Before the Internet, Instagram, or iOS, there was Sigue Sigue Sputnik. By today’s standards, the idea of a band that relied on science fiction and high-tech imagery as much as musical prowess would hardly seem racy or controversial in the slightest. But, at the time of the uber-hyped band’s debut in the mid-‘80s, it was a completely different story. We’ll get to that in a few, but for now, given a stellar deluxe reissue of the band’s debut album Flaunt It, I figured it was high time to feature the mighty SSS in this column.
The band was the brainchild of one Tony James, former bassist, songwriter, and Billy Idol cohort of Generation X. Once his former band had finally called it quits in 1981 (at this point, the band had regrouped a bit and shortened its moniker to the edgier “Gen X”), James went to work writing and playing on other bands’ albums while plotting his next move. Said move would see him engineering not just a new band, but a full-on immersive music and media concept. Enter Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
Supposedly named after a Russian street gang and loosely translated to “Burn Burn Satellite,” the band was an amalgamation of Sci-Fi cinema, pop culture and technology references merged with a combination of modern and vintage sounds including ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, glam rock, techno, hip hop and the liberal use of sound effects and samples. Style-wise, the band’s image went far beyond the glam stylings of the day. James devised a look that took makeup-era of KISS to new heights, crafting a decadent gender-bending package that mixed early cyberpunk fashion with fetish gear, tossing in technicolor rubber and patent-leather, thigh-high boots, multi-colored wigs, and fishnet masks for good measure, and juxtaposing it all against the post-apocalyptic imagery of the Road Warrior films, outdoing most all other artists in one fell swoop (including even the more flamboyant artists of the day—mainstream and underground alike—such as Dead or Alive, Hanoi Rocks, Specimen and Siouxsie and the Banshees).
While Sputnik’s image was not a million miles out of sync with the OTT stylings of the mid-’80s, from a PR standpoint, James and company seemed hell-bent on being the proverbial thorn in the side of both the traditional music media and “serious” musicians alike.
On one hand, the band could be seen as an innovative piece of modern conceptual art, while on the other, it could easily be written off as an overhyped ploy aimed at salvaging a fledgling career (James hadn’t been in the limelight for quite some time). Either way, to increase the impact of his new project, James spearheaded a strategic PR campaign—aided by his then-girlfriend and media maven Magenta Devine who would assist with crafting the story—that boasted a few choice nuggets such as that James handpicked the band members based on their looks alone rather than musical ability, and that the band had scored a £4 million advance from EMI upon a frenzied label bidding war (this amount has been questioned and even refuted by some in the know since).
These aspects did more than ruffle a few feathers when the band was finally unveiled, but one aspect of SSS still cuts even deeper. Besides all the hype, the outlandish imagery, and the high-concept approach, the band actually sold advertising spots on Flaunt It. From hair products to magazines, in between the polished grooves of the release, there were audio commercials that in many ways, blended into the high-tech sounds quite seamlessly. In reality, the band was only able to sell a couple of slots, so they added in a few of their own for good measure, including those from the fictitious Sputnik Corporation. While some more open-minded music fans could appreciate the irony and sarcasm, many saw the band as just a cynical ruse that far missed the mark of the intended punchline.
The band, consisting of James on “space guitar” (the then-novel Roland G-707 synth guitar, gifted to him by The Clash’s Mick Jones), Martin Degville on vocals, Neal X on guitar, Chris Kavanagh and Ray Mayhew on drums, and Yana Yaya on keyboards, special effects, and photographic preens, would release its first single “Love Missile F1-11” in 1986. Mixing rockabilly boogie with techy beats, synthy riffs, dub, and sound effects, plus a punkish snarl courtesy of post-punk fashion designer Degville, the single was even more noteworthy for its blatant and innovative use of sampling, which was still pretty novel at the time. The band’s use of samples would range from dystopian and futuristic movies (Blade Runner, Terminator, and A Clockwork Orange), to big ego-driven ’80s films such as Scarface and Rocky IV.
