Label: Mute Format: 2CD
“Still with Mute Records, the sadly neglected Fad Gadget looks like he could give The Human League a run for their money in the smart electronic pop stakes. His third excellent single in a row previews two tracks for his forthcoming album and features more of his clever, black humour lyrics and nifty tunes. “Fireside Favourites” pointedly combines the home fire, the atom bomb and an insanely jolly cakewalk, while “Insecticide” views life from an insect’s point of view with some clever effects. Highly recommended”.
Smash Hits, October 2-15 1980
That was then. Now there are a 1001 dodgy Eighties and Electro Pop compilations out there. As with all retro compilations memory and sellability are just as important as the music itself. If you take a look through the track listings of such CDs you’ll see a few really good songs. Of course, there’ll be lots of rubbish, and ultimately the very best will be conspicuous by it’s absence. Fad Gadget is on such name that you won’t find on compilations mourning the passing of the age of Rubik’s Cube and the ascendancy of the estate agent. Their loss.
So who is Fad Gadget? It could be stated that a man called Frank Tovey was born in the East End and enrolled at St. Martin’s School of Art in the mid seventies. After graduating graduating with a degree in Fine Arts from Leeds Polytechnic he put a tape together with the drum machine, tape recorder, and electric piano he kept in the closet. Then in 1979 Fad Gadget became the first artist to sign with Mute Records. “Back To Nature/The Box” followed shortly. The rest, as they say, is history.
In a way, the biography tells us much less about Fad Gadget than a biography of Gary Numan or Marc Almond would tell us about them. Tovey presented himself through a bewildering array of grotesque pantomime masks and guises. He was the Punchinello of nightmares on Incontinent, he was the tarred and feathered figure of fun on the cover of Gag. On stage Fad Gadget smothered himself in shaving foam and ripped out clumps of his pubic hair. His on-stage dementia reached proportions that were alarming even to himself. A planned UK tour in support of the “For Whom The Bells Toll” single had to be scrapped when he tore all the ligaments in his legs at a gig in Amsterdam and was forced to come home with both limbs in plaster.
Never the same twice, Fad Gadget wrote tracks with menace, eccentricity, and brilliance. There are the early surreal Electro Pop experiments like “Back to Nature”, “Ricky’s Hand”, and “Insecticide” to name a few. There are the collapsing new Pop songs from Gag where Rock and the Eighties collide head on – “One Man’s Meat” and “Collapsing New People”. Then there are “Ladyshave”, “Fireside Favourites”, “For Whom The Bells Toll”, “King of the Flies” … all if which are on this CD.
NME proclaimed about Fad’s work: “Unlike other Electro-buffs, Fad came out of nowhere, did not have a thing for Bowie or robots and thus his records have dated well.” That couldn’t be Gary Numan with a dash of Kraftwerk could it? The Human League aren’t that far away either. Comparisons are inevitable, especially with the distance of time. Fad Gadget doesn’t inhabit the same paranoid Philip K. Dick world as Gary Numan, and while Numan headed Thatcher-wards unlike the increasingly critical and unmasked Frank Tovey there is more similarity than NME’s statement initially suggests.
Fad Gadget is just as dark as Numan. Just listen to the lyrics of “The Box” or “Fireside Favourites”. Numan makes angsty disjointed songs about robots who are frightened of the liquid engineers and the rape machines down in the park while Fad Gadget revisits The Crazy World of Arthur Brown only a thousand times darker. Fad Gadget isn’t just dark though. Like a David Lynch film you get both extremes with Mr Tovey, and often little in between. Compare “4M” with “Saturday Night Special”. On the one hand we’ve got a rather sweet Electro lullaby complete with happy baby noises, on the other hand is something much darker: “Every man should have the right to own a gun/Every man should have the right to shoot someone.” It’s hard to think that the same mind that advised swift termination in “Saturday Night Special” wrote the lullaby … I guess that might be the point. The masks go all the way down to the lyrics. Do they come from Mr Punch – every bit as terrifying as Papa Lazarou – or from Mr Tovey?
All to often the darkest moments are kept for the jolliest songs. Depeche Mode or Kraftwerk could never create anything as sickeningly candy-like as the stylophone-esque melody of “Ricky’s Hand”. But while Kraftwerk wax lyrical about domestic appliances and Depeche Mode chase after the meaning of love, Fad Gadget writes bubbly lyrics like “Ricky contravened the highway code/The hand lies severed at the side of the road”. Some of the tracks on Gag are as wholly saccharine as Laura Dern‘s character in Blue Velvet. Who else could make the chorus line “Don’t do as I do/ do as I say” so cloying and touching?
Perhaps the reason why Fad Gadget never became a massive pop star is because there was nothing to grab hold of. Then as now, the personality cult of the pop star reigns supreme. Fans, it is assumed, need a good solid persona to latch onto. The freakshow of masks offered by Tovey couldn’t be further removed. This might mean that he’s not on the retro compilations, but he’s up there with Electro demi-gods like Kraftwerk and Mr Numan. And who needs a compilation with just one Fad Gadget track? Mute have been good enough to release a double album full of them.