This is the story of one of the most misunderstood bands, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, its meteoric rise to fame, spectacular explosion and the groundbreaking visions they brought to modern pop-culture. Based on the memories of Tony James and Neal X
The beginning of the colorful Sigue Sigue Sputnik story starts in 1981 when the band, Generation X, (in which Tony James once played) finally disintegrated due to the fact that Tony could no longer agree with Billy Idol (the singer), on the merits of dangerous drugs as a passport to credibility. As Tony James now recalls, he had seen the destructive effects of heroin too many times, from ruining work opportunities to friendships to lives. In this case, it left him and Billy on two different planets… and then, almost from one day to the next, it was all over. Billy Idol left the band to write his solo album in New York without even taking the time to say goodbye, and Tony was faced with a feeling of emptiness, an awful feeling of loss that he had never felt before in his life, like losing a first love and your family all at the same time.
Generation X disintegrated in 1981
After a year of absence, Billy Idol appeared in London and brought Tony a promo copy of the song “White Wedding” which was planned to be on his forthcoming album. Tony felt so thrown after listening to the song and at the same time so impressed by Billy’s new sound that he felt that he had to do something as good as his ex-band member to keep up with him.
He started to play with ideas about the future band and slowly but surely the vision of it started to take shape. First of all, Tony realized that he did not want to create just another punk band. He wanted to do something completely different. As he says:” I didn’t just not want to go back to the old scene, I wanted to form a whole new scene”.
One of the central influences in creating Sigue Sigue Sputnik was the sound of the band, Suicide, which made Tony James think about another way of creating rock-n-roll using electronic beats. Also, at that time, he was reading a lot of books by the English futurologist and sci-fi writer, Colin Wilson, who was standing for the idea that an individual can influence and create the future they want if they want it that much.
At that time, Tony James moved (with his girlfriend, Magenta DeVine, who was a real PR genius in the music business and latterly played a serious role in Sigue Sigue Sputniks story), to a house that Magenta had bought from the Sex Pistols producer Malcolm Maclaren. It was actually where the bassist of this pioneering punk-rock band, Sid Vicious, died after a heroin overdose. It sounds like a house with a creepy vibe, but not for a young eccentric rock-n-roller and his just as eccentric girlfriend. As Tony recalls, over the following six years this house became the center of madness.
Before Sigue Sigue Sputnik started to take shape, Tony was trying to collaborate with other bands and musicians from the punk scene. In the home studio of the house with the spooky ghost of Sid Vicious he produced the first album for the band, Sex Gang Children, and tried to do some things together with Johny Thunders from the New York Dolls and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols. But it was not what he really felt like doing. He describes his feelings and goals of these days as:
“I never liked being a producer of other bands. I wanted my own band, my own fantasy, my own movie where I could write the script, and like Tarantino, I could be in my own movie too! I had a lot more dreaming to do yet”.
Tony started to form his masterplan. Being obsessed with the ‘60s lifestyle he had and old black & white movies in which perfect bands met in coffee bars, he found a suitable coffee place called “The Village” in Mayfair, which at that time was not a trendy area like it is nowadays, and was mostly known then as a hookers hang out. Tony spent days in the village reading Colin Wilson and putting ideas together about the future band in his red notebook.
This is how he describes this period of his life in his memoir:
“I had always loved those books about 60’s groups in London, about the 2 i’s coffee bar in Soho, imagining that the groups just happened to form there. You know, like in lots of those old black and white movies. I guess I had this fantasy vision that I could just hang out in a coffee bar and somehow would be inspired and become absorbed into a new scene. A new beat generation would be there just ‘being’, New Ginsberg reading over there, A new Jagger in the corner with a Stooges album under his arm, a real Life Ziggy buying a coffee on his way home from art college. It was that easy in my head. I suppose I was also following Malcolm McLaren’s rules – step 1. Create a scene. Your group comes out of that creative pool.”
