Play Dead, my opinion. Warning- long post...

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Play Dead, my opinion. Warning- long post...

Postby OX4 » 07 Jul 2010, 17:30

This post is only made possible with huge amounts of hindsight.

Blimey, the 1980s were a long time ago. Not only in actual time span but financially, socially, politically and culturally they seem to have happened hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. It was almost a different world. Everyone still smoked for a start, and you try and tell the young 'uns about mass unemployment, strikes, the cold war and the threat of total nuclear annihilation, or what life was like before satellite televisors, internet machines and mobile communicator devices and they look at you with a mixture of bafflement, pity, disbelief and eventually boredom.
We are here for the music though, much the same as we were in the 1980s, and many of us will remember having to search for music. Not having it delivered to us and not living with the vague feeling that the hours of our lives are a marketing opportunity for someone else. These were times when it was still possible to judge the value of something by the quality of its content and not the quality- and quantity- of its promotion. These were times before corporate manufacturers started selling 'lifestyle philosophies' as part of the branding process, when the ethics of what we used to call 'punk rock' formed our attitudes, our ambitions and our approach to the way we decided to live our lives, how we related to others and what we decided to consume. We didn't read mainstream newspapers and magazines, we didn't listen to daytime radio, we didn't go to gigs in large arenas, we didn't worship vacuous fashion icons and more often than not, the music we liked was made by impoverished bands on small labels. Bands who eschewed the compromises necessary for a shortcut to chart success, made up of people who preferred to keep their integrity intact and to follow their own vision for their art. There were a lot of these bands and unfortunately not many of them were very good.
It is possible now, in 2010, for me to listen back to music from the early-mid 1980s (which is something I did a few weeks ago, due to finding a load of old compilation cassettes in the loft) and admit to myself that I used to like some absolute rubbish. The years have not been kind to some of this music- I have to come clean and admit that Sex Gang Children were utterly abysmal, Danse Society were awful, very little of the Sisters of Mercy's output is still listenable and New Model Army's stuff is variable at best. On the other hand, Killing Joke still sound as good as ever. So do the Birthday Party, the Chameleons, the Cocteau Twins and some of Southern Death Cult (although the album seemed to be thrown together, the 'Fat Man/Moya' single and the Peel Session are both great). A massive cellar flood back in 1989 robbed me of most of my vinyl so I am unable to reassess such names as 1919, March Violets, the Bomb Party, Ausgang, Flesh for Lulu, Gene Loves Jezebel, Balaam and the Angel and so on but I have a suspicion about what the verdict on most of it might be.
So this brings us to Play Dead, my big favourites of the era. They were the second band that I ever became obsessed with, as opposed to just being a fan of (the Damned were the first but my interest waned when the album 'Strawberries' was released). A friend introduced me to Play Dead via the 'TV Eye' single and the two songs from this release were all I knew by the band when I first saw them live- as a support band at Leeds Warehouse, presumably on the Sex Gang Children tour although I have no recollection of seeing SGC. While being completely blown away by this performance, which contained no material that I was familiar with at that point, there are two things which I remember making the biggest impressions, the first of which was the quality of the band's sound. It was not uncommon back then for a band to be lacking in this respect, after all most band members were, like much of their audience, on the dole and were releasing records on small labels with smaller budgets. Clattery, badly tuned drum kits or scratchy, thin sounding guitars or some other sonic deficiency came with the territory sometimes, unfortunately. But the punk rock rules held true, what was important was the fact that you were up there doing it, expressing yourself and hopefully forging your own future while you were at it. Anyway, Play Dead were different in this regard, they sounded full, fat and powerful and had an absolute monster of a bass guitar sound- massive, growly and menacing. The only band I had seen previous to this who sounded as good were the mighty Killing Joke. The second thing that struck me was that they didn't really look like anyone else in the building. The place was packed with girls in ripped tights, boys in makeup and backcombed haircuts in many different colours, it was a mass of fishnet and lace. In the midst of all this, Play Dead, in a mixture of leather and denim and with a guitarist sporting a full sleeve of tattoos, looked more like a biker gang than anything else and, to my eyes at least, they were a whole lot cooler because of it.
I saw the band live numerous times over the next two and a half years and was fortunate enough to be able to get to know the members personally; it speaks volumes for their integrity that they always had time to interact with their fans and it is no surprise that they picked up a fanatically loyal following.
Despite the band's obvious strengths we now know that they were never able to break through the glass ceiling of their popularity but is it now possible, from our vantage point 25 years on, to perhaps work out some of the reasons why? Also, after all this time, does the band?s output survive the test or do those records- like so many of their contemporaries- belong at the back of the rack, alone, unloved and a bit of an embarrassment? I?ll deal with the second question first I think, as its probably easier to answer.
The band have come out publicly and disowned their first two singles so we should pay them the respect of doing the same, which is a shame as even though they are primitive by the standards the band later reached it is fascinating to hear them in a formative state. However, Re Vox is not even a quarter of the guitarist Steve Green is and after the agony and frustration of the hiatus forced on the band due to the collapse of Fresh Records in 1982, it is pretty understandable that they would rather start afresh (no pun intended). I must quickly add though, that anyone who shares a song title with The Stooges is alright with me...
So, for all intents and purposes, the new beginning for the band was the 'Propaganda' single. And if there ever really was something such a dance/rock crossover it must surely begin with 'Follow The Leader' by Killing Joke and 'Propaganda' by Play Dead. Although an acknowledged post-punk classic, Follow The Leader seems to suffocate in its own density, the Giorgio Moroder style synthesisers enhance the mechanical/industrial feel of the piece which is breathtaking, but rather depressing at the same time- and all that is meant in praise by the way, just so you don?t get me wrong. 'Propaganda' meanwhile is a wide open disco/metal masterpiece that soars out of the speakers on the back of a wave of guitar feedback. With a supple and powerful rhythm section laying down a simple but effective slippery groove, Steve Green's guitar is free to ride all over the track in a wash of dense powerchords that sparkle and roar, fury held in restraint. Its absolutely fantastic. The shuffling backbeat keeps pushing all the way through and the when the band pull together for the accents that prepare you for the one word chanted chorus, its a perfect way to top all this off, for a proper hands-in-the-air sing along live experience. A friend of mine, a dance music enthusiast, heard me play this recently and pronounced that it was 'extremely noddable'. Which is very high praise coming from a man who despises electric guitars.
