Author: Ian Peel / Source: Record Collector / Published: 2004
If you trace a line from Goldfrapp all the way back to Kraftwerk, it would intersect in 1999 with Groovejet featuring Sophie Ellis-Bextor and in 1987 with Act. The combined talents of electronica pioneer Thomas Leer (Private Plane, The Bridge, et al) and Claudia Brücken (Propaganda) and the sparkle of their label, ZTT, made for perhaps the most collectable bands of the late 80s.
With even their most common release changing hands these days for silly money, this month sees the release of Anthology, a three CD box set of just about every song, remix and b-side the band recorded, and plenty of early demos to boot.
Last month I tracked down Thomas Leer for his only interview about the project and begun by asking him how he formed Act in the first place. ‘After leaving my previous label Arista, I wanted to do something totally different to what I'd done before,’ he told me. ‘I wanted it to be more project based, theatrically-inspired and most importantly with someone else fronting it …’
‘I'd known (ZTT founder) Paul Morley for a few years. He had interviewed me a couple of times early on and he'd always been very positive and supportive of my attitude. We also shared a lot of musical likes and dislikes and a sense of humour. I knew I could work with him so I pitched my little idea for an avant showbiz pop group and he suggested the perfect person to front it might be Claudia. She had just split with Propaganda so it did seem like perfect timing. I was a fan of their music and I loved her voice. Claudia's sound was unmistakeable and it seemed to me that whatever context you put her in it was always gonna be recognisably her. I was looking for an identity for an unidentifiable music and she fitted the bill. So we met, we got on, we formed Act.’ Producer Bob Kraushaar takes up the story. ‘I was house engineer at Sarm Studios at the time. It was my job to work with Claudia and Thomas and get their ideas recorded onto tape. Just the three of us. Then Trevor (Horn) and Steve (Lipson) took the tapes and worked on the songs for months, often without Thomas or Claudia being present.’ What Horn and Lipson came up with were the last vestiges of the big elecronic art house sounds of the 80s, that had spawned Art of Noise, Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome. ‘There was a good deal of stress placed on the production crew to come up with ideas that hadn’t been used on previous records’ remembers Thomas, although he concedes, ‘I think this led to a fair amount of unnecessary fiddling.’
Tracks like ‘Laughter’, ‘Gestures’, ‘Certified’ and the first single, 1987’s ‘Snobbery & Decay’, were the perfect realisation of Thomas’ original plan. But it’s stalling at number sixty – despite it’s making being the subject of a Tomorrow’ World special on electronic music – didn’t exactly get them off to a flying start. ‘It was a bit too full on, they didn’t want to hear our criticisms about British politics!’ says Claudia of the single of the single’s anti-me decade lyrics. ‘ Maybe I was a bit too head on. It might have made it too difficult to digest...’
One of the album’s highlights, ‘Chance’, was another typically anti-consumerist tour de force. But it’s since passed into collectors’ legend after being scrapped at the last minute. Sleeves and remixes were all pressed and ready but Trevor Horn pulled the plug. ‘Sometimes he used to be in this kind of doubt with doing,’ explains Claudia, ‘but the next day he would find it great again. And the next day he’d be doubtful again. And he kind of pulled out of it…’
Several mixes of ‘Chance’ are finally available on Anthology’s 51 tracks. As are three takes of a Smiths cover, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’. Claudia Brücken always had a thing about electronic versions of guitar pop (Propaganda covered Joseph K’s ‘Sorry For Laughing’) and ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ was a live favourite. The versions unearthed for Anthology feature scatting from Lucky Gordon. Notorious in the early 60s for his liaisons with Christine Keeler and the Profumo affair, Gordon was the chef at Sarm and Act roped in him for some vocals!
His past was possibly why Paul Morley renamed him Casbah for the sleeve credits. Plus ‘he just liked making up imaginary musicians,’ remembers Claudia. Another cover surfacing on Anthology is the rare B-side ‘White Rabbit’. ‘I really completely forgot about ‘White Rabbit’,’ says Claudia ‘and I love it!’
