Rob Puricelli reviews Blank & Jones’ ZTT remix album, for SDE.
THE VERY SECOND I SAW THE ARTICLE that announced that Blank & Jones were to attempt a complete album of ZTT remixes, my heart sank. Not because it was Blank & Jones, but because the ZTT canon is, to me (and likely a great many other people), sacrosanct. The songs and the artists are very dear to my heart as many of them formed the soundtrack of my formative years. And when – under different stewardship than the person currently at the helm of ZTT’s wonderful reissues of the past few years – the label put out a set of Frankie remixes in 1993 and again in 2000, I recall my horror at the way these precious stars in my musical firmament had been subjected to the “Boom-Tish” treatment, being dragged, kicking and screaming into a decade of bland and banal dance music, showing no respect for these jewels and the fact that they formed part of the very roots on which their dull, uninspired and unoriginal musical genre was formed.
So I think I can be forgiven for fearing the worst.
But, after thinking it through, I started to calm down, especially when I began to recall how much I had liked some of the other chapters in the so80s release portfolio. I remember hearing volume four and thinking that, actually, Blank & Jones had remixed the material with the utmost empathy for the originals. As news began to filter through, and statements from Herr Blank und Herr Jones stated that they were not going to use anything but the original source material (opting to shun any additional instrumentation) I began to actually get excited about this release. So much so that I pre-ordered it as soon as it became available on Amazon UK. In the intervening weeks, some nice YouTube videos emerged and then, a few weeks ago, they officially leaked a track, their reconstruction of the Frankie non-single Black Night White Light. As soon as I heard this, I was sold completely. It was abundantly clear that these guys were true fans of ZTT and its output. However, there was still room for disaster to strike. The album arrived on Monday and it went straight on.
And so, here are my thoughts, on a track-by-track basis, designed to build a case for either the prosecution or defence. Let’s see where this goes…
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Relax
I suppose, if you’re going to start with any track from the ZTT archive, it has to be this one. Opening with the sweeping pads, followed by the Hi-Energy stabs, Holly’s vocal comes in, then yields to the kick drum. It is immediately evident that Blank & Jones were revelling – as I would – in each individual aspect of the multi-tracks. Rather then the core of the song appearing in its recognisable seven-inch form, we get it stretched out, but with each part given room to breathe and work the space. Finally, the track deconstructs towards the end, back to those pads.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Rage Hard
This is a playful mix, given that it got quite the workout back in the day, with various mixes on both seven-inch and twelve-inch, as well as being the first Frankie CD single. One of my favourites is the Young Person’s Guide to the Twelve-Inch mix featuring Pamela Stephenson. Blank & Jones obviously not only got Pamela’s vocal parts (alternate takes) but also Stephen Lipson‘s guidance too. Indeed, it is Stephen who, unwittingly and in a rather camp fashion, comes centre stage as B&J put together a worthy reconstruction that accentuates the superb bass and drum groove that runs throughout. And a giggling Pamela is pretty cute too!
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Two Tribes
I suppose this is the most sacrosanct of the bunch, really. Remixed to within an inch of its life back in 1984, this could well have been the proverbial banana skin for B&J. Using less common excerpts of Chris Barrie‘s superb Reagan impersonation and Patrick Allen‘s sombre public information announcements, the component parts of this complex piece of classic ’80s dance are again, wonderfully presented, and in some places, the bass line is exposed for what it really is; an amalgam of somewhere near six different performances, mainly on synths, one of which is by Steve Howe of prog behemoths Yes. That said, this is a worthy addition to the Two Tribes mix collection.
