For some, there’s always time for nostalgia.
Some psychologists believe nostalgia serves a purpose, especially in our hectic, connected world. It empowers our belief in “the good old days”. It’s a form of escapism and who doesn’t need a bit of that!?!
Do you remember Classix Nouveaux?
Cherry Red would very much like you to. To help you remember, the label has released a four disc boxed set that includes: Classix Nouveaux, Night People, La Verité and Secret.
Counting isn’t my strong point, but there are roughly forty individual songs. The bonus material of different versions, remixes, 12” versions and singles make this set more than sixty tracks. That will take you more than 4 hours to listen to. In particular, the first two discs share many songs, making Night People feel more like ‘1st Album MkII’, as it include many re-worked songs from Classix Nouveaux for international markets.
Is this boxed set even important? To answer this, I found it best to consider it with a generous helping of added broader historical context. That makes this review a short essay, a long journey (much like the boxed set), so if you prefer less context, just skip to the bit with less context after the first video in this review. But if you’re up for it you’d better strap yourself in; I’m going to take you on a nostalgic trip full of digression and supposition, so grab a coffee or you may wake up and find me asleep at the wheel.
In 1981, Punk seemed like history. Progressive rock was long done. People were already nostalgic for both genres. Outside of the world of music, the UK was rife with industrial action. The British steel and car industries were dying. There was The Troubles, and pit closures. You could get beaten up in small town England for having “funny” hair and the Church of England announced that homosexuality was a handicap and not a sin(!)… These were “The Good Old Days”.
As always, what you heard on the radio was dominated by the usual trending music fashion from the hit factories, peppered with the odd classic. Pop is always the criteria by which many people judge the contemporaneous state of music. They don’t count the classics. Consequently, there is always hyperbole being spouted about the end of creativity. These cries, as old as time, are always, of course, wrong. Contradictory evidence is always easy to find if you bother to look for the bands on the fringes of popular culture.
In 1981 I was too young to crave nostalgia. I wanted music that reflected the darkness around me but was also escapist, and I found it. The Cure were about to release their nihilistic musical bible, Pornography. Theatre Of Hate, Echo And The Bunnymen and Killing Joke were doing their thing. Siouxsie And The Banshees had matured with A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. The Stranglers presented us with La Folie and then with Feline. Joy Division had already released both of their albums. Simple Minds were at their creative best with Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call and New Gold Dream between ’81 and ’84, and Japan rocked up from their artsy alternate reality with their inventive and radical sounding last album… I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point – many artists were at the zenith of their abilities.
I’ve seen it said that Classix Nouveaux were just X-Ray Spex without Poly-Styrene. A bit harsh. I speculate that Jak Airport and B.P. Hurding, ex of X-Ray Spex, must have had balls the size of space-hoppers. To decide to create a New Wave band in the face of such creative competition was adventurous. Or perhaps they were just having a laugh. Perhaps they simply saw music as a way to keep themselves from being embroiled in that chaotic World. We’ll probably never know.
Arguably, Classix Nouveaux were, at least in part, influential. For example, fretless bass. Though this review may not seem the place to wonder who plucked fretless bass from the fringes and dropped it into popular culture, it does add to the evidence that suggest that Classix Nouveaux were, perhaps, more important than you might think. I challenge anyone to present a pop song with fretless bass on it before 1981! The first time that anyone who wasn’t listening to Brand X or Weather Report would have heard it, I suggest, was with Japan or Classix Nouveaux. Outside of its most common habitat of jazz-rock and fusion, no mainstream pop bands used fretless bass. Mick Karn’s inimitable playing was a signature sound of Japan, but Mike Sweeney also pioneered the use of fretless. Much like Duran’s John Taylor, Sweeney also added disco style bass (doubling the second note in an octave pattern) to drive the song along. Nobody, including Sweeney, played like Mick Karn. Even so, if you choose the none-too-easy trek through these four discs, you’ll hear a definite and positive transition in the bass playing, indeed, in the musicianship and songwriting as a whole. By the time 1983 came along producers with clever ears saw it as the noise they wanted on their pop records, for example, The Police – King of Pain. Only two years after Night People, just about everyone on the planet had heard fretless. We could easily forget just how successful Paul Young was, and his sound was partly down to his producer encouraging the wonderful Pino Palladino to splurge fretless all over Paul’s hat every time you went away, a performance he would reproduce at Live Aid!
We’re positively drowning in context now… let’s pull into the services and listen to some music!
The bit with less context after the first video in this review:
Classix Nouveaux appeared perhaps a little ahead of their time for the mainstream, yet at exactly the right time to become associated with an emerging club scene in That London. This scene clearly had its roots in escapism. Flamboyant clothing, big, colourful hair (except Sal, of course), frills and boldness (or in Sal’s case, baldness. What? Don’t look at me like that! It was a “look”).
Considered somewhat “underground” by a conservative music press, who still couldn’t accept that Punk was dead, the media was beginning to latch on and needed a name. So, they dubbed it “The New Romantic Movement”. Why? Nobody knows. But Maybelline, Revlon and Max Factor would build empires in this New Age.
