“They looked great; they were wonderful in print. Their mistake was making a record.” — Malcolm McLaren
From its sassy, sensational start, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the garish glam-punk band founded by former Generation X bassist Tony James and future Marc Almond axeman Neal Whitmore, was often dismissed as a novelty act, a bunch of Day-Glo frightwiggers that took hyper-glamourised capitalism and the cartoon rocker aesthetic of James’ ex-Gen X colleague Billy Idol to a ridiculous climax.
Named after a Moscow street gang, whose name translates roughly to Burn Burn Satellite, SSS was originally a concept borne from a desire to capitalise on popular culture’s rampant commercialism—and make a killing while at it—inviting detractors to denounce the troupe as prioritising style over substance and crassness over craft.
A wilfully optimistic reading of Malcolm Mclaren’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was that punk aimed to make “cash from chaos” as a fall back position. If you fail to destroy society, you may as well be rich. Thus, Flaunt It!, the neon space gang’s debut album, broke new, controversial ground when it included paid corporate ads between tracks: a wild roller-coaster ride through the fevered imagination of a world in which, foreseeing our current era to a tee.,anything and everything is for sale — sometimes even by the push of a button. Naturally, legendary producer Giorgio Moroder was intrigued by the prospect of working with them.
“Their manager called me and said, ‘Look, there’s this group. We don’t have a record yet, we don’t have anything. But we have the look. Are you interested in talking to them?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why not? Why don’t you send them to Munich?’” he recounts with a laugh. “So one afternoon they came from London, all dressed up. They came into the restaurant where we had the meeting, and it was hilarious. People were looking. You know, they came fully, fully, fully dressed up. I liked them, although the singer didn’t have really a great voice.”
Under Moroder’s expert electro-guidance, Sputnik ended up creating a bubblegum pop meets ballroom-blitzkrieg industrial earworm, which was surprisingly prescient for the era; a futuristic sonic soup that has more than stood the test of time. “We interspersed the music with pieces of soundtracks and samples, putting in famous soundbites from sci-fi movies like Blade Runner: ‘This is a test to provoke your emotional feelings.’ I didn’t hear anybody doing that before,” Giorgio told me in 2018.
The sweet monster that was Love Missile F1-11, the band’s debut single, released 33 years ago today. Denied pole position by Diana Ross’ Bee Gees-scribed Chain Reaction and The Bangles’ Prince-penned Manic Monday, it would prove to be their most sizeable hit, reaching number three in Britain during March 1986.
Opening with a demonic synthesized symphonic crash half-inched from A Clockwork orange, hits and explosions, bits of Mozart, Neal X’s bonkers Johnny Thunders-like guitar breaks detonating in some of the right places, backwards vocals, and tons of reverb all add to a song that shifts and changes every few seconds.
In 2019, F1-11 now sounds exactly how it was intended to sound: an eccentric, engaging cross between the affable anxiety of the second Suicide album and the meticulous cleanliness of Moroder’s E = mc2, pink and playful with its Carl Perkins-via-Hot Butter synth riff.
Every exotic, erotic influence is thrown in to the aural equivalent of a Molotov Cocktail—including Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Ziggy era Bowie, Little Richard, and T Rex’s Marc Bolan—as well as ultra-violent movies like Scarface and Terminator, to create an eminently atmospheric slice of carnage that almost single-handily invented Futurepop.
Thrown into the mix was a futuristic dystopian world run by multi-national corporations in which instant gratification could be yours with the touch of a button (sound familiar?), and everything was ready to roll!
Amiably outrageous, their promise to Fleece the World — especially apropos coming on the heels of Band Aid’s plaintive Do They Know It’s Christmas? — slid off the tongue nicely, and then the theme, “Hi-tech sex, designer violence, and the 5th generation of rock n’ roll,” was a natural pop flipside to the more classical approach of Mick Jones’ contemporaneous Big Audio Dynamite; so it’s little surprise that James and Jones ended up reunited in the same band, the excellent Carbon Silicon.
