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LIVER THAN YOU’LL EVER BE - 27/28 April 1996

When a band’s debut single reaches No.3 in the charts and is derided as a flop, there must be a reason. When the most innovative, exciting and funny band of a decade are so universally mocked that the staunchest of fans are forced *even at the time* to claim kitsch and irony in their own defence, there must be a reason. When the NME, Melody Maker and the whole rock press would rather embrace a Top Ten containing George Michael, Five Star, Level 42, Queen, Falco, Big Country and the cast of Grange Hill’s catchy anti-heroin toe-tapper "Just Say No" (go on, hum it) than buy into something new and different, there must be a reason. And now, ten long years after the event, I’m going to look for that reason. Why did nobody love Sigue Sigue Sputnik?

Because they were lovable, after all. A flourescent explosion of primary colours in the grey pop drabness of the time, a blast of pure FUN in a muddy mess of worthy-but-hopeless political agit-propping, and with catchy tunes stolen through a time machine from a transsexual T-Rex of the future to boot. They promised to Fleece The World, and if being fleeced by SSS was the alternative to being spoon-fed vitamin biscuits by Whitney Houston and USA For Africa, then line me up for the clippers with the rest of the lambs.

So, you might think, would say any right-thinking person in possession of enough brain power to come in out of the rain in January. But, as happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination, so Sigue Sigue Sputnik were not loved by the general public. Now and here, in the name of humanity and in the terrifying face of a generation still buying new Rolling Stones records, I determine to find out why.



At first, I think it’s obvious. I think, "Stupid haircuts". Those huge pineapples of pretend orange and pink, sprouting from Martin Degville’s face net and Tony James’ plastic bowler hat. For a moment, I feel confident.

But I haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Stupid haircuts are, after all, one of the groundstones of rock’n’roll. And anyway, think of the 80s and you think of Kajagoogoo, Howard Jones, Big Country - spiky mullets, every one. If crap hair was a crime, well, there were worse offenders. And at least SSS could take theirs off at the end of the day. It has be something else.



So then I think of the music. The mid 80s were a boom time for ‘real’ music, partly a reaction against the embarrassing New Romantic scene of the previous years. Sputnik were about as un-‘real’ as it got - they were produced by Giorgio Moroder, for Christ’s sake. Surely their electric-hell disco was just fatally behind, and ahead of, it’s time?

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

After all, the music? Surely not. The SSS sound was essentially a hybrid of Divine, New Order, Suicide and Eddie Cochran - impeccable influences all. And most of the songs still sound great today - ‘Frankenstein Cha Cha Cha’ could slip unnoticed inside a Chemical Brothers remix, ‘Dancerama’ is an obvious prototype for Blur’s ‘The Universal’, and if you listen really closely, you can hear Noel Gallagher crooning ‘Is This The Future?’ on one of those reflective Oasis B-sides that bely their cretinous-thug image. In his dreams.

Unusually for a band with a ‘futuristic’ bent, the Sputnik sound hasn’t, by and large, dated at all - if you were to hear it now in a nightclub scene in some post-apocalyptic nightmare movie, it wouldn’t sound out of place (although in reality, we’ll probably actually have Ant & Dec doing swingbeat covers of ‘I Feel Love’ with a geriatric, Tony Bennet-like Marc Almond).



So then I think, in a comparisons mood now, maybe it was because they were clearly a twisted reflection, the dark side, of U2, who in the mid 80s were as unpopular and unhip as they ever would be. Parallels between the two bands’ actual melodies are plentiful - check out ‘Atari Baby’ and ‘With Or Without You’, or ‘Dancerama’ and ‘All I Want Is You’ (released within two months of each other in 1989), even ‘21st Century Boy’ and ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, then call me a liar. The trend continued long after SSS’ demise: listen to ‘Ultraviolence’ (from the posthumous rarities album), then U2’s ‘Ultraviolet’, or ‘Albinoni vs Star Wars’ against ‘Lady With The Spinning Head’. THEY ARE THE SAME. U2 took Sputnik’s tunes and made them palatable for the proles, building themselves a stadium career in the process. (And if you think releasing ‘Numb’ as a video-only single was an original idea, you obviously weren’t around when SSS pioneered the notion with ‘Sex Bomb Boogie’ years earlier.)

