The 18 tracks collected here remain as sonically and thematically pertinent now as they did upon their release.
Fad Gadget – Frank Tovey, electronica’s great contrarian – is duly celebrated with Mute Records’ release of The Best of Fad Gadget, available now in glorious silver vinyl, timed to mark 40 years since the debut Fad Gadget 7”. The Best of … was originally released in 2001 on CD, the tracks selected by Frank as a way of providing a concise retrospective of the Fad Gadget years and released before his untimely death in 2002. The story of Fad Gadget is central to Mute Records and to electronic music more broadly. From the outset, Tovey sought to utilise these emerging music technologies as a way of doing what punk was largely ignoring and pay attention to the smaller, more intimate and often overlooked moments in human experience. Tovey would later comment, “I think music should reflect social and cultural concerns. People are actually bragging that their music doesn’t mean anything.” Yet for all of the edge-cutting that, in retrospect, Tovey seemed to effortlessly engage with simply as a matter of course, this attention to detail wouldn’t do him any favors in the charts. Regardless, the songs collected here remain strange, utterly essential suburban fables, exploring and critiquing the uniquely British landscape of terraced houses and sexual frustration, grim post-war consumerism and jaunty ‘knees-up’ nationalism.
“Back to Nature,” Tovey’s first single, gleefully undoes the possibilities of a restorative jaunt in the countryside. Reminding us that “It’s gonna rain all night/ But we’ll be alright/ Under the geodesic dome,” these sentiments would be echoed throughout a number of Fad Gadget tracks where the very acts of consumption we engage with in order to reinvent ourselves are the same practices that will end us. “Lady Shave,” originally released in 1981 as a B-side, explores the machinery of gender performance, explaining that “Stupid magazines/ Spread a social disease,” while the A-side “Make Room” zooms out from the personal to the national: “Queue stretches on a mile ahead/ Everybody’s waiting for their daily bread”.
In 1984, while promoting Gag, his last record as Fad Gadget, Tovey commented, “One minute I want to make a really commercial disco record and the next I want to use feedback guitar and go wild. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong,” Yet, he would follow that by later noting, “When I first started using synths they were incredibly unfashionable. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything just because everybody else is doing it.” Gag would provide the singles “One Man’s Meat” and the clattering industrial-pop of “Collapsing New People” (featuring Einstürzende Neubauten). After Gag, Tovey would retire the Fad Gadget name and move to the side of the synthetic sounds central to the Mute Records roster of that time, and the next album Snakes and Ladders from 1986 would be credited to Tovey alone. On The Best Of …, “Luxury” is the sole representative from the post-Fad Gadget period and is the perfect distillation of Tovey’s concerns into a pop music manifesto: “The things I want/ The things I need/ One is a hunger/ One is greed.”
Ultimately, Tovey’s career was the kind of struggle so often experienced by those breaking new ground. In an early interview he stated his plans to “become more commercial and more weird at the same time,” later commenting, “‘I’ve scraped by the last few years […] I have honestly tried to write a hit record … it’s like trying to eat something that makes you sick.” Yet, for all of the “Swallow it/ Like the fool you are” of negotiating the music industry, the scale and value of Tovey’s work is simply inescapable and, like the other early pioneers of punk-inspired, guitar-eschewing synthetic music, much of what we take for granted now in electronic music was born at this time. Mute Records states that this vinyl reissue is part of a larger celebration of Tovey’s art and life, and will be followed by a career-spanning box set which will certainly provide the detail that an introductory best-of cannot. Until then, there’s no better way to return to the future than via this excellent collection and the 18 tracks collected here and spread across two discs remain as sonically and thematically pertinent now as they did upon their release.