Lene Lovich - Toy Box The Stiff Years 1978-1983 (4CD Box Set)

Lene Lovich – Toy Box: The Stiff Years, 1978-1983

Lene Lovich, whose work experience included providing screams for Hammer Horror Film Productions, earned her 15 minutes of fame on the back of a surprise hit single with her first release for Stiff Records. Over the course of her time at Stiff she created a catalogue of three albums that contained a sufficient number of quirky and likeable songs to sustain a much longer career of live performing that continues to this day.

As well as releasing occasional albums independently through her own publishing label, her appearances at festivals, group tours with other ‘legends’, and solo tours with her own band have kept a loyal cohort of fans satisfied for over four decades. This boxset provides another opportunity to re-visit the Stiff catalogue, but this time with bells and whistles as it includes pretty much everything that was recorded at the time, 81 tracks in total, with twenty or so of those making their debut on CD.

As such, this will be a must-have for the devotees. I wouldn’t class myself in that bracket, however, I do own an original copy of Flex, the second album, and have always rated it very highly as a fine example of both her craft and the inventiveness of the new wave scene in the early eighties. With that in mind, I will fearlessly put myself in the path of no less than five versions of the aforementioned surprise hit single Lucky Number to bring you the definitive guide to the definitive ‘Lene Lovich at Stiff Records’ music collection.

Lene’s relationship with Stiff came about via an introduction by music journalist Charlie Gillett, based on a recording of a cover version of I Think We’re Alone Now, and was cemented when Lene and her musical – and life – partner Les Chappell hastily came up with a B-side, Lucky Number. The track featured one of her trademark vocalisations, characterising what would become the band’s unique selling point and this song quickly became the main attraction, peaking at number 3 in the charts when eventually it was re-recorded for the album with an extra verse and re-released as a single in its own right.

Disc One covers 1978’s Stateless, and it’s an eclectic mix of tracks. It veers between the attention-seeking, the thoughtful and dramatic, the dark and meaningful, through the ‘standard’ cover versions, and with the odd quirky mis-step along the way. Lene’s voice and vocal theatrics dominate the album but the song-writing is really the basis for what is an interesting and dynamic debut album. The production values are inconsistent but that isn’t surprising given the context.

The pick of the bonus tracks is the live rendition of Be Stiff which provides a foretaste of highlights on the next CD and showcases Lene Lovich’s impressive live presence and performance. We are also treated to three more versions of Lucky Number the original B-side and the dance/instrumental versions that feature additional keyboard and synth parts. It may sound strange, but there has never been a single point in this review process that I have thought that I have heard this song too many times. For me, Lene’s trademark banshee-howl-inflected vocals just about stay on the right side of the balance between engaging and annoying. She has superb control and her great sense of theatre gives her the confidence to extend her range in remarkable fashion, but also the experience to rein it in at appropriate times, and with Lucky Number she truly hit the sweet spot.

Can you have too much of a good thing? Possibly. The songs on the remix version of the Stateless album, featured on Disc Two, are basically the same; sometimes the over-dubbing and touching up works well, for example the enhanced piano contribution on Too Tender (To Touch), but it’s mostly window dressing, making this section of the CD primarily for the completists. However, the bonus tracks include seven live recordings and these were something of a revelation to me. There isn’t too much live material that has been made available on CD previously, which is strange because the energy from Lene and the band transforms the songs and they take on a new life. It’s plain to see, and hear, why she has achieved such longevity with her career and why fans keep turning up to the regular live events.

After receiving a “Top Female Recording Artist of the Year” award from Music Week in 1978, Lene Lovich went on to record her ‘difficult’ second album. Presumably the success of Stateless led to a bit more investment in the production because 1980’s Flex does sound much better, as heard on Disc Three. Roger Bechirian and Alan Winstanley, prolific producers in the new wave scene, were bought in for support and the Lovich/Chappell song-writing partnership proved to be more than a flash in the pan. It was flourishing in fact, with the new songs retaining the spirit and the essence of the band but also showing a marked development in the sophistication of the arrangements. Bird Song opens the album with a radio-unfriendly 45-second, slow-building intro and it develops to a crescendo via some inventive instrumental breaks and multi-layered vocal and synth effects.

I can understand how Lene Lovich’s voice may influence non-believers to think that this is just another novelty pop song, but even after all these years I still hear a mini-prog epic, every time. All of the tracks on Flex offer something to the listener, and this time it is not over-reliant on Lene’s voice to grab the attention, this is a well-crafted album that stands up pretty well after 40 years.

The bonus tracks include the EP that was released in the US and elsewhere in 1981, but not in the UK. New Toy was written by Thomas Dolby and has its merits, but it signalled a noticeable change in direction, following the ’80s trends for even more synthesiser-based music, that would overwhelm the next album.

There were undercurrents of disagreement with Stiff as the third album was taking shape that led to the strange circumstances of the EP release. When No Man’s Land (Disc Four) was released in 1982, it’s possible that Lene Lovich’s ship had already sailed. Many bands in the peak of the new wave era shone brightly for a short period and then disappeared from view. As punk was superseded by new wave, so now new wave was being superseded by electronic and ‘dance’ music.