The “movement” spread to the Midlands and beyond. Classix Nouveaux were closely followed in time by Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, amongst others. All these bands, to some extent, capitalised on the emerging popularity of some rather odd clothes and rock-like music you could paint your face to.
I’m unsure that it’s fair to compare their output with such beloved ’80s bands… exactly as I just did. But it is inevitable. Classix Nouveaux could be considered a “proto-New Romantic band”. Classix Nouveaux may not have been as progressive as Japan, but there was innovation to what they did. You might argue that they turned their ability to absorb the sounds and styles of their contemporaries into a beneficial (for them) art form, but it was more likely a creative feedback loop that involved everyone – though Japan would be offended were you to lump them in with the New Romantics, and you really shouldn’t do that anyway!
Night People and Classix Nouveaux (hereafter referred to as Discs 1 and 2) are swimming in the latest thin synthetic digital sounds and guitar/bass effects pedals that were everywhere at the time – unless you were listening to the bands I listed above in the bit with all the context. Are you now wondering whether you should have skipped that bit? Ubiquitous tones aside, Classix Nouveaux had a clear style, especially Sal Solo’s voice. Yes, you can compare him with David Sylvian or Dave Gahan if you like, but he really did have his own thing going on. Rarely backed up with vocal harmonies in the early days, he often stands out in the mix.
I suspect that any one of these tracks could have been played in the clubs and they will have gone down a storm. But if you are to buy this album and you’re not a hardened fan, I suggest limiting your exposure to a couple of tracks at a time or, at the most, a disc at a time. Sadly, whether it is the early ’80s high energy mix or the mastering, the songwriting style or the tones on the first two discs, they haven’t aged well. I was left with the impression that there’s not enough diversity to distinguish one heavily chorused bass line and trill guitar track from the next. After re-familiarising myself with the songs and the bonus material I actually felt somewhat fatigued. Nevertheless, The singles Guilty and Tokyo reached the UK Top 75, and Guilty reached the Top 20 in Sweden and Number 25 in the Australian charts. So perhaps I’m missing the point.
One track, The Protector of Night, caught my attention. What sounds like a drum machine, I strongly suspect, is actually Simmons drums – remember them? Hexagonal plastic things with black heads, beloved by Bill Bruford in his King Crimson and Union-era Yes days. Sal Solo’s baritone reminds me of Ian Astbury on this song (influence or coincidence?), putting me in mind of The Cult, a band who were still Southern Death Cult at the time, but two or three years later they were less guitar/drums oriented and more… electronicky. Ever wondered what made them become The Cult, eh? Even if my imagined comparison is true, I doubt Ian Astbury would admit that there was any influence from Classic Nouveaux on the evolution from Southern Death Cult through Death Cult to The Cult.
By Disc 3, La Verité (the difficult second album? Dunno, it’s confusing), the band had clearly upped their game. This suddenly and somewhat miraculously sounds like a way more sophisticated group. There’s a stark contrast in how musically adventurous this feels compared to the first two discs. Even though they couldn’t resist revisiting it on Never Again, there is far less reliance on the pumping high energy beats and disco-influenced bass guitar on which they relied so heavily on Discs 1 and 2. There’s more overall harmony, varied vocal performances and some diverse sounding songs throughout the album – and it is a blessed relief. It’s All Over has a great “classic eighties” vibe, with Sal sounding as if he’s paying cheeky homage to Brian Ferry. The rest of the band captures the vibe that would define other “New Romantic” bands who we still associate with that era.
By Disc 4, Secret, Classix Nouveaux have decidedly found their feet and are getting quite innovative, with tabla, layered vocals and synth stabs on the opening track, All Around the World setting a good precedent to follow up on with the remaining ten or so tracks (and half a dozen versions). There is still no escaping comparisons with other fashionable and successful bands. Whether this is due to the fashion and limitations of the technology of the day combined with the way they were no doubt encouraged to play and arrange their songs, I can’t say.
Heart From The Start, for example, bears more than a passing resemblance to Yazoo! There are plenty of ’80s tropes, but if you can put that aside, there are some nice performances and interesting chord progressions, plus elsewhere on the album, when they do decide to rock out, it’s a bit more convincing than their earlier efforts. There’s even a borderline proto-Industrial track in there called Switch! I, of course, approve of that one.
When all is said and done, I felt that listening to all four discs, one after the other, is too much for anyone other than hardened fans, even with breaks. If you’re intent on hearing all four discs back to back, then I’d recommend doing it in reverse chronological order, starting with Secret, otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll hear the first two tracks of Night People and you won’t want to hear any more. But start at the end and the Classix Nouveaux back story makes more sense. You’ll see how they matured beyond recognition in their ability and diversity by the time they produced Secret!
It’s subjective, of course, and harsh (probably) but I’d somewhat unkindly say that the production on the first two discs, by modern standards, is consistently awful. But discs three and four, which represent their most adventurous and varied work, are well produced and mixed and any fan would think them worth having.
