Naked Lunch: Beyond Planets – album review & interview with Tony Mayo
Naked Lunch ‘Beyond Planets’ (Sub Culture)
Released 21st February 2014
Almost fifty years old, around thirty of those actively working to inform and promote music of worth even I find it hard to believe there are still moments of real excitement which run deep through these old bones. A couple of years ago I’d recorded a band’s all-too-brief studio output (singles and compilation tracks) onto CD from crunchy vinyl for posterity/ease of access and shortly afterwards one of those rare jaw-drops hit. This band had only just gone and reformed. The band was and now IS again Naked Lunch. THE Naked Lunch, one of the forces of English Futurism which furthered my own youth development. I still regard the ‘Some Bizzare’ album as the finest compilation album of all time and ‘La Femme’ by Naked Lunch its greatest track (well, along with Illustration, Soft Cell, Mode, The Loved One… Oh hell, I love them all, but ‘La Femme’ IS the best track on Side One!), put that alongside the remarkable ‘Rabies’ single (banned by BBC Radio I believe – it was the Eighties) and I’ve always felt with those two songs at the core they could have produced one hell of a debut album. Who could have thought thirty years after their last single ‘You Tie Me Down’ was released ‘Beyond Planets’ would offer us oldies and a whole new breed of young electro-junkies a full taste of the revamped analogue (now via digital) moveable attack that always was Naked Lunch.
So, rather than me just waffle about the album, after all this time it seemed appropriate to speak to their main-man, vocalist, computational interrogator and punkin’ instigator Tony Mayo on the past, the (still sounds strange saying this) debut album and possible futures now Naked Lunch are back and progressive.
It would be another two years before this spotty insular 14 year old discovered them and the Some Bizzare Album but keys were rolling while musical (guitar) anarchy died; “Back in 1979 I left a punk band with the idea of doing electronic music with a punk music approach. I worked on a few songs with a guitarist and after I put an advert in the Melody Maker Mick Clarke linked up with us. Mick and I moved into a flat in Finchley and continued to work on songs. We were then joined by Cliff Chapman and not long after Paul Davies due to the other guitarist being unable to continue in the band because of injury.
“We played a lot of gigs during 1980 and undertook our Electronic Indoctrination Tour, taking our brand of aggressive electronic music around England, with part of our Futurama II performance ending up on BBC2. We were at the forefront of the scene and were very much into playing live and tried to get people interested in electronic music. We recruited Mark Irving early in 1981 as our drummer. In 1981 we also did the 2002 review tour, had our song ‘La Femme’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test and were being hailed as the next big thing but sadly that was not to be”.
Anyone who has, or had an interest in UK electronic music will be aware of the legendary Stevo, the man behind the Some Bizzare label. A larger than life figure who certainly had a different way of working the industry. Signing major label deals for the most alternative of acts such as Test Dept, releasing Psychic TV, Coil, Einsturzende Neubauten, gaining commercial success with Soft Cell and allegedly persuading Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire to go naked with his vox. Acrimonious splits aside with most of the bands associated with him, he must be given credit for pushing these unlikely talents into a commercial spotlight. It is of course no surprise to learn now that Stevo wasn’t working alone in the early days; “We linked up with Stevo in early 1980 and I used to DJ with him at Gossips and the Chelsea Drug Store, driving him in my transit van. We worked with him to promote the electronic music scene and he came with us to DJ at various gigs on our tour. He had the idea of a compilation so we started talking to bands and asking them to go on the album. Matt Johnson from The The lived near me and we also knew a few other bands who then featured on the album.
“Working with him was interesting, I recall how once I managed to grab his hand and stop him pouring his beer over the rear of the EMI executives head at Duran Duran’s first London gig at the Sundown. We all had a sense of humour and would pull all sorts of stunts. Unfortunately in January 1981 our involvement with Stevo came to an abrupt end after I had driven him and Marc Almond down to Billy’s (legendary club run by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan) and met up with the rest of Naked Lunch. Stevo said he was changing how he wanted to interact with us. After all of the effort we had put in promoting electronic music, including helping to organise the Clarendon Hotel Event – the fliers were designed by me – we were not too pleased. So we left the club and that was the last time we saw him. We then signed to Ramkup for management.”