Tony was putting ads in a really powerful and popular music magazine called Melody Maker in order to find musicians that would fit the bands set up. His idea was that the main qualities of his future band members must be their powerful charisma and alternative style. Their musical skills were not the most important factor to be on stage. He was sure that he would be able to teach them whatever they needed to know. After interviewing a number of talentless musicians without any charisma or style, he finally found Neal Whitmore, who became Neal X in the future band.
Tony James had this kind of impressions after meeting Neal first time:
“When Neal came for an interview, he had blonde hair and the right look and he could actually play the odd Thunder’s lick. The belief was paying off I told myself. He was a nice middle-class boy but most importantly for the vision I had, he was thin and he had good hair”.
Neal really liked Tony and it seemed as if they would get on right from day one, creating a perfect base for their future dream band. This is how Neal remembers this first meeting:
“It was 1982. At that time, after finishing school where I was already involved in a few bands, I went for one year to college to do a degree in engineering and realized that it sucked. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to be a rock-n-roll star.
I moved to London (where I was already living at that time for half the year) and was working as a garbage man. It’s a kind of occupation for a young guy that needs to make some money straight away to be able to go out with his girlfriend, drink whisky and buy guitar strings. We met Tony through the advert that he had put in Melody Maker. I don’t remember the exact wording of it but it sounded something like: “A brilliant looking guitarist wanted!”. I thought – “Yeah, that is me and went to meet Tony. He had a really positive and creative energy and a twinkle in his eyes. I realized that for sure we can do something interesting together and we teamed up.”
Over the next 9 months, Neal and Tony spent time looking for a singer. Adverts in Melody Maker didn’t help too much, as no unusual characters that fit their vision of the singer were found through them. At one point they tried Annie Lennox who lately formed Eurythmics. She had a brilliant voice, but Tony was locked in his vision and didn’t want to have a female singer in the group.
At last, one day cruising through the Kensington Market, they saw Martin Degville, who was dancing to a Suicide song in his own designers’ shop YAYA. Tony immediately knew that Martin was the character that he had been looking for a long time. This is how he recalls this moment:
“Tony and Neal offered Martin to become a part of the band they were creating. Martin saw interesting and creative characters in them and didn’t refuse.
During the next 6 months, all three of them – Tony, Neal and Martin, spent time rehearsing in Magenta’s house, being watched by the ghost of Sid Vicious. Step by step the sound of the band (that will later be a bright and flashing trace in their musical history was taking shape), while the guys were improving their musical skills playing covers of different rock songs. The biggest problem was that Martin couldn’t sing properly as he was a fashion designer, a colorful freak, but didn’t have any experience in music at all. But the other members were trying to solve this problem by training Martin to sing every day.
Guys were improving their musical skills playing covers of different rock songs
The first rehearsals in the home studio consisted of a bass guitar, X’s zebra skin covered Travis Bean guitar and a good old Roland 808 drum machine that was given to Tony by Fatcha O’Kelly – the tour manager of Boomtown Rats. Neal remembers the moment when he first saw and had the opportunity to try to play the Roland 808 as a special one:
“It was a revolutionary gadget at that time. I remember how Tony brought it to the studio, went downstairs to play snooker for half an hour and encouraged us to try to do something with the drum machine. We found out that we could connect the synthesizer to it and started to experiment with the speed of the rhythm. We found it very groovy and this is how the original sound of Sigue Sigue Sputnik that sounds like rock-n-roll played by Kraftwerk was found.”
These first rehearsals were also the time when the aesthetic base, the style and concept of the emerging band was taking shape. As Tony James recalls:
“When we were not rehearsing we watched films – Pink Flamingos, Performance, Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, Escape from New York, Desperate Living and She Male porno movies as inspiration. Video taped any TV show on technology. We listened to Alan Vega doing Ghost Rider, endless Dub Reggae and Elvis. Those times formed the basis of the group’s musical core…
Outrage and Sci-Fi in dub with movies and computers… and rock and roll guitars of course.
Then at night we lived the life John Walters imagined crossed with my visions of the Dystopian future. Hanging out in video arcades at midnight at Kings Cross station, walking with hookers, dressed to kill. We were hip to everything that was happening then, while the menacing Taxi Driver soundtrack played in the background. The world of information was less dispersed – not split into thousands of tribes like it is today. As far as we were concerned there was only one game in town and we intended to be it.”