Propaganda / Duel
And so to the first interlude from the Frankie-heavy start. Starting with some kind of engine firing up and stopping (not entirely sure of the source, or indeed the relevance), this delightful pop stalwart gets off in a familiar building style, layers being introduced and accentuated so that we can fully appreciate the depth of instrumentation and production. This mix weighs in at a wonderful 12 minutes and 19 seconds and really does show off the NED Synclavier that Trevor and Stephen had become incredibly fond of. Shunning the Fairlight in favour of this American synth/sampling/recording powerhouse, the clarity, precision and oomph of this machine underpins the whole album that this track came from. And of course, Claudia’s vocal on top is the final, most beautiful piece in the mix. Her tone and Teutonic pronunciation make for a cosmopolitan, intriguing song and I imagine B&J took great pride in reconstructing this song by their fellow German brothers and sisters.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / San Jose
This track was something of a surprise inclusion, having never been a single and a little bit removed from the style of other songs on Frankie‘s debut long player. However, I was very interested to see how B&J had handled this. It opens with what seems like a cheesy outtake with (one presumes) Ped playing drums with brushes in a faux lounge band style, and expressing what seems to be their true opinion on the track, hence the ‘EXPLICIT’ suffix on the iTunes version of the album. But it soon kicks off into a familiar ‘construction by layers’ mix, exposing lush orchestrations and Holly sounding quite at home singing this Bacharach and David classic.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Warriors of the Wasteland
Stan Boardman, a British comic staple of the time (and fellow scouser), kicks things off, paraphrasing what Bill Shankly is supposed to have said about football: “Er, this isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that!” I wonder if B&J were aware of his classic, “I hate them Germans… they bombed our chippie!” routine!? So begins the rockiest of Frankie singles which gets great treatment but is sadly missing the superb guitar track supplied by the late, great Gary Moore which appears on the superb ‘Attack’ mix. That said, this is a stonking, high tempo 11 minutes.
Propaganda / Dr. Mabuse
It has often been said that had Propaganda followed this debut single up with the subsequent single and album a lot sooner, they may well have enjoyed far more success than they actually did. But the fledgling ZTT label, swept away in the furore that surrounded Frankie, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) afford their German label mates that much warranted attention. This track kicks off with the menacing vocals of Andreas Thein, followed by the sampled strings in all their glory, eventually growing into that train-like rhythm, which never fails to have me thinking of the gorgeous Mary Stuart Masterson from the opening scenes of the John Hughes movie, Some Kind of Wonderful.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / The Power of Love
I said earlier that Two Tribes might be considered the most sacrosanct of Frankie songs. This might well be the next in line. Interestingly, in one of the YouTube previews for this album, B&J demonstrated how the final version of the original release had been sped up by 7 BPM via the varispeed process. Holly has explained that this decision was made to help shorten the running time, in part to help with radio play. I would’ve liked B&J to have tried working with the original speed, just for the hell of it, but it’s the familiar pitching that we’re given here.
Where this reconstruction really excels is with the exposure of Anne Dudley’s quite stunning string arrangements. Of all the Frankie tracks, this one has suffered the most from over-exposure to my ears. I don’t know why, but I got quiet tired of hearing this song back in the day. A symptom, maybe, of the fact this is classed by many as a Christmas song, simply because it was number one over the festive period in the UK, in 1984. However, now I can listen to it with renewed appreciation and this particular mix enhances that, mainly because it bows down at the church of Dudley and exalts her stupendous scoring abilities!
Art of Noise / Moments in Love
And here we have the sole Art of Noise appearance on this album. This has upset many Art of Noise fans, and I can sympathise with that, but B&J were given just 13 songs, all of which feature on the album, and this was the only Art of Noise track. So, they could only work with what they were given. Moments in Love is a thing of beauty and prized amongst fans much like Two Tribes is. I’m sure our German hosts would’ve loved to have had a go at Beatbox or Close (To The Edit) but it is what it is.
I like what they’ve done here. It seems they’ve gone for the sonic collage ethos that defined Art of Noise at the time, using snippets of the Richard Skinner BBC Radio 1 sessions. It’s Fairlight to the fore here, artistic, intellectualism abound. It’s also the second shortest mix on the album. There are longer, more lush mixes of this track and there have also been some awful ones too. It’s an ambient stalwart and I get the impression that B&J, knowing that this was their only chance to work with such important and luminary material, tried to do a bit of everything with this, and by and large, they’ve succeeded.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Black Night White Light
And so to the second unexpected track on this album. Another …Pleasuredome album track, and one of the finer ones too. That famous, epic debut was so full of variety, ranging from classic covers, orgasmic and trippy sex anthems and dance-oriented floor fillers, but Black Night White Light was this moment of laid back excellence that glides through verses and choruses, and flits between rousing, almost rock inspired middle eights and dance-infused breaks. Layered into this are vocal segments from the Relax B-side, One September Monday, where Paul Morley interviews Holly Johnson. These add a little variation and are more than a nod to Trevor Horn’s penchant to add in snippets of spoken interest.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Watching the Wildlife
This track, forever a dichotomy between cheery pop ditty and insightful social commentary gets a decent workout here. A drum heavy intro is overlaid with more Stan Boardman, reciting some (apparently Buddhist) spiritual words about how humans will work less due to automation, only for Stan to fumble his words and then make some witty remark about certain people in Liverpool being unable to find 20 hours of work a week (these words being said in 1986/7), let alone the future! It’s a typically scouse-drenched piece of humour and a fun way to start a fun tune that has ‘fun’ written in its DNA.