The band’s attempt to marry its pre-existing musical style with the new fashions for production on this album didn’t succeed. There are some good songs here but they are buried underneath a cacophony of generic synth sounds. Without Lene being front and centre of the songs, the USP is lost and the preponderance of extended dance mixes in the bonus track listing tells its own story.

When it unexpectedly appears in the bonus track section, Blue Hotel, which apparently dates back to the time of Stateless but which was released as the B-side on the single release of the cover version of The Meteors It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz), provides a fine way to compare and contrast the earlier and later styles.

This is as complete a collection of the studio output of the band whilst signed to Stiff Records that you could ask for, although I do feel that the set could have been enhanced by some more live recordings. For those who lived through the punk and new wave era, you sort of know what you are going to get from Lene Lovich. Whatever you feel about the merits of the singer and the band, the proof of the pudding is that she is still touring and the songs and the performances continue to be appreciated by fans, old and new. It may be niche but it is an enduring niche, and celebrating this is what these Cherry Red collections are all about.

Disc One: Stateless (Original Mix)

01. Lucky Number (2:47)
02. Sleeping Beauty (3:00)
03. Home (3:40)
04. Too Tender (To Touch) (4:04)
05. Say When (2:49)
06. Tonight (4:27)
07. Writing on the Wall (3:08)
08. Telepathy (2:45)
09. Momentary Breakdown (3:18)
10. One in a 1,000,000 (2:48)
11. I Think We’re Alone Now (2:45)
~ Bonus Tracks:
12. Lucky Number (Early Version)
13. I Think We’re Alone Now (Japanese Version)
14. Monkey Talk (Early Version)
15. Be Stiff
16. Be Stiff (The Entire Ensemble Recorded Live at Leeds University)
17. Lene Lovich Speaks 1
18. Lucky Number (Instrumental Version)
19. One Lonely Heart
20. Big Bird
21. Lene Lovich Speaks 2
22. Lucky Number (Slavic Dance Version)

Disc Two: Stateless (US/UK Remix)
01. Home
02. Sleeping Beauty
03. Lucky Number
04. Too Tender (To Touch)
05. Say When
06. Writing On The Wall
07. Telepathy
08. Momentary Breakdown
09. I Think We’re Alone Now
10. One in a 1,000,000
11. Tonight
~ Bonus Tracks:
12. Trixi
13. The Fly
14. The Fall
~ Live at The Lyceum, London 03.02.80
15. Monkey Talk
16. The Night
17. Too Tender (To Touch)
18. You Can’t Kill Me
~ Live at Paradise Theater, Boston 15.03.80
19. Angels
20. Lucky Number
21. Home

Disc Three: Flex
01. Bird Song (4:27)
02. What Will I Do Without You? (3:35)
03. Angels (3:08)
04. The Night (4:31)
05. You Can’t Kill Me (3:45)
06. Egghead (2:26)
07. Wonderful One (4:28)
08. Monkey Talk (3:20)
09. Joan (3:18)
10. The Freeze (4:40)
~ Bonus Tracks:
11. The Night (US Remix)
12. What Will I Do Without You (Single Version)
13. Bird Song (Edit)
14. Details (Original Version)
~ New Toy (US Mini LP)
15. New Toy
16. Cats Away
17. New Toy (Extended Version)
18. Cats Away (Remix)
19. Details
20. Never Never Land

Disc Four: No Man’s Land
01. It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz) (3:42)
02. Blue Hotel (3:43)
03. Faces (3:32)
04. Walking Low (3:16)
05. Special Star (4:31)
06. Sister Video (4:45)
07. Maria (3:02)
08. Savages (3:47)
09. Rocky Road (6:37)
~ Bonus Tracks:
New Toy (US Mini LP)

10. Savages
11. Special Star
12. Blue Hotel (Single Version)
13. It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz) (Remixed Extended Version)
14. Blue
15. It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz) (Instrumental Version)
16. It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz) (US Extended Dance Mix)
17. Blue Hotel (US Dance Mix)
18. O Seasons O Castles

Lene Lovich – Vocals & Backing Vocals, Saxophone, Trumpet
Les Chappell – Guitar, EMS Synthesiser, Percussion, Vocals
Jeff Smith – Synthesizer (discs 1,2 & 4)
Nick Plytas – Hammond Organ, Piano (discs 1 & 2)
Ron François – Bass, Percussion, Vocals (discs 1 & 2)
Bobby Irwin – Drums, Percussion, Vocals (discs 1 & 2)
Don Snow – Piano (disc 1, track 4)
Justin Hildreth – Drums, Backing Vocals (disc 3)
Mark Heyward-Chaplin – Bass, Backing Vocals (discs 3 & 4)
Dean Klevatt – Keyboards, Backing Vocals (discs 3 & 4)
Nick Plytas – Keyboards (discs 3 & 4)
Chris Judge Smith – Additional Vocals (disc 3)
Thomas Dolby – Synthesiser (disc 4, track 9)
Jimme O’Neill – Rhythm Synthesiser, Vocals (disc 4, track 6)

Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 24th November 2023

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