At night we lived the life John Walters imagined crossed with my visions of the Dystopian future
The only missing detail to complete the set-up of the perfect band in Tony’s vision were two drummers. They were soon found. First was Ray Mayhew, he was passing nearby Martin Degville’s shop, YAYA, on Saturday afternoon looking like a drummer, looking like a star. Martin went out and grabbed him saying would you like to be in our band? He hadn’t played before and – of course – didn’t have a drum kit, but he was taught. Then one day, sitting in the yard and enjoying a break after rehearsal in the sun, the guys saw a handsome boy passing by.
It was Chris Kavanagh. He talked the talk and before they knew it he was in the band and another drum kit was bought for him right away. And this was the final moment when the band’s original line up was finally formed. Everything looked like Tony James’ vision of a band that consisted of extraordinary people, with eye-catching styles and powerful characters.
The last thing that had to be settled was a name for the band. It was a long creative process, full of arguments and fun according to Tony James.
Neal X had some doubt after all these years about how realistic the story of the article that gave the name to the band was, but this is what he thinks about it:
“I think the Fachta did not get the article well and I actually never saw it. Everybody was always drunk those days, so it was hard to remember something, but it’s good that Fachta remembered at least this fantastic name. But recently it was discovered that Sigue Sigue Sputnik was not the name of a Moscow street gang, but a very cruel gang from Manila in the Philippines and there was a big story written about them in the book of the famous American write, PJ O’Rourke.”
Despite the fact that checking the origins of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s name was debatable at best, the band was ready to conquer the world.
THE FUN RIDE TO STARDOM
Right from the beginning, Tony James had an original approach towards promoting the band. He and Magenta DeVine (who took the role of being the band’s press agent) saw things in such a way that at the beginning, even before the band had some finished, properly recorded music, it was very important to create interest via the press by using outstanding visual images and creating a kind of myth and legend about these upcoming rock stars. Amazingly, this kind of marketing strategy worked brilliantly and was adopted by many bands after Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
As their image came first, Sigue Sigue Sputnik created a bizarre and futuristic look inspired by cyberpunk, the aesthetics of post-apocalyptic movies like Mad Max, a camp and glam style. Martin Degville, being a fashion designer, was working on the band’s style. Tony James was very good at designing slogans and mottos so he collaborated with Martin to create the branded Sputnik t-shirts, which were sold in Martin’s shop YAYA and quickly became very popular among London’s fashion victims. Tony James remembers how fun it was to create the hype and myth around the band by selling these branded t-shirts:
“Every weekend we would be playing the demos in the shop at ear splitting volume, looking like stars and wearing our own T-SHIRTS which we had sat up for hours stitching together in order to sell them in the shop to earn the money to play the next gigs. These featured pictures of transsexuals and all our other early influences, much like the early Sex Pistols shirts but with the bands name in Japanese or Russian.
People were buying lots of the shirts from the shop now before anyone outside our clique knew we were a group, they just liked the designs. They were out there unaware that they were already promoting the band.
We actually printed each of the FUCK shirts ourselves, each one printed with a different colour to be unique. It was our art, every one special, individual. God the care and detail we put into everything. It was my fanaticism, everything had to be special, detailed exactly just so.
Before we had even played a gig and as fate would have it Billy Idol came in to the shop one day when none of the band are there and bought a T-shirt, just because he liked the look of it. Sputnik was on Idol’s back before he knew it!”.
The myth grew, people got interested, the band started to get a lot of attention from the press as well as offers for gigs. It was a really nice and promising start. This is how Neal X remembers this moment:
“The press back then was really powerful and they really helped us when we started to get attention because of the way the band looked. Tony’s previous background with Billy Idol in Generation X and a lot of effort and good work with media that Magenta did for us. Sigue Sigue Sputnik was on the front cover of Melody Maker magazine even before they had a record deal and it was really big. But mainly this effect the great press-campaign made was visible in London. Here we could easily sell at that time 200-300 tickets for our shows, but in smaller cities it we were lucky if we sold 20. But we kept pushing and trying. We were doing a lot of shows when EMI records came with a good offer and signed us.”