Most bands have one good song in them (or at least one good idea) and if 'Propaganda' was Play Dead's only fine moment it would have been more than enough. However the release of 'Propaganda' was followed a couple of months later by the mini-album 'The First Flower' and it is a measure of how good parts of this album are that the magnificent 'Propaganda' isn't the best track on it. That accolade goes to 'The Tenant' a track which is absolutely devastating. Steve Green's guitar again does the honours in setting the scene, this time with an ominous fanfare consisting of the picked notes of an E/flat 5 chord and as the constituent notes shriek and beat against one another they seem to act as a warning, an indication that something monstrous this way comes. They are right too. Like the harbinger of doom the rest of the band enter on a dramatic pair of chords, held hanging for maximum threatening effect before settling into a punishing sledgehammer groove based around a flattened octave. The guitar is alternating between a palm muted chug at the bottom end of the fretboard and those broken up wailing chords and the bass guitar that so impressed me at Leeds Warehouse is in full effect, belching hellfire and churning away in its own space in the background. This is, it has to be said, borderline heavy metal. In fact its a forerunner of the kind of brutal, minor key heavy metal that would become popular later in the decade and it must be remembered that back in 1983, when the First Flower was released, heavy metal was colossally unhip and pretty much still regarded as a joke. Motorhead and AC/DC had respect but it would take the emergence of speed metal in the mid 1980s to give heavy metal a streetwise sensibility and a degree of acceptance but until that point it would remain a ridiculous overdressed pantomime. But anyway, I digress, back to 'The Tenant'. The whole song is shot through with an air of menace which is the perfect backdrop for vocalist Rob Hickson to weave a tale of horror, madness and death based on Roman Polanski's 1976 psychological thriller 'The Tenant'. Some release from the aural assault is offered by the quieter breakdown part in the middle of the song although the atmosphere of this section remains tense, a sinister circling bassline holds things together while sparse bursts of guitar flare like flames in the dark. There is a long build up as the noise starts to mount again but the song finally emerges back into its memorable chorus and then continues its loping grind to a final cacophony of broken chords chewing on each other like shattered teeth- blackened, splintered and cracked...(it comes as no surprise that 'The Tenant' was always a live favourite, and survived as the only example of the early material that was performed at all of the band's gigs, right to the very end).
Although 'The First Flower' did have some derivative moments- 'Don't Leave Without Me' for example features a drum pattern remarkably similar to Killing Joke?s 'Unspeakable'- it is a very strong piece of work. The whole of side one (or the first three tracks if you are from the CD generation) is faultless, 'Sin of Sins' is excellent too (and would become another live staple) and although the last two tracks suffer in comparison to the standard of the rest of the material both are great songs in their own right.
The whole of Play Dead's career is marked with memorable releases, and the wonderful 'Shine' EP which was the next offering from the band marked another progression, as in contrast to the intensity of the 'First Flower' material 'Shine' is almost- whisper it- a pop song. Its also the first officially released song that is carried along by Wiff's distinctive rolling tom tom drum style and as such 'Shine' is probably the beginning of the signature Play Dead sound. An honourable mention must be made of the song 'Gaze' from this EP too, as I feel it is far too strong a song to be a B-side. Great chorus, Pete Waddleton plays a blinder and there is not one, but two (possibly three, its difficult to tell) pick slides from the guitar department. Now there is a lost art these days- when was the last time you heard a good pick slide?
I have to admit that I have some problems with the 'From The Promised Land' era, which I'll go into later, but most of them are unrelated to the quality of the songwriting. 'Break' and 'Walk Away' both belong up there with best of the band's material. 'Torn on Desire' and 'Return to the East' are both very good too, although I do miss the original vocal phrasing of 'Return to the East's chorus, it seemed more compelling somehow (see the Peel session version for a comparison). So, leaving aside 'From The Promised Land' for now, we next arrive at a startling single from late 1984, which was reviled by large sections of the band's fanbase. 'Conspiracy' is an unexpected experiment in tribal electro funk that features none of Steve Green's soaring guitar work and a marked change from Pete Waddleton?s usual guttural, dirty bass playing. The song is hung around a repeating keyboard motif that is reminiscent of John Carpenter's theme for the movie 'Assault on Precinct 13' and although this is backed by Wiff's now familiar pounding drums, a simple dub style bassline and a squall of movie sound effects and dialogue mean that this sounds nothing like the Play Dead we have previously come to know. It was a shocking departure at the time but listening back to it now it actually works very well. Its a little clumsy (keyboard and sampling technology was still in its infancy in 1984) but considering what was to come in the world of dance music later in the decade it seems remarkably prophetic and if you were to take away the low resolution keyboards and listen to just the drums and bass, they could have been recorded at any time between 1984 and now, the style hasn't aged at all (unlike the similar MAD experiment, which is all too firmly stuck in the 1980s. Perils of using then-current technology, I suppose). The movie samples, by the way, all came from Apocalypse Now and many of the lyrics quote the film too. However, the single was too much of a departure for some, even with the association of two cool movies but it remains a curious and important part of the band's story.
Normal service was resumed with the release of 'Sacrosanct' in early 1985. Due to the previously mentioned cellar flood and loss of my vinyl, I no longer have a copy of this single, so am unable to comment on the recording. However, the song is very close in spirit- and arrangement- to 'Shine' and I am sure that this one and the version that appeared on 'Company of Justice' will have something in common, which is that they were blown out of the water by the performance of the song live on TV music show The Tube which was filmed early in 1985. Speaking of live performances it was also around this time that the band recorded the live album and video 'Into The Fire' both of which are fantastic documents of how powerful the band were in concert. These items relate very closely to the 'Promised Land' period which I agreed to deal with later, so for now we?ll move onto 'Company of Justice' the band's studio swansong.