Looking at the acts Stevo gained success with must have been hard to swallow but there were several reasons why the band never really gained the momentum they so fully deserved; “At the end of 1980 I had glandular fever and had difficulty with my voice. We were at the fore of the “new scene”, had a big tour and lots of pressure. I’d left my job and was fully committed to Naked Lunch, talking to the BBC and Twentieth Century Box about TV spots for the band. Mick was married and his wife was expecting. He declined to come and play all of the tour dates, so as to be with his wife. Unfortunately, I questioned his commitment, as I viewed Naked Lunch as our career and that we needed to honour our contractual commitments. All of this added together resulted in a schism in the band and our management failed to sit us all down together and tell us to grow up. We threw away several major record deals due to this. Sadly I had noted this schism and had spoken to our original drummer from early 1980, Tim York. He, Dave Knight of the Fast Set and Paul Loughnane and I had registered the name Naked Lunch. After our Gig at Planets where we had a large music celebrity crowd, including Boy George and Marilyn, we split up. I went and rehearsed with the new band and was kept on by the management and agents. We then headlined the first ever all day electronic event in London, also on Twentieth Century Box as were Depeche Mode, whom I had suggested should be included in the program. Paul Davies and I kept in touch, as we were friends and a couple of years later he and Mark joined Naked Lunch for the headlining Marquee gig in Wardour Street.”
Hence, with all the upheaval in personnel no album would be forthcoming? “Unfortunately, we had not recorded any other material, as we primarily liked playing live and thought recording should be done for a reason and not for the sake of it. We were former punks and really did not like the music industry and commercialism, hence, there being little of our material being around nowadays even though we use to write and play loads of different songs.”
Fast Forward. From the heady mid-Eighties and even though there has been no recorded output or live sightings the heart of Tony’s passion had still been beating; “I always regretted that we had split up and had kept on working on material over the years. Then late in the Noughties Paul and I linked up via a MySpace he had set up for Naked Lunch. A message was sent to him that he would know could only come from me and we then met up. After several social meetings we agreed that we had been total idiots splitting up. We both felt that we wanted to relight the name of Naked Lunch in electronic music, as we were only a brief mention in Depeche Mode’s and Marc Almond’s Biographies.
“The first thing Paul and I then did was to see if we could write anything that we felt was of any worth and on one Saturday afternoon we wrote a new song and were blown away with how it sounded. We could hear it was Naked Lunch, but it was as we would have progressed. It was US now. We laughed and said ‘OK we are reforming then’!” Other’s followed; “We bumped into Cliff at a Blancmange gig and also Deb’s who asked us to open BASII [Festival in Basildon, Essex 2012]. Cliff joined, Paul contacted Mick and he agreed to do the gig and we met Mark at a party and he agreed to join too. We were back together, agreeing we had been daft to split up. Reconciled we opened BASII and the audience response blew us away. Mick then returned to Newcastle, where he has a label and DJ’s but the rest of us carried on rehearsing and gigging. Recently, Jet Noir has joined after us discussing doing some collaborations and it was thought better that we just all linked up. She is an excellent addition to Naked Lunch and will be involved in the writing of more material.”
With the band being back together and focussed my own immediate thoughts would be to return to the tracks which were pushing through back in the day, especially as there is now such an interest in original Eighties Futurism. A quick reissue programme perhaps? “No, that thought did not even cross our minds. We were just thinking about writing material and revisiting some of old material and playing live. We had not even thought about recording to start with. However, we were approached by Dark Entries [U.S. based label specialising in reissuing rare and unreleased underground music] who are putting out a vinyl album later in spring of some of our old material. Some of it is a bit dated but I think it shows how we would write such diverse sounding material.”