Mainly the effect of the press-campaign was visible in London
As the visual aspect was always the backbone of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s ethos, Tony James decided to present their music in an unusual way to the record labels when he was looking for a deal. He made a video with images of the band performing one of their few songs that was ready at that moment and later became their biggest hit “Love Missile F1-11 “, and clips from blockbuster, sci-fi and futuristic movies with violent scenes like from Blade Runner, Rocky IV, Clockwork Orange, and Halloween with images of Elvis Presley and Soviet Cosmonauts on top. Later on, an approach using sound samples from movies became the trademark of the band which was actively used in their first album.
This varied audio-visual cocktail, which was probably one of the first examples of contemporary video-art, worked and really impressed people from the record industry. 10 record companies saw it and EMI offered them the best deal.
This varied audio-visual cocktail and EMI offered them the best deal
The amount of money they were offered was really impressive for that time and for a band that hadn’t even released a single yet. It was $4 million, which was about $6 million. Sigue Sigue Sputnik immediately got called a “$6 million band” by the press. But it was more like a point that really worked well for Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s image but didn’t have much to do with the reality.
“It sounded great on paper. If we stayed on the contract probably we would receive these $6 million, but the contract was for 7 albums which never happened. As far as I remember we were given an advance, something like 150 000$ . We were really happy about it and settled a company and spent a lot of money on equipment. I still use some of the guitars that I bought in those days. But we had never seen so much money. We were investing most of the money that we got from the music back into the band and into the show production. For example we were the first band that used a video wall in their show and at that time it was really expensive, it was something like 25 000$ per night if I remember. As I also remember each of us received maybe 1000$ after signing the deal, but it was nothing, with the rock-n-roll style of life that we had at that moment it could be spent over the weekend.
After the contract was sorted, we played a gig the same night and the next day I went to New York to my brother’s wedding where I had a fantastic time. I remember that many people from the industry in NY told me – you are very lucky Neal, you are going to be a millionaire when you are 30. It didn’t happen, but I didn’t really care about the money as it was a great experience anyway. And now I really think that it was a good thing that I didn’t become a millionaire in my 30s – I could easily have died at 35 as there were too many temptations around. We were young, didn’t have an off button and were living a rock-n-roll lifestyle with non-stop partying.”
LOVE MISSEILE HITS THE WORLD
After Love Misseile F1-11 suddenly all the doors were opened
When things came for making first singles and an album, Tony James started to talk with EMI management about the possible producer for their first record. He was ambitious enough to say that he could also see two suitable producers for Sigue Sigue Sputnik – David Bowie or Prince. This is how he remembers when they started to look for the producer of the first record:
“We needed a producer. I tried to contact my old friend Prince – it’s too violent he said (well, a flunky said). Bowie wasn’t in either. Well, he didn’t reply anyway.”
From Neal’s perspective, the situation with Prince looked different:
“EMI promised to get our promo tape to Prince. And then, when we were already making the album with Georgio Moroder we met Prince at a party in London. He came up to us, knew who we were and we said how great it was to meet him and asked if we could have our tapes back. And then he asked, “What tapes?”. We told him that we were signed to EMI and originally saw only David Bowie or him as the producer of the first album and had asked the label to send the demo tape to him. But Prince said that he had never heard about it. So I think EMI never sent the tape to him.”
At the end of the day, Georgio Moroder was chosen to be the producer for the band’s first record. Tony James recalls how this great collaboration came about:
“The main man was always going to be Georgio Moroder. How many times had we played the Scarface soundtrack album? And the Midnight Express album? And Donna Summer’s “I feel Love’? Don’t even get me started…. So, before you know it, given the golden times that they were, me, Degville and X are standing in the actual studio in Munich where all those great sounds were made, playing Georgio the demo video. He loved it and agreed that he would come to London asap to record the single.“
Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s first single “Love Missiele F1-11” was finally out, and it was a huge success which Tony James still remembers as one of the most exciting highlights of his career:
“The day the record came out I felt a shiver of anticipation as I walked down London’s premier shopping street, Oxford Street. There, outside every record store was a queue… for our record. All those years planning, believing, dreaming…. It Worked.