I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this album, it is admittedly the band's most accomplished recording and they hadn?t had such a coherent and consistent sound since side one of 'The First Flower'. The performances are spot on and the whole approach seems to be a lot more professional, the band come out sounding stadium ready. Whether this is a good thing or not is certainly debatable, I for one miss the meat grinder bass sound and although Steve Green is on fire in terms of his playing, his new guitar sound is airier and seemingly a little distant. I would hazard a guess that his guitar was recorded with a cluster of ambient microphones rather than using a simple close mic technique, there is a nasal quality to it that is not unpleasant- certainly distinctive- and in many places it is cleaner, remarkably different from the crushing wall of noise that we had been used to hearing live and on the band's earlier work. Its certainly closer to Will Sergeant than Geordie Walker thats for sure. Many of the songs have that familiar Play Dead buoyancy, there is an uplifting feeling to a number of the choruses and you have a vague sense that the melodic tendencies that were previously detectable in 'Shine' have been deliberately emphasised. This is certainly true on 'Witnesses' even though the dips and whines of a guitar part that brings a surprising trace of Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew into the proceedings keep things relatively unpredictable. 'This Side Of Heaven' is almost a standard Play Dead gallop with another upbeat chorus hook, until the addition of a twittering sequencer and a fleeting keyboard wash move it into another place- and that place is a breakdown section uncomfortably close to an arena style clap along. These sequencers turn up again on 'Caught On The Thorns' which is possibly the most overtly funky thing the band have ever done, even more so than 'Holy Holy'. It even features congas and rototoms. These keyboard flourishes are all over the album and whether it is during the electronic firestorm of 'Chains' or the waves-against-the-rocks washes of 'Reward' they work very well, adding some welcome extra textures to the proceedings. They appear again on what I consider to be the album's finest song, the title track 'Company of Justice' in the form of high pitched drones that lend the song a little of the glacial splendour that a similar sound brought to Joy Division's 'Atmosphere'. However, the song 'Company of Justice' is no ethereal soundscape, and is obviously a product of a band with its feet firmly in the rock band tradition but it is an intriguing example of what can only be described as Play Dead in slow motion. All the familiar elements are present- driving bass, tumbling tom toms and caustic, tangled guitar- but with the tempo pulled right back, what would usually sound jubilant and celebratory becomes something brooding and slightly forlorn. There is a tension that seems to be suspended, frozen perhaps, and this space allows Rob Hickson to play with evocative imagery featuring galaxies of stars, twisted hills, ocean waves and broken hearts. Its epic stuff that offers a tantalising glimpse of one direction the band could have chosen to take if they had carried on. Plus, if that isn?t enough to recommend it, the song contains two gong hits and numerous pick slides, and I mentioned earlier how I feel about them.
What doesn't work for me on the album are 'Celebration', it just seems to be a inferior version of 'Witnesses', and 'Judgement' which although it contains a textbook Pete Waddleton bass groove (with one of the few appearances on the album of his classic flanged sound) it seems to be rather underdeveloped.
So what conclusions can we draw about the album 'Company of Justice'? It is undoubtedly the band's best album in terms of its execution, production quality and sonic balance and the band have obviously progressed markedly and sound much more confident. In many places their inherent funkiness has been accentuated but it never sounds forced (unlike many of their contemporaries' attempts to loosen up a little). Play Dead have always had the funk but are now self-assured enough to be blatant about it. However, the tracks that diverge from the standard Play Dead formula are of the most interest and as previously mentioned, the track 'Company of Justice' hints at a moody kind of skyscraping epic rock which is a very exciting development whereas 'Chains' proves that the band had the potential to head in a vicious dance/rock crossover direction, years before anyone else. Given that elsewhere on the album it is the band's maturity and strength (coupled with Conny Plank's skilful supervision) that pulls them through some of the weakest material they had ever recorded but still makes it work, it is tempting to view 'Company of Justice' as the beginning of a transition for the band, unfortunately as they only had a few months of their existence left to run, it was a transition that never fully happened.
The final release from the band came posthumously early in 1996, 'Burning Down' is unfortunately an example of the weaker material from the 'Company of Justice' era and shows little or no indication of the progress made, or the promise for the future showed, on the album itself and is a rather disappointing finish to what should have been a re-birth for the band and the beginning of greater things.
So, to answer the question from pages ago, does Play Dead's work still stand the test of time? In my opinion, yes it does. The best of the band's work sounds as good now as it did back in the 1980s, even though certain aspects of it may be rather dated. But Play Dead don't sound ridiculous like most of the other bands from that era do (and it is a testament to Wiff's skill that the band's use of the now-long-lost art of 'tribal' drumming does not appear clumsy and forced like the efforts of so many others) probably because Play Dead were not as one dimensional as many other bands. I have already mentioned that the band had an in built funkiness, they didn't seem to have to try as hard as many others did (even Killing Joke sounded rather uptight when they tried to swing). Much of this is down to Pete Waddleton as his use of basslines that were based around octave patterns is similar to a technique used by many truly funky bassists. This tendency became more pronounced from 'Promised Land' onwards and if you take a listen to the track 'Holy Holy' from that album you are close to something that the Red Hot Chilli Peppers took to worldwide acclaim a few years later. Another characteristic of Pete's is the use of the higher register of the bass guitar, almost using it as a lead instrument. This is also something that many people were attempting to do at the time, and was a technique pioneered by Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook, but only Pete Waddleton seemed to successfully absorb it into his band's style with any fluidity, everyone else made it sound like a jarring abnormality. Incidentally, at some point around this time, Peter Hook was quoted in print as saying that he considered Play Dead the best band in the UK and some of his admiration must have been no doubt prompted by Pete Waddleton?s abilities.
There is also no arguing with the fact that Play Dead were a great rock band. With a guitarist as powerful as Steve Green on board it is not surprising that one reviewer criticised them for being too metal, although I would question why that should be a criticism at all. To take a cue from heavy metal's power and intensity and turn it into something less narcissistic would seem to me to be a very good thing. This is something that was done very successfully in the early 1990s to great acclaim but when Play Dead were doing something in a similar spirit years earlier it could only have been a case of too much too soon. It is interesting, once you have heard 'Propaganda' to take a listen to this-

