“We have little in common with Paul Weller but we’re all fucking awkward! And we all do things our own way… because we’re all punk rockers, really. We’ve created something of our own and we all still have our integrity. Paul Weller is still a mod and I think that those are the artists that survive. If you look at Bob Dylan, he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I mean, with Pet Shop Boys, we do that in the realm of commercial pop.” – Neil Tennant, The Quietus, 2009
In one of those great pop gestalt things, Girls And Boys, Blur’s irresistibly louche Bowie-down-the-disco strut from 1994, was not only the first time the Pet Shop Boys agreed to remodel a track for a third party (i.e. an act they hadn’t already produced*) but the release also marked the debut of the Britpop band allowing one of their singles to be handed over to outside remixers.
“It’s like giving someone your dog to take out for a walk, and they bring back a different dog”, remarked bassist Alex James at the time.
Either way, PSB’s overhaul of Girls And Boys gave Blur their biggest hit to date and kicked off a spate of remix commissions for the esteemed funny uncles of the British music scene. And though he’s regarded to be more in the realms of rock than pop, Paul Weller has no such concerns. Surrey’s most searching son has initiated a full on reimagining of Cosmic Fringes, the “bolshy… funny little camp song” about “a little keyboard warrior, getting angry and fierce at the world” that kicked off his recent album Fat Pop (Volume 1), which shot straight to No.1 in May.
In other words, the Modfather of prolificacy is back-back-BACK! And (gasp) he‘s rocking a bit of a Jimmy Savile look. Someone have a word…
It may have come as a surprise to some, but the seeds of this collaboration date back to 2010, when Neil Tennant revealed Weller had surprised him by sending him a copy of his latest album Wake Up The Nation, of which the frontman was particularly taken with No Tears To Cry, which emphasised the new disconnect between album and singles sales for so-called ‘heritage’ acts by becoming Weller’s last single to crack the Top 40.
So what do you do when you’re invited to put your stamp on the shortest track in this illustrious list of commissions? With delicious perversity you elongate it into the longest re-version you’ve ever done, which Weller described as “Great. They’ve done a real twelve minute monster mix,” though when interviewed by his former Smash Hits colleagues Mark Ellen and David Hepworth on their A Word In Your Ear podcast, Tennant was at pains to point out that the music was all done by ‘The Other One’.
“Well, actually Chris [Lowe] did it, and I sang some vocals on it. It’s kind of a symphonic remix, in three movements. Paul Weller’s song lasts for about two and a half minutes and our remix lasts for twelve and half minutes. And it’s got three different versions all linked together and I sing on it. Paul Weller seems very happy with it and it was quite a different thing to do. It’s not quite Bohemian Rhapsody but nonetheless it’s quite banging. Paul Weller asked for banging and you’ve got banging.
“He’s definitely up for anything. I was quite surprised when a friend of a friend said ‘Can Paul Weller have your phone number?’ Of course, I covered The Jam’s last gig for Smash Hits in December 1982, so we go back a long way. That’s almost 40 years ago, astonishingly. So it was nice to be asked, and it was fun doing it.”
Lest we forget, in a 1984 issue of the magazine pop’s ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper Tennant, now newly promoted to the position of assistant editor, had the audacity to ask Weller if he was gay, a question he dodged himself for the first decade of the Pet Shop Boys’ career.
Swingorilliant!!, in the parlance of Ver Hits then.
Somewhat surprisingly, the snappy glam grind of Cosmic Fringes is the first time PSB have remixed a male solo act since their Eurodisco makeover of David Bowie’s Hallo Spaceboy way back in 1996, with which there are obvious parallels.
But going back to, er, source, if you thought the original track’s retro sonic kicks already sounded like some of the new wave boys — I’ve seen various names mentioned, from Ian Dury-style old codger vocals to Blancmange and Eurythmics synth work to post-punk thrash reminiscent of Zerox by Adam And The Ants — I can muster up a more unlikely confection.
