January 21, 2015

Getting Away With It

In the final year of the 1980s, two of the biggest bands in Britain if not the world were imploding. 

The Smiths were a band that sounded like their songwriters were constantly on the edge of jumping off the highest building in Manchester.  This resonated with listeners and critics both, and they were hailed as "the most influential British guitar group of the decade."  They eschewed the keyboard and synth excesses of the time, instead concentrating on an echo-and-minor-key guitar-based sound.  Despite independent success unlike any seen before, the band split in 1987 from internal pressures.

New Order was formed from tragedy.  When the lead singer of Manchester-based "post-punk" band Joy Division hanged himself on the verge of the band's first North American tour in 1980, the survivors reformed as New Order.  Throughout the '80s, the band mixed what we'd call "alternative music" now and electronic dance music to create a critically acclaimed and influential sound that left major fingerprints on modern techno.  However, the various members all had audio interests that wouldn't fit the band's style.  Side projects were common, with a resulting loss of time for the main group.  Stumbling to the end, New Order broke up in 1993.

But in 1989, lead singer Bernard Sumner was wanting to add more synth programming to New Order, and was rebuffed.  He took to the recording studio alone, intending to make an "anonymous" album of whatever he felt like, but came to a discovery early on: he hated working alone.  Picking up the telephone, Sumner called Johnny Marr, the ex-guitarist of The Smiths, and asked for his input.  The two created a track, entitled "Lucky Bag", all loops and electronic drumkits, and called themselves Electronic.  If it had stopped there, Electronic would have been an interesting non-entity, a footnote in music history if that.  But of course it didn't... I wouldn't be writing about it if it had, right?

In 1989, one of the biggest "pop" bands two years earlier were on the decline.  The Pet Shop Boys had dominated the airwaves for nigh on six years, but their latest single was a relative failure.  Via a mutual friend, lead singer Neil Tennant heard about Electronic and signed up to help out.  The result was Getting Away With It.

As if having the vocalist from New Order on lead, the singer from Pet Shop Boys providing backing vocals, and the guitarist from The Smiths performing a rare solo wasn't enough, the "support staff" was star-laden as well.  Drums on the track were played by David Palmer of ABC, and the tasty orchestral backing was written and conducted by Anne Dudley, one of the founding members of Art of Noise.  While it didn't have much in the way of chart success, reaching #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, and #12 in the UK, it was a sensation in dance clubs around the world.  When Electronic's self-titled album came out 18 months later, "Getting Away With It" led the way again.

All that is well and good.  I've been a fan of the band and the song since the mid '90s, and it came as a pleasant bonus that my brother in feathers, GreyDuck, is also a huge fan.  Last night, I sent him the above video as I'd never seen it.  As I was clicking around youtube, I saw a video title that caught my eye.  After watching and listening, I shot another e-mail off to GreyDuck that said, in effect, "drop everything, you've gotta hear this."

Johnny Marr has stayed busy as time has gone on, being part of The The, Modest Mouse, become a much acclaimed session guitarist, and has a burgeoning solo career.  His take on the dance song made famous by Electronic owes a huge debt to his time with The Smiths, and is almost completely different from the original.

I love it.  It's a stunning interpretation of the song he had so much to do with the creation of.  Enjoy, won't you?

Posted by: Wonderduck at 12:18 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 I came to Electronic entirely by way of Neil Tennant. Heck, I even have the "Disappointed" CD single which was spawned off of... the Cool World movie soundtrack, I think. (Tennant adds vocals to that one as well.) Because I'm a weirdo, though, my favorite Electronic track is actually one of the "Feel Every Beat" single's B-sides, an instrumental called "Lean to the Inside."

Regarding PSB being on the decline since the mid-80s: I'm amused that every few years they feel compelled to write a song about how everyone considers them has-beens. "Yesterday When I Was Mad," for instance. "...it's fabulous you're still around today / you've both made such a little go a very long way..."

Posted by: GreyDuck at January 21, 2015 01:26 PM (3m7pZ)

2 What a great time for new music. In the late 70's we called it underground, later new wave. In the 80's it was college and later alternative.

The Smiths still have a few songs played often in alt radio. How Soon is Now and Panic are still all over the place.

Great post, Mr. Duck.
Some of the greatest stories about music are the movements of artists behind the scenes. The same thing happened in Early Brit rock with names like Ronson, Beck, Abrahams, et al.

Posted by: topmaker at January 21, 2015 08:47 PM (2yZsg)

3 Another one that reminds me of my radio days....

Posted by: Mauser at January 22, 2015 02:21 AM (TJ7ih)

4 I've always been torn on this song.  It's OK, I like it, but it's so laid back that I just can't enjoy it completely.  I've often thought this would be a great Pet Shop Boys only song.

Posted by: Don Landon at November 22, 2018 09:02 PM (y/v9j)

5 An interesting thought, that.  GreyDuck is our resident Pet Shop Boys fanatic... what do you think, GD???

Posted by: Wonderduck at November 23, 2018 01:36 AM (k1bsf)

6 Don  & WD, I don't think Tennant-and-Lowe could or would have done much with "Getting Away With It" that Sumner-and-Marr hadn't already done. It's still a fully New Order-ish track, just happens to have Neil Tennant on lead vox. Guest starring, as it were.

Of course PSB borrowed Marr for guitar work here and there for a while, so this collaboration helped Neil & Chris out in the long run as well.

Posted by: GreyDuck at November 23, 2018 08:42 AM (rKFiU)

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