And it was an amazing record. Everything we’d hoped for… and it was rocketing to the top of the charts all over Europe. Those were heady weeks and for a moment in rock history we were the hottest band in the world, with so much promise, so much still to come….
That was probably one of the most exciting moments in my career to date and understandably I felt on top of the world”.
As for Neal X, his memories of working with Giorgio Moroder on the first record are very positive too:
“It was just amazing how Love Missile took off. We went very fast from being the band that was living and rehearsing in a squat with no hot water, to being on the back of a luxury powerboat in Ibiza, sweeping across the waves, with a hit that was number 1 in 20 countries. After just a few months! We made a record in the studio with Giorgio in January 1986 and it came out late February and in April it was a number 1 hit everywhere. It was nuts.
Suddenly all the doors opened for us. The record really impressed many people as it was amazingly good and sounded so fresh. I remember at the time when it had just come out, I met Neil Rogers from Chic at a party and he told me how he was sitting in his studio in New York with Grace Jones just a few days ago and a guy from his record company brought the Love Missile record to his office and said that they just had to check it out. Neil said that he and Grace felt completely old-fashioned after listening to Sigue Sigue Sputnik. What?! But it was the reality that we were living in..
Giorgio had done an extraordinary job. There was a total understanding between him and the band and he made all our ideas come true. He kept all the sounds and the essence of the group – the drum machines, the synthesizers and guitars. He didn’t change us, he used all the best characteristics that we had to make a hit record. Giorgio works fast, he is always full of ideas and there is a good team around him. This kind of experience teaches you really good lessons in terms of working professionally.”
Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s popularity was growing rapidly, followed by big shows all over the UK. At that moment, the violent thing that was a part of their artistic concept materialized and got real which unfortunately ended with the band’s reputation being tarred.
“On the Second date of the tour the catch phrase of UltraViolence/ Designer Violence became all to real. We were booked to play at Reading University and those students were ready to explain to me why I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was… with bottles. The gig was like that scene in the Battle of Hastings when the archers arrows come over in waves, except these were bottles. Out of the dry ice and smoke came bottles raining down. It was hard to play and tempers were fraying. But you love us right?
Ray Mayhew, always a hot head whose character as the leering maniac but brilliant drummer I had nurtured, caught one bottle and threw it violently back into the crowd.. and a fan was hospitalized.
Mayhew was arrested and charged with wounding on three counts. The tabloids had a new splash on Britain’s most notorious press worthy band. We really were the new Sex Pistols now. We, meanwhile were treating it all as a bit of a laugh. Ray had plenty of other court cases pending already and I printed “Ray Mayhew is Innocent” T-Shirts as a nod to Sid, with his court appearances on the back like tour dates. The Judge told me off for smirking in the witness box and not taking it seriously. Ray got a bit of a telling off and a smacked bottom, made the 10.00 News and triumphantly rejoined the tour in Dunstable to a huge sell out crowd. It felt all so Rolling Stones, so rebellious.
We got his lawyers bill soon enough of course.
That Sunday I went to the newsagents to find the front page splash on the News of The World. “Horror of the Sputnik maniac” it screamed. We’d gone from colorful glam genius’s to “threat to the nations youth” in a week. Years later I had dinner with David Montgomery the then editor of News of the World. He said it was a slow week and they just thought oh why not, they make great copy. The upcoming very lucrative tour of Japan got cancelled because of it, they weren’t keen on flying out a band who threw bottles at their fans. Thanks David.”
The way Neal X remembers this:
“We started to get into the trouble with violence at gigs and that sort of nonsense. Some football fans really didn’t like the way we looked and they came to the shows to cause trouble. There were some problems with people throwing bottles around at our shows. Martin once got hit in the eye by the bottle. Suddenly we became notorious and disliked by the media and it was not about the music anymore. Some people misinterpreted our message about ultraviolence. They thought that it meant that you can go push girls and throw bottles on stage but we really didn’t mean that. We just thought that they were fun sci-fi movies with laser guns and explosions.”