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Like, how many people do you know whose record collection encompasses both Sigue Sigue Sputnik and U2, and who hence might notice such things? Exactly. A better theory is called for.



So then I think, Red Wedge. In 1986 the Tories were consolidating their second term, and seemed untouchable. The rock world’s reaction was to throw up a doomed political movement uniting the likes of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and the Redskins under a socialist umbrella. SSS, with their love of expensive high-tech consumer products and gleeful displays of would-be megacorporate ostentation (the Sputnik helicopter, the stretch limos, the advertising between album tracks) couldn’t have looked more out of place in blue rosettes and Norman Tebbit wigs.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

After all, who gave a fuck about Red Wedge?



So I think again, and arrive, not unconnectedly, at students.

Students make up the main readership of the weekly music press, and the main audience for any non-mainstream music in Britain. And students, even today, only like two bands - The Smiths and the Toy Dolls. The names change (eg for the Toy Dolls ’96, read The Mike Flowers Pops), but the formula - one part white-boy-guitar-angst, one part wacky-kitsch-clowning - remains the same. Sputnik neither said anything to students about *their* lives, nor dropped a load of 70s childrens’ TV references, and so gave the audience nothing to hold on to. Students are the most conservative crowd there is, and Sputnik’s very uniqueness was their undoing.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

After all, who gives a fuck about students?



So I think like a crazy man, and for a moment toy with the idea of putting it all down to bad luck. Sputnik were quick to attach their names to glamorous branding, but chose brands like Atari (just embarking on their long final plunge down the plughole) and MSX (actually an excellent Japanese home games computer standard, but one which flopped massively in the West). Their greatest champions in the press were esoteric style mag Zig Zag, which folded in the same month Love Missile F1-11 came out, while their greatest detractor (The Tube’s otherwise-impeccable Muriel Gray) was at the height of her powers. And their trans-global communication revolution was just a few crucial years away from being a widespread reality, in the shape of the Internet. Unlucky Sputnik. That must be it.

But even after all this time, I still haven’t quite found what I’m looking for.

SSS commanded press attention far in excess of any ordinary new band, and turned nearly all of it to their advantage, at least in the early days. No debut single has been so keenly awaited since, and probably only ‘Anarchy In The UK’ topped it previously. No, they had all the breaks a new band could conceivably ask for, and more besides. Bad luck would be a poor excuse.



So then I think smarter, not just harder. I think about illusion. To pull off the trick Sputnik were attempting is a delicate business - if you’re going to fleece people while telling them you’re fleecing them, you can’t leave a single crack in your armour. You have to be flawless, above reproach, beyond dissension. The minute you leave a gap for the little boy with the Emperor’s New Clothes routine, all is lost. Covering the sleeve of your desperate, moment-of-truth second album with elementary grammatical errors ("The street finds its’ own use for things", "Get on societies’ nerves"), is guaranteed feet-of-clay material. Who could believe in a band claiming to be the vision of the future who can’t even spell, or copy down a quote properly? (And what the fuck did "Mayphews Good Tonite!" mean, anyway?)

The final straw was the craven cry of "This time it’s music" - an admission of defeat in the face of the grubbily ‘real’ check-shirted pub rock of the time, a plea for paid-our-dues acceptance on the music biz’s own terms, and a symptom of a deadly crisis of confidence. Scenting victory, the music press put the boot in with a series of unexpectedly tame faint-praise reviews, Sputnik’s reason for existence dissolved, and all was lost. Albinoni vs Star Wars troubled the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles in the smallest way it’s possible to do - a single week at No.75. When it mattered, they hadn’t had the nerve to carry it through.



And there, finally, I find the truth. At the end of the day, SSS made the fatal error of not walking it like they talked it. (Well, it couldn’t have been easy in those five-inch spike heels). Practically from the word go, they delivered less than they promised. (Tony James boasted of the first album being a rock’n’roll classic - "Ten songs, all sounding the same, no ballads" - but delivered an anaemic eight-tracker, with a ballad on it, that couldn’t even fill all the inter-song gaps with the much-vaunted adverts. The generic Sputnik ads and obviously-made-up TV stations were embarrassing to listen to.)