http://www.last.fm/music/Helmet/_/Your+Head (ignore the video that appears on this page and click the 'preview this track' link)

Not the same and probably not influenced by it but we can confidently say that balls are in the same park. A little more tenuous but still not a million miles away from each other are 'The Tenant' and this-

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIj60VJQ8Wo

Finally, if you don't think that the guitar riff from 'Break' is one of the great lost proto-alt/metal riffs of the rock age then are you sure that you know anything about rock music at all?
So, with all these elements in their favour and a reputation as a great live band, why did Play Dead fail to reach the heights they deserved? From our vantage point in 2010 we can look back and as I see it the reason is obvious- 'From The Promised Land' didn't deliver.
As we don't know any specific details, or the full sequence of events, that caused the 'Promised Land' debacle it is difficult to apportion blame but it is obvious from listening to even the remixed 'improved' version that the sound quality of it is way below the standard that had been set by the band's previous releases. The razor sharp metallic sheen of 'The First Flower' and the 'Shine' EP was replaced by a lumpy, clubfooted vagueness that robbed the band of much of its power and weight. The quality of most of the songwriting is still very good- this is the album that features 'Walk Away' after all- but the impact of the new material is just lost. Steve Green in particular seems to be playing through a practice amp in the corner of the room and an anaemic sounding rhythm section don't carry any of their previous authority. Many of the recordings are littered with spurious electronic effects that serve only to muddy the waters further, as do many of the vocal delays/echo FX, whereas elsewhere overdubs drop in and out of the mix clumsily and drum sounds seem to change within actual songs...the whole thing is just a fucking mess frankly and it is very frustrating to listen to it. The band were at a crucial juncture in their career, with 'The First Flower' and 'Shine' well received by critics and public alike and the band a fearsome live act (as mentioned elsewhere on this forum, they did absolutely wipe the floor with every other band at the Futurama festival, there were hands in the air all the way to the back of the hall) the next move was absolutely critical. The next release had to be a drop dead stunner, something that would harness the band's aberrant take on heavy metal and twist it into something unique, palatable and instantly and utterly recognisable as no-one else but Play Dead. It had to be a song that would be able to take a quantum leap beyond the bounds of the independent ghetto and show that the band had not only the requisite songwriting skill but also an all important sense of identity and purpose that could feasibly make them a world class rock band. It had to be a song that special...and they had that song ready too. 'Break' should have been the song that kickstarted the alternative/rock crossover years before anyone else attempted it. It is 'Shine' taken to the next level, a masterful mixture of heavy metal's chug and grind and underground rock's chiming expansive textures that is, crucially, non-tribal and non-threatening but still dramatic, compelling and completely danceable. It should have been the one, the breakthrough, but when it appeared in advance of 'Promised Land' it was saddled with the same cardboard production as the album and as a result, the monstrous opening riff was robbed of its head turning power and the whole recording of the song has a dull fudginess that ruins its chances of ever reaching the heights that it deserves. It pains me to even think how much of a missed opportunity this was and with this as a not-so-exciting primer for the album shortly to come the band were perhaps at a disadvantage even before the album re-mix catastrophe.
Its temping and easy to say what should and should not have been done from the safety of a place 26 years after the events occurred. Its even easier when one is not in possession of all the facts and is not reacting to events as they happen but what the hell, lets play Fantasy Band Manager anyway. Firstly, its clear that John Fryer was the wrong choice of (co)producer for the band. In fact, from looking at his early CV, it is difficult to see why he would be considered to work with a band like Play Dead at all. Credits as a producer on works by Fad Gadget, early Depeche Mode and X-Mal Deutschland wouldn't seem to recommend him as someone suitable to capture the enormity of Play Dead?s sound. What is suspicious is that he started his career as an engineer at Blackwing Studios (which is where 'Promised Land' was recorded) so it is entirely possible that some kind of deal came through the studio. This may or may not be the case but it does make it even more inexcusable that some of the recorded sounds on the 'Break' EP and the 'Promised Land' album are so poor, considering he was working in a studio he knew well and with equipment he would have been more than familiar with. We do not, however, know what the available options were. The 'Shine' EP had been a one off for the Situation 2 label during autumn of the previous year and we do not know whether a potential new home for the band was in the process of being negotiated at this time or not. My suspicion is, from working within the music business for a number of years myself, that the 'Shine' EP was released in order to provoke some extra interest in the band and help them find a long term home. If this is in fact the case, then someone is to be commended for negotiating and finalising a deal for the band in such an incredibly short time that it allowed the band to start work on an album in March of the new year. This may also explain why John Fryer came into the frame- as perhaps one of the few options available at short notice.