Some people misinterpreted our message about ultraviolence
Tony James was the mastermind behind the rapidly growing Sigue Sigue Sputnik myth and believes that at some points it was ok that things got so notorious, as he remembers his feelings at that moment:
“But I have to say still it was intoxicating fun. You are getting to live out fantasies you’d only read about in books and the lives of other groups I’d considered notorious. And notorious is always sexy.”
Until the moment when the bands PR service (led by Magenta DeVine) was in charge for the press-campaign, it was a cleverly directed movie by Tony James about the birth of the legend in the way he wanted to see it. The idea that the look, the charisma and the colorful concept, which would, for sure, be followed by great music, worked well in the beginning.
Tony recalls the regular stories about Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the leading English tabloids, as one of the good and effective sides of the mass attention from the press that the band was having during the first big tour:
“Gary Bushell an old, boozy faced, punk journalist now writing for The Sun was on tour with us and Degville and Mayhew often drove to the next gig in his big gangster style Jaguar. He would sit at breakfast making up copy like “Martin simulates sex on stage” and phone it in after phoning up his pet M.P Terry Dicks for an outraged quote. I became disappointed if I didn’t read about us in The Sun next day. The band was so individually recognisable that the Sun ran a great cartoon, really capturing the different personalities of the 5 members.”
It was a cleverly directed movie by Tony James about the birth of the legend in the way he wanted to see it
The undesired effects of the hype around the band started to happen when the stories (that continued to appear in the press) were not part of Tony’s plan. This was the moment when the cracks in his well-thought-out public image of his creation started to appear. Looking back at it, Tony describes the harmful effects that these stories started to have on the band’s image which really had nothing to do with the reality:
“The trouble is that every story printed, true or false, goes into the file and becomes part of the overall myth. So I had spent all this time carefully crafting every part of my Movie and now other people were randomly adding scenes of their own. You could not tell myth from real. By the time we got to the USA, the idea that we could not play and mimed on stage had become one of the big scandal points. From driving the story myself I was now on the back foot. And this “miming” business was ultimately to hurt the band playing gigs. How had it happened?
The tabloids had written that at one gig we had stopped playing but the music continued… HOW? The whole point of those years of rehearsal was that we were completely live.
I guess it was a combination of my glib headline quote that “neither of the two drummers could play” yes, but that was WHEN WE MET THEM ….and the fact that to play the samples on stage in this pre sampler/ computer era, Yana would have to load a cassette into the machine for each song to play all the movie voice snippets. Did it look as if she was loading up a backing track? We never hid the cassette machine as movie sounds and voices were part of the bands sound live but you can see how people got the wrong impression.”
Sometimes this extra press attention led to some unbelievable and crazy stories. As Tony remembers, one of the most memorable was when he was blackmailed:
“Two girls came into my hotel room one night, well… ok… um… stayed in my room one night. At a critical moment they said that if I gave them £20,000 that they would kill the Prime Minister and give Sputnik the film rights for our next video… er cant we talk about this in 10 seconds time I said, I’m not really focused, a man with an erection will say yes to anything ultimately… anyway, next day I was joking about it and my lawyer overheard… he called the police immediately. Next thing ten Special Branch men were in my room questioning me. In detail. Every detail.
This is madness but true… a press blackout was placed on the story thank God – Janet would never buy my excuse – and they looked for the girls, by coming on tour with us. This is suddenly more than just a laugh now. The girls contacted me again back in London… “We are in a hotel paid for by the News of the World, drinking champagne… they love the story… and by the way, that night we taped the whole thing…”. Ever had that sinking feeling?
Eventually Special Branch caught up with them and it was the last I heard of it thank GOD… but I still go cold thinking of all those Special Branch guys listening to that tape and transcribing it…”
Anyway, aside from the good bad and bad aspects of this crazy press hype, the feeling that was shared by all the band members was that their ultimate glory was yet to follow when they would release an album. After the success and world domination of “Love Missile F1-11”, Giorgio Moroder was chosen to be the first album’s producer and Sigue Sigue Sputnik went straight to the maestro’s studio in LA to complete the mission.