The single and forthcoming album were both produced by synth pioneer Georgio Moroder, famous for helming Donna Summer’s groundbreaking “I Fee Love.” And with the single’s post-apocalyptic atmospherics, coupled with its capitalization on the Cold War uneasiness still at play, it all worked a charm, with the song rocketing up to the top 10 of the UK singles charts along with other high placings around the globe. The song would also garner a further boost by being featured in the ’80s hit film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and would later be covered by several different artists over the years, including David Bowie.
Flaunt It was released in its full glory later that year to mixed reviews from a music press already fatigued by the sensationalistic, headline-snaring approach the band had been so adept at employing. To add an extra layer of flair to the release, besides the standard LP and cassette releases, there was also a deluxe version of the vinyl that came in a box-set package replicating those accompanying Japanese Sci-Fi toys like Shogun Warriors. “Love Missile F1-11” was remixed to longer length along with the second single, the similarly flavored “21st Century Boy” (which had hit #20 on the UK charts a few months earlier). Rife with vintage rock ‘n’ roll rhythms filtered through James’s pulsing space guitar and set to robotic techno beats, the sound was embellished with Neal X’s screeching six-string blasts, plus loads of effects, filters, and all those cinematic samples. And, it sounded like nothing else imaginable. Add to this, lyrics that celebrated gender-bending, designer drugs, high-tech weaponry, and toys such as cell phones, video games, and home computers (stuff that was still largely out of reach for most during the mid-‘80s), and this was an immersive experience set to 12-inch wax.
But while the album is a distinctive offering as a whole, each of the eight songs follows a similar formula, as listed above. With the exception of the two slower songs “Atari Baby” and “Massive Retaliation,” there’s not a ton of variance throughout the LP. But, it certainly isn’t without its charms. In fact, some 30+ years later, it still sounds fresh, unique, and, well, is highly entertaining. For comparison’s sake, Flaunt It could be seen as both the poptastic bastard offspring of OG NYC electro-punk pioneers Suicide, as well as the more outrageous, amphetamine-addled cousin of Mick Jones’s post Clash band Big Audio Dynamite (which would later actually feature Sputnik drummer Chris Kavanagh).
While Flaunt It may have been derided at the time of its release, it has retained a loyal following and in hindsight, is seen by many as a groundbreaking release that anticipated the rise of sampling and the eventual marriage of rock and high-tech. It’s also a prime example of how style can be driven as much by wit and irony as it is by more traditional attributes. To commemorate the album, Cherry Red Records has released a killer reissue that not only collects a remastered version of this pioneering classic in all its decadent glory but also includes a bevy of extra goodies. The deluxe package includes four discs.
First, we get the original album including the added bonus track “From The Gutter To The Stars,” a semi-biographical vignette, complete with quotes and soundbites from James on the band’s rise, set to Sputnik musical clips. The album has undergone a few alterations possibly due to sample clearances, and a couple of the original ads are no longer present. But, the sound quality is bright and as in-your-face as ever. Discs two and three include a batch of remixes from back in the day that appeared on various formats, as well as B-sides and unearthed versions never before officially found on CD. Disc four features a live set from the mid-’80s recorded at Abbey Road Studios that showcases the band in its rawest form, with emphasis on its punk roots. Rife with attitude and enthusiasm, while the playing isn’t perfect in spots (kudos to the label for leaving the bum notes in), it illustrates how good Sputnik actually was as a live outfit, with a noisy and deconstructed version of “Twist and Shout” being a particular standout.
The set comes in a cardboard slipcase with an excellent booklet that recaps the story of the band in all of its misunderstood glory. With its lasting appeal, Flaunt It goes well beyond period-piece status, and this release provides an excellent presentation for listeners new and old. For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, hit me up at Retrohead77@gmail.com. Cheers.