Indeed, Sputnik’s approach wasn’t dissimilar to that of a poppier, lighter Young Gods – one takes absolute pleasure in the random jabs at the Fairlight as though it’s Christmas morning and the group are merrily playing with their exciting new toy; voices and exclamations going up and down scale like the Goons (and SSS are also responsible for one of the great personnel details in British pop – Chris Kavanagh and Ray Mayhew on electric drums).
This is an record that wears its starfuckers proudly on its sleeve. The lyrics were largely authored by the exotic quixotic Wallsall wonder that is Martin Degville; vocalist, stylist, shock peacock… and Boy George’s former flatmate/employer to boot.
It’s no coincidence that the first time you hear Degville’s deviant voice he’s chanting over and over again, “I wanna be a star! I wanna be a star!” It sounds so lunatic and maniacally over-the-top; it’s a great signifier of how transgressive the rest of the album would sound. It’s dynamite.
Intoning like a malevolent Elvis by way of Alan Vega, Degville shrieks gleefully about terror strikes, unfed millions, fashion’s dead (with a fantastically minute swoop of an in-and-out orchestral flourish), giving head and shooting up – in other words, everything that most 1986 music wasn’t. And you don’t need me to point out that lines like “A US bomb cruises overheard/There goes my love, rocket-red,” allude to sex and nuclear war, though not necessarily in that order.
On the whole, the Action Man box as album concept was clever and worthy of investigation. Tracks such as Rockit Miss USA and Massive Retaliation are prime examples of all these disparate influences at work at the same time, and frankly, are a shit-tonne of fun. “High-tech sex and rockets, baby”, indeed, Mr Degville! Does Moscow rock your baby? It sure does.
Moroder did a fine production job, keeping the band firmly in the middle of their far left road but also conjuring up beats as hard and swervy as other key 1986 records, including Janet Jackson’s Control, The The’s Infected and Pet Shop Boys’ Please. And even if the gaps between tracks intended for adverts were as semi-filled as the commercial breaks in the early days of Channel 4, the concept was nicely aware of its own inherent fate.
I cannot stress enough how engaging the record still appears. A follow-up 45, the spunky space cowboy romp of 21st Century Boy, followed thick and fast, making No.20 that summer. Alas, it wasn’t difficult to foresee the quintet’s short-lived success and eventual doom.
Soon the whole world forgot their name.
Sputnik, and in particular those first two 45s, proved too uncontainable for sustained mainstream acceptance, setting the critical dividing lines with irretrievable finality; between Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, between mischievous and worthy, between pop and rock, maybe between life and death. MM adored them, but NME, beached on the grey beach of half-an-hour-of-Aretha-every-morning-teach-dignity worthy, were not inclined to give them much credit.
For their final verdict they engaged Paul Morley himself, who as a Mancunian was naturally suspicious of what he might term Southern spivs though I suspect kicked himself several dozen times for not lassoing them to ZTT. However, it’s worth pointing out that the Flaunt It! LP was conspicuous by its absence in the MM’s end of year Top 30 but turned up at a lowly 43 in the NME list thanks, apparently, to high-placed votes from David Quantick and other miscreants.
What happened is a typically English traditional of build them up, knock them down. “Before releasing a record, they become famous in the media by the British media hyping them. And then the album comes out, and I guess that killed them. The press, they really launched them, and then I don’t know, maybe the album was not good,” Moroder says with a shrug. “But it was fun.”
Despite having previously dismissed the entire British music scene of 1986 as “so awful,” in a typically revisionist act David Bowie, Giorgio’s erstwhile Cat People collaborator, even covered Love Missile himself. “I was in shock when I heard Bowie had recorded it,” Degville told me through his dirty fishnetted mouth a couple of years ago. Produced by Tony Visconti in 2003, I warn you, it’s beyond hammy. Here she comes.
“The world would not be the same without Steve Pafford’s poison.” — Martin Degville, 2019