The sugary chorus melody riff of Cosmic Fringes is almost a note for note steal from a novelty single called I Wanna Be A Winner by the Beeb’s short-lived threesome Brown Sauce. It written by none other than Noel Edmonds and BA Robertson, of “Bang bang the mighty fall” fame.
Despite its dog’s dinner pedigree, I Wanna Be A Winner was actually a passable Bucks Fizz style ditty created for Edmonds’ Saturday morning kids’ show Swap Shop, with lead vocals by his co-presenting chums, real life couple Maggie Philbin and Keith Chegwin. Whether he’s playing pop or not, that’s Cheggers to anyone of my 1980s generation.
It was originally supposed to have been a one-off song on the programme, but “public demand” lead to its release on BBC Records, with the 45 making No.15 in January 1982.
And with delicious irony, when both track and trio checked out of the charts for the last time the following month, the No.1 song was written by the Woking wonder – Town Called Malice being the antepenultimate single by Weller’s erstwhile mod squad The Jam.
The music blog Left And To The Back has this to say about it.
“Listen once and you’ll find an earworming little pop song, twice and the appeal will begin to wane, then three times and you’ll be sick to death of the simplicity of it. You can’t help but wonder if BA ‘Kool In The Kaftan’ Robertson would have added a few more twists, turns and melodic diversions to the disc if he’d known it would actually become a single.”
It’s all just a little bit of history repeating because you could say the exactly the same about Weller’s Cosmic Fringes. Either way, one imagines Neil Tennant, that arch purveyor of pop culture, couldn’t fail to have noticed.
Good things come in threes, they say. In music, a triad is a set of three notes (or “pitch classes”) that can be stacked vertically in thirds. A piece of music has symphonic form if it’s in three movements, and Cosmic Fringes certainly qualifies, though it’s fair to say it’s somewhat of a challenge to ascertain precisely the dividing lines between each of the sections. To my ears at least, I’m going to call it at 3:26 and 8:56, which marks out the middle as the “duet” part with some nice whispery vocal additions from Neil.
And while there’s lots to like about the Triad Mix, you get the impression that, like Weller’s original track, there’s not quite enough melodic variation or knobs-on dynamics to make this a real out-and-out belter. Indeed, as a reflection of the old codger lyrical delivery there’s a wilful Kraftwerkian monotony to the production. Indeed, I can hear slight throwbacks to The Robots and Trans-Europe Express, as well as the duo’s industrial remix of Mein Teil for fellow Teutonics Rammstein.
There’s also a vague vibe that references Lazy, the house classic by X-Press 2 featuring David Byrne, the former Talking Heads mainman who once had the dishonourable distinction of being described by a hilariously candid Chris Lowe as “even more pretentious than David Bowie.”
Oy vey, spaceboy!
Sadly, due to the limited source material there’s little of the light and dark that PSB injected into the Bowie rework, though as a limited edition 12” Cosmic Fringes is obviously aimed at the club crowd rather than an attempt at a hit single.
Even so, despite a scorching electro bassline, the lack of build in the mix makes the running time seem a trifle indulgent. It thumps, it fuzzes and it’s twice as long as it could have been. Very occasionally the track looks, via a chord change, to take a different path, but then reverts back to square one. Interestingly, in the last minute it goes all Giorgio Moroder that you half expect Paul to burst into Donna Summer’s I Feel Love at any moment. And then it’s all over.
It is now.
*Officially, the first remix Pet Shop Boys completed for a track they hadn’t produced was actually a Cicero’s Heaven Must Have Sent You Back To Me in July 1992.
Credited with “additional production”, Tennant/Lowe beefed the song up, giving it more of a PSB sound. The original version issued the previous year was the debut release on their short-lived vanity label Spaghetti (which, like Cosmic Fringes, was distributed through Polydor).
Dave Cicero was the Boys’ young Scottish pop protégé who wound up having a handful of other tracks helmed by the duo, so he hardly qualifies as a third party.