Although neither of the duo were involved in putting Anthology together, Claudia, for one, is pleased that it has been assembled. ‘I’m very happy with the re-release because I felt like Act never got the attention at the time,’ she told me, but mentioned that the vaults might have been plundered just a bit too far. ‘Some of the mixes are like the first mix ever or you just hear the backing vocal right in your face but you don’t hear the lead vocal. As the cover admittedly says, it’s plundering the vaults! Its OK but I would have decided to not put that on. I don’t know if people want to hear that kind of stuff… I heard ‘Body Electric’ and I was a bit embarrassed! It was a demo. I didn’t realise that this was ever going to be released as it is…’
Perhaps for Thomas Leer, though, these early tracks are from their happiest part of the life of Act, ‘My memory's of the time are pretty mixed,’ he says, ‘the early writing stage was the best time for me when we were still finding our feet experimenting messing around with idea's. Just generally having the sort of fun you're supposed to have when your creating music. It's my view that we wrote the best stuff that we did together during this time. When we hit the studio of course the work dynamic had to change and it all descended into a kind of ludicrous soap opera, the script of which I have neither the energy or indeed the interest in raking over. There were good times, there were bad times. There were power plays, just like Dallas & Dynasty! Not really...’
‘Absolutely Immune (Take 4)’, ‘(Alternative) Gestures’ and ‘Under the Nights of Germany (Trial Edit)’ from Anthology all reveal Act in this raw, early state. Bob Krausharr’s happy about this. ‘The demos had a certain rawness that I remember Paul Morley particularly liked,’ he told me. ‘But the (finished) results were very produced, very gimmicky. I didn't get the album when it was finished, I didn't like it.’
‘His opinions on the finished versions is fair comment,’ comments Thomas, ‘but I think you could level that at just about every other ZTT record of that time, with the possible exception of Andrew Poppy. The problem with trying to make pop records that marry intellect with the bleedin’ obvious is, eventually your gonna run out of ways to do it. As far as Steve and Trevor’s contributions are concerned I think they did what they felt they had to do to get the record done. I didn’t like everything they did and I was pretty vocal about it at the time, but the good stuff that they did do was gorgeous…’
By the time Act released Laughter Tears & Rage, ZTT had moved home from Island to Warners and the album literally fell through the gap. ‘We really got lost in there,’ Claudia concedes. With little backing, no immediate hits and an project that went so far over budget it was never likely to make money, Act fizzled out in 1988. ‘We jut did this one album and I think we were so saddened really because we did a lot of work and didn’t really feel we got a lot out of it,’ remembers Claudia. Thomas immediately started on a solo project called Plastic & Physical, the demos of which still exist. Claudia started on a solo album, too. Prima Donna became Love and a Million Other Things (Island, 1990) and so the Act story ended, although one of their most obscure yet definitive tracks did show up on Radio 1 years later when I first DJ’d for Annie Nightingale in 2000. I mixed in ‘(Theme From) Snobbery & Decay’ between other obscure ZTT delights – an Orb remix Sun Electric and Andrew Poppy‘s minimalist ‘Cadenza’.
Anthology comes as both Thomas and Claudia have new projects bubbling to the surface. Having abandoned six-years of work on a third Propaganda album (‘It kind of taught me a lesson, you know, don’t look back, look forward,’), Another Language, her album of piano covers with Andrew Poppy is almost ready. With sleeve notes by Paul Morley and released on her new label with partner Paul Humphreys (OMD), it’s coincidentally produced by Bob Kraushaar. ‘The quality of her voice is unique,’ Bob says, ‘and she's singing better than ever. On the finished album it's beautifully exposed.’
Some early Thomas Leer keyboard work was rediscovered on 2002’s reissue of The The’s Soul Mining. ‘He was years ahead of his time and actually inspired me to create The The, really,’ The The’s Matt Johnson said at the time. But his most important recording since Act is Parts of a Greater Hole, an onslaught of creativity, sampling and melody that was recorded on the road, released in 2001, and only available at the www.thomasleer.co.uk website.
Back when Claudia began working on Love and a Million Other Things, Thomas was embarking on almost ten years away from making albums, sparked not least by a disillusionment with the music business. ‘I think disillusioned is too mild a word but it'll do,’ he told me. ‘I just wasn’t up for it anymore, so I hung up my synths and moseyed off into the distance. And I'd have probably stayed there if I hadn’t tuned into Cold Cut’s Solid Steel show on Kiss FM. One Saturday night, the Future Sound of London doing two hours of musical mayhem... It was fucking fantastic and immediately made me want to start working again. I recorded Conversation Peace that summer (1995) with no real intention to release it (it was finally released on Avtar last year). I just did it for the sake of my own sanity really. It was only a couple of years back when I went on the internet that I realised there were still quite a few people out there who were interested in what I was doing and wanted to hear something. So, I'm always happy to oblige... Of course there are a range of other factors involved in the ten year gap that have nothing at all to do with musical disillusionment. It's curious how some people think if you haven’t had a record out in ten years you must be either dead or working at McDonalds. I've always had other creative interests and I did spend quite a bit of time developing them, some of which might come to light in the future, who knows...’