almost redundant on the face of it. Most of the songs were built on the same relentless electropulse that was introduced on “Love Missile F-111.” They all had cut-up dub effects strewn throughout the whole production. There were originally samples galore, but EMI’s lawyers [never ones up for any fun] put the kibosh on that gambit, leaving the album with voice actors emoting, or in the case of Clint Eastwood, sound alikes quoting famous lines. The band and Moroder didn’t know about getting clearance in the Wild West days of the sampler.

SSS - Crucified by the Media?

SSS – Crucified by the Media?

The juxtaposition of the ads within the flow of the album feels more right than right and hearing the banded promo LP version with the links removed for airplay must count as the worst sort of comedown from the heady media overload vibe that the album legitimately attains. Some of the ads sound for all of the world as if the band mixed and recorded them. I suspect as much. The guitar vamps at the end of “Network 21” dovetail into the subsequent “Sex Bomb Boogie” like a fiend. One major point of reference that comes up with the inclusion of the ads that I’ve not heard anyone else mention, was that this marks the album as the obvious sequel to the brilliant Who album “The Who Sell Out” in more ways than one. That album also had a smattering of “ads” to better conjure up the heady pirate radio media stew that SSS were taking into the video age. Hell,  Network 21 was real pirate video micro caster! I can’t believe that I’ve never heard the obvious debt to The Who being made on behalf of this album before.

Parlophone | GER | 12" | 1986 | 1C K 060-20 1565 6

Parlophone | GER | 12″ | 1986 | 1C K 060-20 1565 6

Sure, most of the tracks seem like one big dub mix. “Rockit Miss USA” and “Massive Retaliation” attain a darker vibe than the rest here. The former is especially foreboding with its references to Berhnard Goetz via the opening subway squealing sound effects juxtaposed with not Clint Eastwood saying “go ahead, make my day” followed by gunshots. As if to make the allusions perfectly clear, the track ends abruptly with the Troy Canty soundbite of “I said give me five dollars” were repeated over with stuttered samples of “get the gun” over a bed of “hail to the chief.” It paints a picture of a violent New York City that’s not far removed from the ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange and certainly not very satirical any more. 30 years later men with guns are still shooting unarmed men with dark skin with the gun manufacturers [who have congress in their pockets] cheering it all on.

“C’mon down and buy a sputnik. We have miles and miles of sputniks. They’re friendly. They’re cheap. They taste good. Because, a sputnik a day keeps the doctor away.”

“Massive Retaliation [M-A-D]” recalls FGTH’s “Two Tribes” in more ways than one with almost the same bass sample figuring in this track. Instead of the relentless, breakneck bassline of “Two Tribes,” this track was built on a more plodding beat that recalls “Let’s Go All The Way” by Sly Fox from the same year. The juxtaposition of the backing vocals and samples repeating “shut up” give the track a loopy sense of the absurd, never more prevalent than when a female announcer [!] delivers the quote above this paragraph only to be again followed by more “shut up” samples.

The final two tracks perk up from the gloom a bit. “Teenaged Thunder” and “She’s My Man” are just a few degrees of separation from one another. They proffer almost a rockabilly sensibility and end the album on a slightly flat note with a very low quotient of satire compared to the album at its stimulating best. And therein lies the paradox at the heart of “Flaunt It.” At its acme, it has more to offer than scores of the competition with an almost depthless Post-Modern ambiguity and a seemingly limitless ability to be parsed along any number of sociological vectors of inquiry. But all of this intellectual content is delivered at the expense of memorable tunes, even though some might say that good tunes would have defeated the whole purpose of this album! In other words, the sameness and surface banality of the music is the only honest embodiment of the ideas that it was built to serve! With one exception.

The musical heart of the album stands so far apart from the bulk of this album, that it almost should stop the momentum of the concepts in their tracks, except that “Atari Baby” plays instead like a lush oasis in the middle of a concrete brutalist city. The tune is at a fraction of the BPM of the rest of the album, and it offers what approaches a love song built from the vocabulary of the SSS project and points the way to a rare instance of the band having its cake and eating it too. The gorgeous song sounds like a close cousin to one of my favorite Art Of Noise tracks, “Snapshot” from “Daft.” Of course, what each of these songs have in common is the stirring B-F-E chord sequence from The Who’s “Baba O’ Reilley.” It invigorates each of these songs in turn and quite frankly I never grow weary of hearing them; even the venerable Who classic. “Atari Baby” shows that it may be possible for SSS to fulfill their intellectual brief while offering actual ear candy.

When I view the SSS website, I can see an additional eight albums of SSS material that have been released over the years, with much of it being of fairly recent vintage. Does anyone have any experiences with these and should I look into hearing more than the classic debut album? On the face of it, they needn’t have released anything else other than “Flaunt It” and perhaps too many 12″ singles to accompany it, but if they plowed the furrow of most of what I’ve already had for years, then I don’t mind having given it a pass. If they instead took “Atari Baby” as a direction to follow, then I might be interested in more from the 5th Generation of Rock & Roll.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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14 Responses to REDUX: Record Review – Sigue Sigue Sputnik – Flaunt It

  1. Jeremy Kennedy says:

    Monk – well played review of one of my non-celebratory, indiscreet guilty cassette tape pleasures. “21st Century Boy” is brilliantly arranged, with Neal X’s guitar riff haunting my memories of youth as I assaulted an air guitar when no one was watching.The follow-up album was good as far as sophomore efforts are concerned (the track and video for “Success” should have been a top 10 smash for the chart vaults as the mixes were done by SAW), but it is the Atari-themed laser chaos that makes the debut so charming, albeit dated in an retro-groovy kind of way. Their later cover of Prince’s “I could never take the place of your man” for a Cleopatra Records release several years ago was respectable, though they christened it with a space-age twist. I was lucky to see them perform live in West Hollywood with a few ‘dark wave’ bands at Cleopatra’s 10th birthday party bash back in 2002. James, X, and Degville were all there, plus a female beat-box player (not the original wiz-kid YaYa). My date found the whole event to be “repulsive,” yet I found it to be ultra-nostalgic.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Jeremy Kennedy – Wow! So you actually saw SSS live in Amerika? And your date found it “Repulsive?” That’s hilarious, because I have to admit that I also find SSS repulsive, even though they simultaneously attract me with their provocative sociological conceits.