SSS had taken Hitler’s "the bigger the lie, the more easily it is accepted" creed to heart, but their metaphorical Nuremberg rallies were poorly-attended, plagued by dodgy PA and under-rehearsed choreography. Love Missile F1-11, gripping on stimulation-overload video, sounded empty and hollow with all the incidental sound effects cut out for the critical debut single release. What happened to the video games? What happened to the wall of live global satellite TV to be used as cut-in backing music at the live shows? What happened to the fully-posable dolls? All promised, none delivered - soon, you just couldn’t take the Sputnik Corporation seriously anymore. (And while it was always supposed to be a joke, it was supposed to be a serious joke. And it was supposed to be on us, not them.)



The press management was a riot of genius - James gave the best interviews since the Sex Pistols and until Oasis - but Sputnik constantly undermined their own achievements with half-arsed realisation of brilliant plans. The first (and only) UK tour played venues which were neither small enough to be fashionably crammed, nor large enough to indicate the correct sense of scale - the band played medium-to-large venues which they, crucially, never quite managed to sell out. A half-empty Albert Hall they could probably have bluffed their way out of - a nearly-full Edinburgh Empire only succeeded in making them look small and insignificant.

(This despite the unexpectedly successful nature of the shows themselves - convincingly supported by Black Elvis 2000 - imagine Lenny Kravitz meeting Lenny Henry and fusing with a mutated hybrid of Chris Evans and Kurt Cobain. Er, it’s better than it sounds - Sputnik played tightly and powerfully, at near-lethal volume, to dressed-for-the-event crowds willing their success in a time largely starved of anything to get dressed up and excited about).

If you set yourself up as a messiah, of course, appearing small and insignificant is the last thing you can afford. The ‘Dress for Excess’ album was a brave final fling, but it had already been mortally wounded by the ill-advised back-down team-up with Stock, Aitken and Waterman for the ironically-titled ‘Success’ (even the sleeve warned "NON ROCK AND ROLL PRODUCT - DISTRIBUTED UNDER PRESSURE"), which destroyed the last remnants of the band’s slim credibility with media and fans alike.

Wearing an orange fish net over your face is alright as long as you’ve got the weight of certain, unimpeachable righteousness behind you, but if your leaders are fallible, you just look like a bad impression of a bag of satsumas. Sputnik’s Ultravixens went back to their Cramps albums, and the game was up. U2 stole their tunes, the Beastie Boys stole their cheek and Frankie Goes To Hollywood stole their audience. And the official-merchandise pink pineapple hair extensions? In the end, they couldn’t give those away.

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Ten unmissable SSS classics

Sex Bomb Boogie - "You want it/You got it/Well come on baby, love me like a rocket!"

Boom Boom Satellite - "Oh baby, it’s a wind-up"

Atari Baby - "She's the girl from Arcade Street!"

Love Missile F1-11 - "US bombs cruising overhead/There goes my love-rocket red!"

Frankenstein Cha Cha Cha - "I’m like a Mona Lisa/sex-change Ebeneezer/Scrooge, I wanna meet my Frankenstein!"

Dancerama - "So, you wanna dance, or what?"

Is This The Future? - "The crowds, the noise, the auto machines!"

21st Century Boy - "Can the Cartier, toss the Tissot/Timex Kid, time to GO-go!"

Massive Retaliation - "Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up!"

Albinoni vs Star Wars - "It’s Revolution Number 10/Hey, here comes that stun guitar again!"

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SSS discography

Love Missile F1-11 Single 1 Mar 1986 No.3

21st Century Boy Single 7 Jun 1986 No.20

Flaunt It Album 1986 position unknown

Sex Bomb Boogie Video single 1986 N/A

Rocket Miss USA Single date unknown - (as Sci-Fi Sex Stars)

Success Single 19 Nov 1988 No.31

Dancerama Single 1 Apr 1989 No.50

Dress For Excess Album 1989 date/position unknown

Albinoni vs Star Wars Single 20 May 1989 No.75

Rio Rocks Single 1989 did not chart

The First Generation Album 1990 did not chart

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To the best of our knowledge, the video for Dancerama (which was, like the song itself, eerily similar to Blur’s ‘The Universal’) was only ever shown once on UK television, on the soundbite hell of The Chart Show. As the story unfolds, Neal X finds himself in a dilemma.

"Our hero has to choose between his old love and the future of rock’n’roll"

But, as is The Chart Show’s way, the video is brutally cut short before the end, and we never find out his decision. If you can disseminate this essential information, you know where to find us. You shall be rewarded.


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