Buoyed by interest from the live work and renewed drive to put down new studio tracks I wondered if there was a planned sound for the album and perhaps a different angle of attack from thirty years previous? “The only sound we wanted was how we used to approach music. Aggressive rhythm patterns, colour on top plus haunting synth lines and vocals to suit the song. We are really very pleased with the result and Jet has helped further those haunting synth lines along with Cliff. When we decided to do the album we thought about the title and had our usual joke ideas. I then suggested Beyond Planets as we had now moved past our last gig together, so many years ago.”
The album certainly has a very dark, depth of character. Whereas previously Naked Lunch slotted neatly into Futurist territories, their songs sounded menacing but with enough of a light touch for the possibility of commercial success. As there seems to be no ‘headline’ electronic scene where does Tony see themselves in the musical scheme of things now? “I don’t think it is really for us to say where we fit. We will write and play our style of aggressive electronic music and others will try to define us. However, we most certainly are not an 80’s revival band and are more akin with the alternative music scene and that is where we feel we should be. It is the Alternative/Goth scene that has built upon the ideas that we held all those years ago and we felt at home when we played Dark Waters Alternative Festival and the Slimelight last year.”
Though I’m not a lover of much of the ‘new’ Goth scene I’m also at a loss of the merit of all these Eighties Revival Tours so am pleased Naked Lunch intend to remind the public of their past but their future being is more important. Having been on the verge of major success all those years ago it would have been easy to immediately try to tap those veins again but one of their new tracks ‘Alone’ is the first single (or DL equivalent) from the album. I’m not a lover of the switch to Download releases which we are all having to adapt to and I guess the band must have found the industry now to be a whole new ball game? “The music industry is still a mine field but I have noticed that people do not appear to cherish live music or even the recorded performance as much as they used to. Downloads are OK but why do people seem to have problems paying for them? If people want music and if they don’t want to be served with commercial corporate drivel MUSAK then you have to support those who give you an alternative. I hope people will give our album a listen and find something that appeals to them.”
‘Beyond Planets’ certainly has enough solar spectrum to appeal to those who treasure their original studio rarities and anyone unaware of NL pre-2012. Its darkness is balanced immaculately with a smooth, semi-commercial sheen. ‘We Are’ slowly countdowns. We’ve waited so long for a full album tenterhooks are finally released as pulses drive and rasping voice anthems… “We are ONE”. Blast off. A clever opening as tempo rises again with ‘Slipping Again, Again’, that voice riding the percussion and dodging guitar shards. Similarly ‘Glow’ pushes ahead with EBM-precision and snarling vox whilst ‘Weekend Behaviour’ leads a lighter edge, more in keeping with its original from the ‘Plezure Starts Here’ compilation. The calling synths reel from an earlier timeline. ‘Slipping Again’, another oldie is a perfect reworking, fast and rhythmic undertowed by a deliciously enhanced bass-line vocal. ‘Alone’ washes through hypnotically, quite possibly the standout cut of the album; an immensely seductive track. Easily enjoying playtime on day/night-time radio and dim-lit clubs alike. It is of course just my problem but the two tracks which am not so fond of are ‘Rabies’ and ‘La Femme’. How’s that for irony!
The originals have been played, listened to, dissected to death and ENJOYED over more than thirty years (you too can get them from the band’s limited ‘Frozen’ reissue EP) but their sheer full-knuckled punch has been a little blunted on the new versions here I feel. I’m picking hairs I know because for many these tracks will be their first viewings and won’t be numbed at all by my pre-conceptions so ignore me, I’m a grumpy old man most of the time! ‘Fade Away’ closes the album in Neu! Futurist Sci-Fi style. A myriad of voices vapour-trailing until warp-speed decreases and landing docked. In all, a pretty amazing debut bristling with optimistic energy. I hope it finally gains the band the level of attention they fully deserve for past and future. Here’s to many more decades. Over to Tony, where next?
“To play more gigs, write and record more tracks, to meet more bands and fans and to try to push forward.”
© Deadhead from The Empty Quarter 2014
You can also follow me via Twitter @deadhead_TEQ and @bazzanagnagnag the latter where I babble endlessly on music, horse racing, politics, life and society (lack of); expect bad language.