In our role as Fantasy Band Manager it is obvious what the ideal scenario would have been- that the band finished its touring commitments for 1983 and went into the studio with a proven producer (not necessarily Roy Rowland if the band were keen to move on, but at least someone with extensive experience of loud rock bands) to record all the new material. This is, of course, assuming the material was written in time. What would have emerged was what 'From The Promised Land' should have been- a full on, Technicolour widescreen experience. Listen to 'Time' from the 'The First Flower' and imagine what 'Isabel' should have really sounded like. The 'Promised Land' era material deserved that kind of clarity, the same three dimensional presence, the same sheer physical size of what the band actually sounded like. Fantasy Band Manager would also have included both 'Shine' and 'Break' on the album so something would have had to go to make way and these would probably be 'Holy Holy' and 'Weeping Blood', the former because although it is interesting it doesn't really go anywhere and the latter is, unfortunately, just a gothic dirge. Damn...I said it. Dammit, I wanted to write this whole thing without once mentioning the G word and now I've gone and blown it. Alright, lets deal with it as we are here then we can move back to important stuff.
The band have come out on numerous occasions and denounced the word gothic and vehemently denied being a 'gothic' band. They certainly didn't look the part, as the classic 'gothic' look was the same back then as it is now- backcombed, make up, fishnet and flesh. Not an appearance that any of the band members favoured at any point. However, in many ways they have only themselves to blame for this perception of themselves as part of that scene, as for the whole of their career the artwork on the band's releases has been full of runes, symbols, spectral figures and religious iconography and it doesn't matter that the symbols have elemental significance or parts of them represent the four band members or that some of the imagery compliments any mystical or philosophical lyrical content, from a outsider's point of view it still looks like hokey horror film pagan stuff and I cannot understand why, if the band were as concerned about their image as they claim, this was not dealt with at some point. They cannot have been blind to the effect of the artwork on the perception of the band surely?
Anyway, I digress (again), lets move on the final piece of the puzzle. The 'Into The Fire' live album and video was recorded at the band's gig in Oxford during February 1985 and released later that year and captures the band in concert in stunning form. The audio is crystal clear and razor sharp, the band turn in a tight, flawless performance and it is wonderful to hear the 'Promised Land' era material with all the power and weight that the studio version lacked. Interestingly, John Fryer was involved in the mixing of this album too although the credits state that Jon Burton (who is also listed as the band's live sound engineer) was involved also. It can only be left to the imagination to think what 'From The Promised Land' would have achieved with the kind of sonic quality that 'Into The Fire' displays and it is this album, not 'Promised Land', that is the true document of the band during this period. Is it too much to fantasise that 'Into The Fire' was an apology for 'Promised Land'? That the band knew how powerful they were live and 'Into The Fire' was a way to redress? It probably is too much and more likely the band were taking advantage of opportunities as they came along and, as such, even though the idea of a version of 'Promised Land' with a big rock production (and 'Break' and 'Shine' included) is a great one to me, there is no indication that it was a direction they were interested in going (unlike their friends The Cult who embraced R-A-W-K in a very big way), in fact the release of 'Conspiracy' in the last half of 1984 and some of the diverging ideas that would appear on the soon-to-be-recorded 'Company of Justice' would suggest that the band were interested in heading in a different direction entirely.
So what is the conclusion of all this rambling? I?m not really 100% sure that there is one, as I seem to have answered my two questions already, other than that there is just the fact that Play Dead were a great band who suffered an irreversible set back at a crucial point. But we already knew that and anyway, the history of popular music is littered with the bones of so many talented artists that never made it due to some misfortune that you could pick them all up and build yourself a bridge out of here. The fact that Play Dead were never quite in the right place at the right time doesn't detract from their greatness but what does rankle with me is that they always seem to be seen as some gothic also ran, a footnote to the likes of Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy when, as we have seen, their legacy still has some relevance and the fact that they are not recognised for the quality of much of their work is a damn shame. Underated? Yes absolutely. Underachievers? Not through any fault of their own. Undervalued? Certainly.
If you've made it this far, I hope the time it has taken to read this was worth it and thanks for looking. Comments and criticisms are, of course, welcome.
Last edited by OX4 on 01 Mar 2012, 17:14, edited 4 times in total.

