By Emily Carney
Starting in the late 1980s, Frank Tovey (also known as Fad Gadget, whose music and general adventures were chronicled in a past Popshifter article) departed from avant-garde synth-pop, and started making Irish folk records.
While this may seem like an insane 180-degree turn in musical style, one can argue that Tovey’s first “folk album” was 1982’s Under the Flag, which emotionally chronicled the Falklands conflict with the album’s title tracks and a song called “The Sheep Look Up.” Perhaps the seeds for Tovey’s eclectic musical interests were sown as early as this period, when he described his tastes as encompassing Irish folk music and medieval choir music. By 1991, Tovey had hooked up with the Irish folk band The Pyros, and the metamorphosis from shaving cream-covered hallucinogenic human sculpture to righteous folk singer was complete with the album Grand Union.
Grand Union should have been feted as a masterpiece on the same level as U2’s The Joshua Tree, but alas, mass adulation would escape Tovey in his lifetime, and the album remains a little-known yet uncompromising document of the still excess-obsessed early 1990s. The album was described in a documentary made by Mute Records at the time (re-released on the Fad Gadget by Frank Tovey CD/DVD in 2006) as being a musical map of London which charts, song by song, certain events and coincidences in Frank Tovey’s life (keep in mind that Frank was only in his early thirties at the time, but the album sounds like the sentiments of someone much older).
This album doesn’t shy away from stabs at darkness: “Bethnal Green Tube Disaster” revisits an event in Tovey’s mother’s life (she narrowly escaped death in the song’s titular event), while “IKB (RIP)” discusses the great singular achievement of the Great Western Railway while invoking the death (of a stroke, at age 53) of the song’s title hero, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Perhaps the best songs on Grand Union are the single “The Liberty Tree,” which manages to be more simple yet profound (and way less bombastic) than anything U2 ever attempted, and “Cities of the Plain,” which is simply a beautiful song about the emotions of captivity, loss, and grief. “The Liberty Tree” managed to get some airplay on the MTV late-night show 120 Minutes, albeit probably at two in the morning.
The Pyros (Paul Rodden and John Cutliffe) provide a soundtrack that approaches Irish folk with a tinge of rhythmic punk rock (let’s not think Flogging Molly here though; their approach is sparse and respectful enough to let Tovey’s lyricism through). Grand Union is never a preachy or overly earnest album, yet it evokes intense grief and sadness over early-1990s corporate excess (indeed, Frank is photographed on the album’s front cover, Dylan-esque, perched upon a horse, in front of a high-rise corporate building).
Tovey made one more album with The Pyros, 1992’s Worried Men in Second Hand Suits. While this album was also impressive (yielding the amazing single “All That Is Mine”), a third attempt at an album with The Pyros was shelved following the demoing phase for unknown reasons.
Soon after, Tovey disappeared off the musical map. He reemerged in 2001 under his Fad Gadget moniker, and toured with label mates Depeche Mode (who used to open for him back in the early 1980s). Frank was momentarily everywhere again, covering himself with tar, feathers, blood, and shaving cream, just like the good old days. Sadly, his reintroduction to the world of pop music was cut short with his sudden death in April 2002. Frank Tovey’s death was probably one of the first losses in music (other than John Peel) where I actually cried over someone I didn’t know.
As I get older, I find that whenever I am blocked artistically or otherwise in life, I keep returning to Grand Union because of its combination of sentiment and sound. . . however, I do wish it had made Frank more well-known and appreciated during his lifetime.