You may ask, given that I’m not exactly bigging them up to be the most innovative or revolutionary thing to come out of the Post-Punk era, who’d want to buy this release. Maybe you were a fan, but you’ve lost or broken or worn out your original copies. Maybe you’re a completist and you want to add it to your ’80s collection. Perhaps you’re simply happy to shell out the cash to satisfy your curiosity with the sounds of the ’80s.
Maybe, back in 1982, you had big hair and an asymmetrical jacket that you bought on King’s Road – I know I did! This is, after all, four thin slices of musical history. Back in the day, if you aspired to be invited inside by Steve Strange to Billy’s club in ’80s Soho, then this box set, especially the first two discs, will be a true trip down Memory Lane, W1D 3SD.
In summary: In the UK they may not have had the enduring success of their contemporaries, but Classix Nouveaux enjoyed cult status amongst the clientele frequenting the London club scene. In addition to the countries I’ve already mentioned, they had number one hits in Poland, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Israel, and Iceland, to name a few. Two of the discs are rather good and, for some, I can see the boxed set as valuable to collectors of minor musical cultural milestones. Despite us oldies having less fond memories of that period, we’re slowly realising that just below the surface some fresh and innovative music was being made. Our current times, just like the 1980s, are difficult times. All kinds of events, political and otherwise, have led to some of the darker facets of human behaviour re-emerging. Time for some distracting escapist nostalgia, then? I wonder; in another 40 years, what people will be listening to through rose-tinted hearing aids, given our present backdrop!
DISC 1: Classix Nouveaux
01. Foreward (3:23)
02. Guilty (3:17)
03. Nasty Little Green Men (3:14)
04. No Sympathy (4:06)
05. Inside Outside (4:19)
06. 623 (2:28)
07. Robots Dance (3:54)
08. Every Home (3:16)
09. Tokyo (2:39)
10. Run Away (2:41)
11. The Protector of Night (5:23)
~ Bonus tracks:
12. Test Tube Babies (2:47)
13. Night People (3:53)
14. The Robots Dance (new version) (5:02)
Time – 50:22
DISC 2: Night People
01. Foreward (3:24)
02. Guilty (4:41)
03. Run Away (2:39)
04. No Sympathy, No Violins (4:06)
05. Inside Outside (4:19)
06. 623 (Instrumental) (2:30)
07. Every Home Should Have One (3:55)
08. Tokyo (2:39)
09. Or A Movie (4:30)
10. Soldier (3:46)
11. The Protector of Night (5:25)
~ Bonus tracks:
12. Inside Outside (12″ version) (4:11)
13. We Don’t Bite (Come A Little Closer) (3:53)
14. Inside Outside (7″ version) (3:20)
15. Old World For Sale (2:36)
Time – 55:54
DISC 3: La Verité
01. Foreward (1:08)
02. Is It A Dream (4:17)
03. To Believe (3:46)
04. Because You’re Young (3:46)
05. Six To Eight (1:58)
06. La Verité (5:14)
07. Never Again (4:04)
08. It’s All Over (3:55)
09. 1999 (3:45)
10. I Will Return (5:52)
11. Finale (2:36)
~ Bonus tracks:
12. Never Again (The Days Time Erased) (short version) (3:51)
13. 627 (2:30)
14. Never Again (The Days Time Erased) (long version) (5:19)
15. Is It A Dream (7″ version) (3:38)
16. Where To Go (3:12)
17. Because You’re Young (12″ version) (6:09)
18. Because You’re Young (edit) (3:22)
19. It’s Not Too Late (3:24)
20. Is It A Dream (edit) (4:00)
21. Chemin Chagrin (3:41)
Time – 76:03
DISC 4: Secret
01. All Around the World (4:21)
02. Manitou (3:55)
03. Heart From the Start (3:30)
04. The Fire Inside (3:48)
05. Forever And A Day (3:39)
06. Never Never Comes (2:59)
07. The Unloved (5:19)
08. When They All Have Gone (6:01)
09. No Other Way (4:51)
~ Bonus tracks:
10. The End… Or the Beginning? (3:09)
11. The End… Or the Beginning? (long version) (5:48)
12. The End… Or the Beginning? (instrumental version) (3:06)
13. Switch (7″ version) (3:56)
14. Forever and A Day (extended version) (6:45)
15. Switch (full length version) (6:45)
16. Manitou (extended version) (5:56)
17. Manitou (instrumental version) (3:08)
Time – 76:56
Total Time – 262:08
Sal Solo – Voice, Keyboards, Synthesiser, Guitar
Mik Sweeney – Bass Guitar, Keyboards, Synthesiser, Backing Vocals
Gary Steadman – Guitar, Guitar Synthesiser (Classix Nouveaux, Night People & La Verité)
Jimi Sumén – Guitar (Secret)
B.P. Hurding – Drums, Electronic Percussion, Saxophone, Backing Vocals
Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 26th February 2021