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Dave the Fish
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Postby Dave the Fish » 10 Jul 2010, 13:15

Hello! Just read your post - very interesting stuff, and I agree with many of the points you've raised. I guess all of us on here are of the agreement that Play Dead were a very, very underrated band (at least by 99.99% of the population) and should have achieved some form of crossover success as did many of their contemporaries (Cult, SoM, etc.). I never did get to see them live unfortunately, but slavishly bought all their output on vinyl back in the days. Still listen to it, still think it's brilliant...

I'd just like to put forward the case for the defence of poor old John Fryer at this point, though! Sure, we don't know the full facts about the recording and release of 'From the Promised Land' (by all accounts, the band themselves don't either, however!), and I don't want to get all 'muso-ish', and of course, whether one likes a certain kind of production value on a record is purely personal taste - but does this record really sound that bad? Yes, it is very 'eighties' in its production, and features lots of Linn Drum (even handclaps!) and synth effects, but having just listened to it again, I feel it sounds remarkably fresh, even now. I guess that the more 'electronic' and 'produced' feel that the LP has compared to previous releases produced by Roy Rowland must have been something the band were happy to experiment with (the 'Conspiracy' single being evidence?). It's perhaps a little stodgy in places, but for an album 25 years old, surely it it ain't that bad!

Apart from that LP, Fryer produced (or co-produced) some fine PD singles. Take 'Pale Fire' from the 'Sacrosanct' single, for instance. Apart from being a damn fine song in its own right, it's the production which surely makes this such a great record. The first time I heard it, I was blown away by it - it's almost sculptural, and extremely atmospheric; as for 'Sacrosanct' itself, Fryer's version is, for me anyway, far superior to the Conny Plank produced version on 'Company of Justice', with a far more interesting guitar sound and depth of production (even despite the Linn Drum handclaps). As well as these, there's also 'Break' / 'Bloodstains' (fine record) and having just plonked 'Solace' 12" on 'Mr Twirly' (or my record player as it's also known), I'm pretty impressed with this one too. Yes, again, the record is very 'produced', but Steve's guitar sounds absolutely razor sharp on this record, and it totally stands up today.

Anyways, for what it's worth, that's my opinion. Obviously subjective, and you're free to think I'm talking a load of old cobblers! But there you go...

Take Care, Love and hugs,
Dave

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Postby OX4 » 10 Jul 2010, 19:32

Hello Dave,
Re: Promised Land/John Fryer.
In comparison to the quality of production that most bands on independent labels had at the time, I guess it isn?t that badly produced. Play Dead were head and shoulders above most other bands at the time though and as I had seen the band live a whole shedload of times before I heard the album, I knew how powerful they really were and I therefore found the sound quality on the album to be disappointing. Steve Green has been spayed for a start which as absolutely criminal and while I agree that the electronic elements that were introduced on this album were something the band seemed to be interested in (and we seem to be in agreement that ?Conspiracy? was a confirmation of this) and I would never want to deny artists their right to experiment and progress but with a drummer as powerful as Wiff onboard, all this electronic clutter stops him from driving the thing along with any conviction. There are probably just as much electronics on the ?Company of Justice? album than ?Promised Land? but the difference is they have been used in the right places and to the right effect and are absorbed into the band?s sound with much more skill.
Not with you on ?Pale Fire? either I?m afraid. Again, seems like a clumsy mix to me (definitely an electronic kick drum too). I can?t seriously put this up next to ?Propaganda?, ?Company of Justice? or ?Shine? as a prime example of the band?s work. As for ?Break? even the Peel session version is better than the single, its got a clarity and drive that the later version lacked. That song deserved a massive rock production (and kind of got it on ?Into The Fire?). The version of ?Bloodstain/Pleasure? on the ?The Whip? is better than the Fryer one too. Wicked bass sound.
I think I mentioned that most of my vinyl got destroyed in 1989, this will be a good excuse to order the ?Promised Land? reissue. I?ll get back to you about the original ?Sacrosanct? when I?ve reacquainted myself with it (can?t find it on Spotify and it isn?t available to download anywhere).
Thanks for replying mate, I love chewing the fat about music, good to hear from someone who is up for a debate too.

