Quick! Let’s make love. Before you die.
Some people call this a one hit wonder. And I wonder if they know what they are talking about. It’s as wrong as it gets. Why? Well, primarily because it wasn’t a hit. And no hit, no one hit wonder. It’s as simple as that.
But it’s much more wrong on a deeper level. And it’s interesting to take a closer look as it tells us a lot about the record itself, and about the artist and the label. The point is – the (un)fortunate artists that have qualified as one hit wonders undoubtedly were a) happy to have landed a hit and b) kind of sad that they couldn’t follow this up with at least a second one. Tried, succeeded once, tried again, failed (repeatedly).
None of this applies to Daniel Miller – on this 7″ also known as The Normal. A hit single was never the intention. He didn’t even intend to release a second one.
This is Mute 001. The first release on the label Miller started and that was going to define what electronic music would sound like in the eighties and nineties. The home of Depeche Mode, Moby, Nick Cave and Goldfrapp, to name just a few of the label’s giants. It’s probably the most programmatic, most symbolic, most defining first release for any label ever. These two tracks proclaimed what Miller had in mind better than any press release, corporate mission or signature signing.
Two super raw and simple pieces of music, an initial release of 2.000 copies sold at independent record shops, that was it. Miller, his Korg 700S synthesizer, a few bare words as lyrics more spoken than sung, delivered without even a hint of emotion, combined playing time 6 minutes and 15 seconds.
Mute 001 – it was the start of a legendary label and it was the founder himself who defined the mindset behind it with its first release. If you combine technology and creativity, great music is the result.
“Hear the crushing steel. Feel the steering wheel.” If you want further proof that Daniel Miller was not out to score a big hit, just take a look at the lyrics. This is not the kind of stuff that would get much airplay.
“Warm Leatherette” features extraordinary and quite disturbing lyrics. Legend has it that this was the reason why the title was officially on the B side of the single. Later re-releases turned things around as “Warm Leatherette” was the better song by a large margin.
Twelve lines of lyrics sum up a whole book, an entire film. J. G. Ballard’s controversial book “Crash”, turned into an equally fiercely debated movie by David Cronenberg about people who get sexually aroused by car crashes. Here’s how it ends: “A tear of petrol is in your eye. The hand brake penetrates your thigh. Quick let’s make love before you die.”
Is “T.V.O.D.” less controversial? Not really. Here’s all the lyrics at one glance: “I don’t need a TV screen. I just stick the aerial into my skin and let the signal run through my veins.” Don’t try this at home. Or anywhere else for that mater. Five years later, another Cronenberg film was released with a slightly similar concept, “Videodrome”. I wonder if Miller and Cronenberg ever met to chat about how their creativity took similar directions.
My copy of the 7″ is a precious one. No, not because it is so valuable. It sells for 10 to 20 Euros on Discogs, depending on condition. It’s precious for more personal reasons. I grew up in a city up in the North of Germany, and in the late seventies I spent a lot of time in record shops. Just down the street there was a small place that sold second hand vinyl and I was as much a regular as the little money I had allowed me.
One day, I was waiting for someone else to pay for whatever she or he had decided to take home when I saw some kind of dispenser on the counter with a small stack of 7″ singles. It was a curious thing with very crude design, crash test dummies at the moment of impact, arms flailing, and “the normal” printed above it. That was it. It intrigued me, so I took a closer look. Back side of the sleeve – even more simple in design, black and white clip art, simple lettering. Somehow I could relate to the way this came across.
So I bought it. On impulse. Some people grab a candy bar or some chewing gum when they are waiting to pay – I bought this strange musical snack.
Here’s another reason why my copy is so precious. It survived a fire. It really did. Not a huge blaze, but a real fire. One of the smoldering ones. It was a bitingly cold winter and my stinky little oil heater was at full blast with my windows firmly closed as the house was losing enough heat without my help already. I only went out to grab something to eat, and when I got back the whole floor I lived on was filled with smoke. It was pretty obvious that it was coming from my room.
Rushed down to the pub below, told the couple who ran the bar about the fire (not amused, they were our landlords as well), called for help, fire brigade came, quickly found the source of it and pointed at my heater accusingly. They said if the window had been open the fire would have had enough oxygen to burn down the house in no time. I felt shit of course, and my room looked the way I felt. The firemen hadn’t used water (good), they had grabbed two dry powder extinguishers (not exactly good, but better than foam or water) to take care of the fire.
Everything I had was now a) stinking badly and b) covered with grime and extinguisher powder. I admit that I was more worried about my record collection and my stereo than I was worried about my clothes, my carpet or my furniture. I still have most of the books I owned back then and they are still carrying that particular shade of grey on the top side. They might even still faintly smell. The smell of a small smoldering fire in a small student’s apartment.
“Warm leatherette melts on your burning skin” comments Daniel Miller again, and when I examined my vinyl I was obviously fearing that warm vinyl might have been melting in those cardboard sleeves. Or that they’d be deformed, wobbling in ways that can throw even the heaviest stylus out of the groove.
This little single suffered more than others simply because it wasn’t standing side by side with them. It didn’t huddle up or even mingle. It stood on my shelf all by itself, despite the name of the artist not even pretending to be normal. The grime and powder had all the front side of the sleeve to settle on, and they did so generously. It looked bad, the crash test dummies not only stuck in a crashing car but behind a thick grey stinky screen as well.
I pulled it out of its badly redesigned sleeve and took a good look at it. I couldn’t believe my luck. The vinyl was as pristine as on day one, not the slightest sign of deformation, not even the grime had been able to enter the sleeve. I lost most of my clothes in that fire because I kept them piled up next to the heater. Did I care? Not really. Would I have been deeply distressed if this single that cost me five Deutsche Mark had been rendered unplayable as a result of that fire? You bet.
It’s till not snuggling up to other records. Still standing there by itself, carrying that extra layer of grey like a battle scar.
Anyone that remembers seeing this in a record shop and buying it, or just simply anyone that bought it when it was published is a certified old person. In most cases this would mean you were born somewhere in the sixties, and if not it would have been before the sixties.
And if that is the case, we will share more than just the experience of running across this kind of music in the late seventies. Just like me you will have been someone that owned a tape deck and a collection of audio cassettes, and you would always have had at least three or four blank ones ready just in case something on the radio was worth recording.
You would probably also know a time before recording could be done by cable, the days when we were placing our tape recorder close to the speakers of the radio, keeping the two fingers ready that would be needed to record anything (record and play simultaneously) and always being massively afraid of the moment when someone would enter the room and make any kind of noise while you were recording something, even if it was only the latest hit single by T. Rex or Pink Floyd.
We all cared a lot about our audio cassettes. We wrote down all of the names of the tracks and the artists and we used all of our artistic skills in order to decorate the cards inside the little plastic box. We used whatever we could. Markers, crayons and paint, stuff cut out of magazines, newspapers and catalogues, and whatever else we could find. I even glued different kinds of fabrics on the cards, wallpaper samples, tinfoil, dyed gauze, anything that could be glued and was flat enough to allow the newly decorated card to re-enter the box smoothly.
And we used Letraset. For those of you who don’t know what it is, google it. I think it was the best invention since sliced bread. This company sold these totally fantastic sheets with letters and numbers on them and you could rub them off the carrier sheet onto your artwork. They had all kinds of typefaces and even symbols and clip arts, all you needed to do was to carefully place whatever you wanted to transfer to paper over the spot where you wanted to apply it, use a pencil (not too sharp) and slowly rub it onto the paper. The carrier sheets even had little placement marks so you could keep the lettering straight (if that was how you wanted it).
Why am I telling you this? Well – I’ll be damned if this wasn’t more or less how the cover of this 7″ was put together. This is how things looked if you did the layout yourself – if you were creative and meticulous enough to create something that didn’t look rubbish. This is what we did when we created a design for the inlay cards of our cassettes. This is what our little students’ magazines looked like, the ones that we glued together after school. Maybe not as cool and maybe not as minimalist – but yes, back then you looked at this sleeve, front side and back, and you knew how it had been done.
It’s hard to describe how people like me could relate to something like that and immediately understand that there was someone that was just like yourself. I didn’t have to listen to the record. I know I didn’t even wonder what it might sound like.
Oh, yes, the music. Time to talk about the music. I am inclined to adapt Daniel Miller’s lyrics – the piercing sound penetrates your ear. The lyrics are beyond freezing point, and so is the music, including the vocal rendition of Daniel Miller. This is as raw as it needs to be, it’s one coherent work of art.
Listening to it again I am reminded of the extreme reactions that Cronenberg’s film was provoking not just upon release but even more when it was shown at film festivals. The reactions could not have been more extreme. At the Cannes Film Festival it received the rarely awarded Special Jury Prize – but the controversy within the jury must have been extreme. Francis Ford Coppola, the president of the jury, was so appalled by the film that he refused to present it to Cronenberg. He asked someone else to do it instead. While his jury members clearly thought it was a masterpiece, he simply hated it.
Quite expectedly, several critics also hated it. But much more revealing is what the critics that praised it had to say about the film. Roger Ebert said: “I admired it, although I cannot say I ‘liked’ it.” And a BBC critic wrote that the film was “pretty much perfect” but also found it “hard to like”.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the same is true for the music on this 7″, but as raw, icy, insistent and inexorable as it is, it really doesn’t try hard to make us like it. The Human League’s “Being Boiled” was released at almost the same time – not exactly a love song either, but its vague and ominous symbolism seems immature in comparison.
If this single was not released to compete for airplay, fame or anything like that – what was the purpose? Apart from the simple and understandable act of starting his own label with a release under his own name, that is. Some aspects will be easily deducted. Establishing instant credibility for both label and founder for example.
It’s bigger than that though. All aspects of this release are symbolic of its time. It’s a young guy proving that you can turn ideas into songs with nothing but creativity and a Korg, that you can sit down, program it, record it, release it, start a label, turn your vision into reality. The minimalistic design with its glued-together Letraset layout is a perfect visualization of this concept. Anyone can do it, and many did in the years that followed.
Which is sort of a Punk attitude at the same time. Here’s a riff, here’s another one, here’s a third, now form a band. No doubt a halfway sober Punk band would have been able to come up with a proper translation for three chords and a drum set in no time. Instead, it was going to be Grace Jones picking up the track to turn it into one of her many hits.
“This is a Mute record”. This is what we can read on the back side of the sleeve. This is a great little record. This is how the age of electronic pop music started. Two years later Depeche Mode joined Mute. No one hit wonder either.
Release for review:
THE NORMAL – T.V.O.D. / WARM LEATHERETTE – MUTE – MUTE 001