      Like

  2. Chris Von Steiner says:

    As a big SSS fan, I would highly recommend Dress for Excess (1988), Piratespace (2000), Blak Elvis (2002), Ultra Real (2003) and Electronic DNA (2014). Their official website seems to not be updated for quite a long time. Check their Bandcamp to see more titles.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Chris Von Steiner – Welcome to the comments! “Flaunt it” Is such a statement of perfection, that I have been reticent to investigate anything else in the group’s oeuvre. There’s the notion that I might find it not only disappointing, but also redundant. Given the choice, I would buy anything that I came across, however. The fact is that these titles are relatively thin on the ground in stores I come across. I usually only see 12″ singles from the “Flaunt It” era, with most manifestations of SSS being the US 12″ of “Love Missile F-111.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gavin says:

    Heavens,where do I start?
    I adore SSS/Degville and their various incarnations.Seen them live many times,used to hangout a lot with Degz and still friends with him now.
    They are so much more than the first album-Dress For Excess,Piratespace and Blak Elvis being my faves from the studio albums,but there are literally dozens of compilations and private CD-R releases in my collection,which vary in quality but the best for me being the Ultimate 12″ Collection,21st Century Boys ,the SCIFI Sex Stars EP and the double disc Love Missile Ultimate Version/Very Best of SSS.
    The Smart 1 EP is also great,with such titles as Don’t dabble with the Devil and Slag in the back of my Cadillak.
    Degville is still gigging regularly,though the websites are not very up to date.Facebook and Bandcamp are better as noted above.He moved out of his fabulous Covent Garden flat to live in St Leonards on Sea a few years ago and still rocks a wild look when he wants to!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – I remember the early days of SSS on the web with a seemingly vast torrent of album projects; all unreachable to me at the time as I was unemployed for a long period from 2001-2003. I should take a fall down the SSS rabbit hole and report back with my findings.

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  4. Jon Chaisson says:

    As a fifteen-year old when this album came out, I was ridiculously obsessed with it. I loved that it was both ridiculously over the top and simplistic in sound, yet so free of pretense. It was just a really FUN record to rock out to, especially in the confines of a semi-conservative small town in midwestern MA.

    My favorite personal tie to it is that I’d written a record review of it in my school’s newspaper, and the three or four other kids who found me and thanked me profusely for it ended up being my best friends, many of whom I’m still close to today.

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    • Jon Chaisson says:

      PS: Check out the closer “Is This the Future” from Dress for Excess, my favorite track from that album. It’s a slow-BPM track that feels both pessimistic in its dystopian lyrics and optimistic in its conclusion. It’s a gorgeous track. I’ve always wanted to use it as the soundtrack for an ending scene in one of my sci-fi stories. :)

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      • Gavin says:

        Jon,you are so right about “Is this the Future?”,it is such an amazing and emotional track!
        Another SSS song that really has emotional content for me is “Alien Christ” from “Piratespace”,also “Mona Lisa Overdrive”, a rather obscure track,complete with saxophone!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Gavin – SSS making an emotional track? That sounds so far out of my experience with SSS that I immediately added the second album [among others] to my endless want list on Discogs. Since it actually got a US release it’s conceivable that I might it more swiftly [and cheaply – an important concern] than, let’s say… “Blak Elvis.”

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Jon Chaisson – Fascinating insights from a former 15 year old. I was practically a college graduate when I first heard this album and maybe it’s the color of my particular goggles, but I definitely did not see this album as free of pretense. Far from it! I read this album as provocative post-modernism of a much higher order than I was used to deconstructing at the time. Maybe I was just projecting?

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      • Jon Chaisson says:

        I guess I just saw the inherent humor and fiction in it — on the one hand I was completely taken in by the performance, and wished that I could live in this amazingly cool, alternative universe of nonconformists, punks, flashy technology, and sex. On the other hand I knew it wasn’t reality. It was just the perfect escapism for me at the time.

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  5. Bpdp3 says:

    Thank you for writing a really thoughtful overview of this album. I almost hesitate to call it a mere album as it felt like a ‘strategic manifesto’ upon release. An album with advertising? Preposterous! But it was clinically brilliant. Yes it was calculated, but hey I went along for the ride willingly.

    One point not mentioned that I’d add is the use of “f-111″ in ‘ferris bueller’s day off.’ I believe when the film came out, the 12” had been released, but not the album. Regardless, in my idiot teenage mind it lended ferris’ character instant credibility. He would’ve had to have had some inherent hipness to seek that out (was not an MTV staple or top 40 song in the US by any means).

    The fact that he had a bedroom full of product and technology, and the song itself was a product of technology, the use of it made perfect sense to me. To take it a step further, ferris is all about product placement of himself… just like SSS were for themselves. Pretty meta of Hughes don’t you think? Were the 80’s really that crass? Sadly, yes!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Bpdp3 – Welcome to the comments! You obviously see the album in a similar light to me, and yes. I also took notice of “Love Missile F-111” used in the context of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Not a film I particularly liked, but back then we went to the free screenings [they dumped giveaway tickets at the college newspaper where I worked at the time] just to see what hip sounds would make it onto the big screen this time. Of course, with John Hughes, it was always a double edged sword.

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