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Postby doomsdayimpala » 14 Jul 2010, 15:06

i could say many of the same things about the Chameleons, to me the early records still sound as fresh today as they did then. Play Dead have certainly aged well, full and fresh sounding even by todays standards.

The Sisters i can only listen to the 1980 - 1983 years (Alice, Temple of love etc), some of the remixes they did at a later date had an injection of heavy metal which causes me to smell cheese. I can just about go to a First and Last but beyond that there drinks coasters for me.

The real epitome of the 80's for me is Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing, by Discharge. Not much says more about that threat of 80's annihilation and that teenager spotty anger and testoserone frustration that i guess most of us had at that time. And yes, i can still listen to that and cant fault it.

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Postby OX4 » 21 Jul 2010, 17:27

doomsdayimpala wrote:The real epitome of the 80's for me is Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing, by Discharge. Not much says more about that threat of 80's annihilation and that teenager spotty anger and testoserone frustration that i guess most of us had at that time. And yes, i can still listen to that and cant fault it.


I agree with you about Discharge, even their later incarnation as a dodgy metal band can't tarnish the power and impact of the early work. I never saw them live, as I was denied entry for being too young. My mate and I had to make do with pogoing in the street outside Retford Porterhouse as they played inside.

Saw Play Dead at Retford Porterhouse a few times too (including one month when they played twice), great gigs. I bet if I walked into that place these days I would be astonished at how small it is. Didn't seem like it at the time though. Obviously I agree with you about Play Dead still sounding good these days as well, they are one of the very few bands from that time that do.

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Postby playdeadandi » 12 Feb 2012, 00:56

couple of things to mention re retford porterhouse and peter hook i went to see play dead at the porterhouse one saturday night in early 85 and was met with a sight of peter hook and his then wife/partner caroline aherne sharing the bands rider which certanily contained harp lager and wine iwas speaking to pete about the fact there were umpteen psychobillies in attendance which was never a great sign and he told me that the owners had booked the stingrays as support but pd talked them out of it but all the flyers and ads still had them listed also hooky wanted pd on factory but tony wilson did not
"check it out -check it out"

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Postby OX4 » 13 Feb 2012, 00:28

playdeadandi wrote: hooky wanted pd on factory but tony wilson did not


Really? That's interesting, I never knew that. It would have been good for the general perception of the band.

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Postby playdeadandi » 13 Feb 2012, 14:08

apparently the reason was that wilson wanted only artists who had been unsigned
"check it out -check it out"

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Postby tomcurren » 01 Mar 2012, 14:55

I agree about the Pete Waddleton's precise and powerful way of using his bass guitar. I've looked to "Into the Fire" video and Pete W. seemed to play a Rickenbacker 4003 with an Ampeg amp...am i right ? What was the other bass guitar put behind him ?

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Postby OX4 » 01 Mar 2012, 16:46

tomcurren wrote:I agree about the Pete Waddleton's precise and powerful way of using his bass guitar. I've looked to "Into the Fire" video and Pete W. seemed to play a Rickenbacker 4003 with an Ampeg amp...am i right ? What was the other bass guitar put behind him ?


The Rickenbacker was a 4001, virtually the same as a 4003 but without the higher output pickups. The amp is a Music Man bass head, exact model unknown, these were solid state heads built and sold in the 1980s. The other bass guitar seen in the video is a Shaftesbury. This was a Japanese made copy of a Rickenbacker 4001 (although with a replica of the Gibson EB pickup in the neck position).

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Postby tomcurren » 02 Mar 2012, 09:07

I'm searching for a new bass to buy and i've read 4003 has a perfect rock sound but it's hard to play with. It's necessary to take off something on the bass to play "slap" for instance. Then, i'll take informations about 4001 one because it sounds perfect in "Into the fire" video. Thanks a lot Professor !

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Postby OX4 » 03 Mar 2012, 21:38

tomcurren wrote:i've read 4003 has a perfect rock sound


Well, I don't know about that. A perfect sound is very subjective thing. Ricky basses certainly have a sound remarkably different from other basses and whether that sound would be what you are looking for is hard to say. If you want that Pete W sound though, you will also need the all-important Boss Flanger as well.

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Postby morbidrockgod » 22 Nov 2013, 20:42

I saw this post back when it was fresh in 2012 but only had the patience and stamina to read it today, as I'm listening to a lot of obscure “gothy” post punk this week.