Propaganda / A Dream Within a Dream
The third and final Propaganda track in this collection is the wonderful Edgar Allan Poe-inspired beauty that opens their debut album, with its haunting solo trumpet and relentless rhythm, as Susanne Freytag recites Poe’s poem atop an ever building wall of synth pads and a rhythmic pedal bass note. Can you tell I love this song? I’ve seen it performed live a few times and it always gets those hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end. In its original form, it’s a long track, and this 9 minute plus version lives up to those expectations. Full of PPG synth splendour, this is a stunning piece and well reconstructed here.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Welcome to the Pleasuredome
And so, the final track. This is my favourite Frankie track. It’s also the foundation for my favourite Frankie mix, the splendid ‘Fruitness’ twelve-inch version. This track is up there, for me, with Grace Jones‘ Slave To The Rhythm in terms of pop production perfection. Danceable, epic sounds, laid out on a massively expansive soundstage, created by the masterful production of Trevor Horn.
It sums up the whole Frankie phenomenon. Cutting, acerbic, viceral and yet full of grace, pomp and splendour. And Herr Blank und Herr Jones do it total justice. It’s sixteen minutes long. That’s a great sign because this production has enough content to fill those minutes perfectly. Funky bass, that ZTT trademark hi-hat pattern, a guitar solo by Steve Howe, majestic pianos, cutting guitar, tribal chanting, Holly’s rousing lead vocal and huge, chiming pads. Suffice to say, you’d be hard pushed to mess this up and this is a spectacular way to close out this project. Admirable work!
So, there you have it. I think the album is very good indeed. Yes, it has an unavoidable Frankie bias, but the empathy shown by B&J in all of the mixes towards the originals is very evident. This album takes all those awful ’90s and ’00s remixes, wraps them up in a diaper and puts the lot of them to bed! As I said to a friend recently, if someone had come up to me, without me having any prior knowledge of this project, and told me that 13 remixes had been discovered in the ZTT vault, previously unheard and made at the time of the originals, and then played me this album, I think I would’ve fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I believe that to be the highest compliment I can pay these guys and their hard work.
They’ve done a sterling job, and that includes the nice little liner notes and reconstructed art work for each single, which features words from Paul Morley, SDE’s very own Paul Sinclair and artwork supplied from the vast library owned by Kevin Foakes at artofztt.com. It has to be said that if I had been given access to this material, I almost certainly would’ve listened to each track, each element individually and then tried to share those gems as best I could. I once had access to a multitrack of Relax and whilst it wasn’t the full multitrack (I think it had been part of a video game soundtrack), it allowed me to mute out and solo various elements and it was a wondrous thing to be able to hear these layers in isolation. I guess Blank & Jones had the same emotions as I did!
One thing these reconstructions have done is allow me to re-appreciate the originals. Because of the way that B&J have opened out the mixes, exposing and revelling in the constituent parts, I have heard things I have never previously heard, or simply forgotten about, in the originals. So besides delivering something new, these reconstructions have made me appreciate the source material even more than I already did.
As a die hard fan. these may not be to your taste, but your taste has had 30 years to mature and become biased and influenced. Listen to these with fresh ears. Try and imagine you are back in 1984/5/6/7 and that you’ve been crate digging in your local record store and found a twelve-inch single, in a generic ZTT sleeve, with a vague centre label. Not knowing what’s on it, you buy it, rush home and listen to it, straight away, giddy with the excitement of finding a new interpretation of a classic favourite. Remember those days? I do, and this album helps me to remember, no end!
Word on the street is, if B&J can raise the funds, this lot could make an appearance in the form of a 6x 12″ box set. How amazing would it be to have these gems on heavyweight vinyl at 33rpm?? Imagine the artwork?? I’m salivating at the very thought, saving my pennies as we speak and will be first in the queue!
Thank you Piet, Jaspa and Andy (Kaufhold, who was part of the ‘Reconstruction’ team) for taking a very precarious job on, working with sacred material and doing it so spectacularly well. May the success of this lead to more ZTT reconstructions.
Review by Rob Puricelli. Check out Rob’s blog at www.failedmuso.com/blog
so80s presents ZTT is out now: