By Emily Carney
During the first years of the 1980s, electronic music underwent a mutation into synth pop. In the United States, the new synth pop seemed to be represented by two imports from England, namely Gary Numan and the Human League. While Gary Numan specialized in overly serious songs about urban alienation (and aliens!), the Human League shifted their focus from overly serious songs about urban alienation to slick, well-produced hits about guy-girl relationships and “good times.” While both entities have been idolized by fans and musicians (particularly within the last decade), another pioneer of electronic music has been overlooked, even posthumously.
Fad Gadget—otherwise known as Frank Tovey—built up a catalogue of music more demanding in scope and more lyrically interesting than perhaps any other artist in the synth-pop canon around that time.
1982’s “Life on the Line,” while being a fantastically catchy pop song, defied all expectations of pop songs of the time, particularly when contrasted with something like “Love Action (I Believe in Love)” by the Human League. The song seems to revolve around a relationship (a marriage perhaps?) and carries little of the idealistic guy/girl exuberance apparent in much of its radio contemporaries. The most telling lyrics include:
Fortune built my homes in daydreams
Pages I’d never seen
I’m sorry you were so disappointed
The contract states quite fundamentally
The undersigned is you
Lay your life on the line
When Frank sings, “I’m sorry you were so disappointed,” he sounds anything but interested in the reaction of the person he addresses the lyrics to; in fact, his tone is very sarcastic and removed. Perhaps he meant to undermine the “poppiness” and corny idealism of the early 1980s with this song, whose instrumentation sounds like it could be a hit on a Human League album.
The song appears in the middle of an album titled Under the Flag, which directly addresses the Falklands War in its title track. The entire album seems to be an antidote to the decadent posturing of bands like Duran Duran, who probably used most of their budgets making videos of girls swimming in champagne on beaches.
1985’s “Luxury” continues Frank Tovey’s theme about the Eighties being a time when people were lost in sheer greed, cocaine, and general madness. Tovey’s lyrics seem to champion the trappings of money—Luxury / Diamonds and pearls / Champagne and caviar / Cigars and girls / A private plane, and shining car—but the chorus of the song clearly underscores the “hunger and greed” of the era. Here Tovey even pokes fun at Heaven 17, a band with a “yuppie” image who made vaguely Socialist songs about money.
At the very end of “Luxury,” a clearly maddened Tovey shouts, “HELP ME” rather hilariously, asking the listener to literally save him from the Eighties. The closest companion to this song is perhaps his 1983 song, “Collapsing New People,” which echoes the name of German band Einstürzende Neubauten (English translation: “collapsing new buildings”). Both songs mock the bullshit-clichés which exemplified the 1980s while taking the piss out of those over-serious Goths.
“Collapsing New People” underscores the unique plight of Goths who sat awake all night / and never see the stars / and sleep all day / on a chain link bed of nails. Sleeping on a chain link bed of nails would probably sound awesome to a Goth who wanted to regale friends with stories of self-flagellation. Frank definitely tapped into the desires of a culture which wanted to be both “underground” and tremendously attention-getting.
Check Frank out in his performance of the song: covered with tar and feathers and out of control. It would be easy to attempt to analyze his getup as an attempt to imitate the club kids of the time, but he probably just wanted to look totally insane on stage.
Tovey’s insanity became nearly mythical and came to include things like banging himself on the head with a synthdrum and becoming bloodied; covering himself in nothing but strategically placed shaving cream; kicking drinks off of bars and tables during performances; and severely damaging ligaments in both legs due to some ill-conceived stage-diving. He also transformed himself into the scariest looking Punch and Judy puppet ever on the cover of his 1981 album Incontinent.
Frank also did a short modeling stint for a hairdresser’s convention. In a 1980 article from UK music magazine Sounds, he gives the details (1):
“I performed in the Albert Hall in front of 20,000 people dressed up in blue satin trousers and a gold Lurex top with ‘HUSTLER’ written across it in sequins with my hair blow waved and everything. I got a free trip to London and I had to go on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall and dance to this disco music, sit down in a chair and have my hair blow waved in front of all of these people. It was all put down on video and everything, all of it live.”
Unfortunately none of this fantastic Frank Tovey disco hustler footage has made it to YouTube.
Frank Tovey eventually dropped the Fad Gadget moniker, and made several albums of lyrical, guitar driven folk-rock. However, it is arguable that his early 1980s output functions as “folk music” of its own, as it wholly relates to the unique problems and political issues prevalent in the 1980s. In that same Sounds article, Frank engages in a bit of discussion about Gary Numan and the Human League:
“I think the Human League are like steamed pudding. Boom, boom, and heavy. Gary Numan is more like a birthday cake with icing, really sweet, you have a little bit and it makes you feel queasy.”
While it is clear that Frank was talking shit about the two most prominent electronic acts in 1980, he does have a valid point. His music has not become dated unlike other artists from those times of excess and self-aggrandizement.
1. Edwin Pouncey, “Weird Scenes from a Futurist Tea Party,” Sounds. December 6, 1980.