I never heard of Play Dead in the 80's and probably never would have. I was 10 years old in 1985 and the closest I got to experiencing "the scene" in England during that decade was Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary" and the Sisters "Walk Away" playing on Brazilian FM radios. Needless to say I never say PD live, and when I got to see the Sisters (sadly, the worst concert I’ve ever been) and the Cult it was already in the 2000's...

Wasn't for the Sisters of Mercy (my favorite band to this day), The Cure, The Cult and Echo & The Bunnymen I would never have gotten to hear Play Dead. Actually, wasn't for the fact that they are labeled "goth" by many, I would never bumped onto them, as I first heard one of their tracks ("Tenant") in a 4-CD box-set of "goth" rock bands (or whatever one prefer to call it) by Cleopatra Records, in 1996.

Domestic Internet was still in its infancy back then, my English was poor and there was little to zero published printed information about the whole British indie rock scene of the 80's in Brazil.

After listening to that compilation several times, I selected a few bands that really caught my attention, and bought many of their albums in the mid to late 90’s. The first PD title that I bought was Cleopatra's reissued "First Flower E.P.", which didn't impress me on the whole (now I know why). I also bought a compilation of the Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and became a fan.

In the past few years, I decided to revisit “The First Flower” and decided to look up the Internet for information on the band. That was when I found this website/forum and the reissued “From the Promised Land” and “Company of Justice” albums. Only then I turned into a Play Dead fan and the band conquered my admiration as much as the Lorries did years back. I either didn’t know or simply there weren’t any PD albums available on CD in the 90’s (besides “The First Flower”).

I’d like to say that from the perspective of someone who wasn’t there in the UK when the scene happened, the reissued CD version of the “Promised Land” album does sound good production wise. There are indeed some weak tracks, as you mentioned in your post. I can tell the production is different than on the “Company” album, but wouldn’t say it’s necessarily worse or better; just different – and I like them equally.

Regarding the “goth” label that is so often attached to PD, I think it has done more good than bad to the band, because it’s easier for kids (like I was in the 90’s) to look it up and discover the band as if it was called post punk or had no classification potential at all.

Now with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, free of labeling dependency to decide what to hear regardless of musical genre, I would totally recommend Play Dead to any rock fan.

And your take on Steve Green’s guitar sound being kinda the missing link between metal and post punk/goth is spot on! I happen to be a guitar player myself and, having started playing thrash/death metal and punk/hardcore in my teens, I feel right at home listening to PD. Gosh, I can even dig Re Vox work on the early stuff! I also totally agree with the similarities between Peter Hook’s and Pete Waddleton’s bass playing styles! I think Pete is up there with Craig Adams of the Sisters of Mercy as my all-time favorite post punk bass players! Sometimes I just play “Gaze” very loud at home just to groove with that great bass line!

If I ever win the lottery I will create a huge festival in the UK and try to reform and bring together as many British bands of the early to mid 80’s to play the arenas, quenching our thirst to see those acts live and exposing them to a new generation of music lovers! (woudn’t it be nice?)

Thanks for keeping Play Dead’s legacy alive. Me, I will spread the word about this great band as long as I’m alive.

Cheers,

Felipe
Jacareí, SP, Brazil

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Postby OX4 » 03 Feb 2014, 15:46

Welcome morbidrockgod and thanks for your kind words. I'm interested in why 'The First Flower' didn't impress you initially (you say that you 'now know why' but didn't expand on this), care to share with us what you didn't like and what/why this changed?

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Postby morbidrockgod » 11 Mar 2014, 21:52

Hey OX4! Greetings from Brazil!

I had to give a fresh listen on my copy of “The First Flower” in order to answer to your question more appropriately.

Well, I am an album-oriented music listener, meaning that I enjoy listening to full length albums rather than singles or compilations.

I believe every music album conveys a certain mood, or vibe that reflects what the artist’s was going through at the time of recording. Things like uncertainty about the future of his/her career, politics, technology and the overall environment usually make it into the album, usually in form of lyrics. For example, the theme of an atomic holocaust was present in the lyrics of many pop artists throughout the 1980’s.

Now, if the songs are good, I will listen to them anyway, but usually in the order featured in the album (you can call me anal if you want).

Having said that, the version that I have of the “First Flower” contains not only the original E.P., but also the singles “Shine”, “Gaze” and “Promise” as well as a few remixes, and, at the end, the very first singles from the ReVox era.

Listening to that CD once again, I think I never bonded with the last two tracks of the original “First Flower” E.P., namely “In Silence” and “Don’t Leave Without Me”.

To my listening experience, it feels as if the album starts running out of gas towards the end.

Then, there’s some 3 jewels of songs (the singles above mentioned) that are caught between the weaker tracks of the original E.P. and the 3 remixes (“Propaganda (mix)”, “Propaganda (1984 mix)” and “Sin of Sins (1984 mix)”) – and I very much dislike remixes.

By the time the CD reaches the last three tracks my interest has vanished.

It’s funny that even though I did listen to that CD many times in the 90’s, I was only hooked on “Shine”, “Gaze” and “Promise” very recently.

Anyways, I’m glad I held on to it!

Cheers!


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