In the master, Giorgio Moroder’s hands, the recording of the first Sigue Sigue Sputnik album went very fast and professionally, as Tony James recalls it:
“Moroder had now moved to live in L.A and we flew out to work on the next record only days after the end of the UK tour. I went via NYC…. by Concorde of course.
Neal X had flown out to Los Angeles a week early to supervise the programming of the album tracks. I felt as if we were in Hammer of the Gods the Zeppelin book. There’s something so magical about that limo ride in from LAX to the city, listening to American radio.
The station KROQ had been mad for Love Missile and were playing it all the time. We hooked up with Pam Turbov and Matt Dike, from the record label “DeliciousVinyl’ who were both big fans of the band. They came to the group’s first rehearsals in LA some months later. Matt went on to produce a huge hit “Do the Wild Thing” for Tone Loc in his bedroom studio.
However good it felt to be in the city of dreams, it felt also very strange to be creating Sputnik’s neon nightmare in the Californian sunshine.
Everything went really fast. Moroder, the genius producer taught us so much, not least about working strict hours in the studio, fueled by endless expressos and the fact that he had such great people working with him, made it all look so easy. We met Sparks there and Moroder was recording the Top Gun soundtrack at the same time in the other studio next door. I still swear he nicked the tune for Take my Breath Away from our Sex Bomb Boogie!!
The album may have been recorded in a rush but as a live band we were match fit , having played the songs continuously for the past year and knowing the demos inside out.”
However, when the work on the album was over and the band was on their way back to the UK, it was the first moment (as Tony James remembers) when he felt that something was going wrong with his creation:
“But still as we drove back to LAX airport I left Hollywood with the beginning of a heavy feeling in my heart that I was to get to know so well. I was having the time of my life, but there just wasn’t time to get everything perfect anymore. I was gradually loosing control of my baby but for my own sanity I had to let it go, to be less pedantic about every minute detail and to care less. Any artist will tell you that is fatal.”
When Sigue Sigue Sputnik was back in London they started to work immediately on the new video “21st Century Boy”, which was going to be followed by the album. After all this years Tony shares his views on the production process of second Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s video:
“Back in the UK we shot a video for 21st CenturyBoy, ready for it’s release in May. The five years of ideas and plundering that I had funneled into the Love Missile promo were not around for the second single. Yes we could play with the Sputnik Corporation / Big Business fantasy and we hired Limos and helicopters to illustrate a day in the life of those fun loving, consumer electronic Sputniks, but the video lacked a true narrative which had informed Missile.”
When the video and record came out, the band was enjoying a holiday in Ibiza at the legendary Pikes hotel after a show at the famous Ku Club. The guys were hanging out with Roman Polanski there, having a lot of fun and doing a lot of drinking when Tony received a phone call from the EMI marketing director. This is how he remembers it:
“Twenty First Century Boy had come out with massive pre orders in its “crucifix made of TV sets” sleeve (I got the idea watching the sixties film “Privilege”). It rocketed to number 20 in the charts…. and then suddenly, for the first time ever since we had appeared…. it stalled.
The head of EMI marketing telephoned me in Ibiza just before we left. I was already frazzled from the week’s events but it was the first time I had heard him slightly loosing his nerve.
“I’m dying out there” he said from his car, “I just don’t know what’s going wrong”. And I can tell you…. neither did I.”
According to Tony’s memories, “21st Century Boy” was still a big hit, but he had had much higher expectations for it after the worldwide massive success of “Love Missile F 1-11”:
“ For any other band, 100,000 sales of 21st C Boy would have been seen as a success… but after my fantasy number one movie that was Love Missile – and all that it released on the world – ANYTHING seemed a failure. How could anything live up to that, let alone surpass it?”
21st Century Boy was still a big hit, but he had had much higher expectations
Neal X remembers the disappointing situation in this way:
“21st Century Boy didn’t take off as well as “Love Missile F1-11”. It’s hard to say what was the problem. We really loved the record – I thought it was brilliant. I remember how we were sitting in our London studio listening to the demo and our agent came and joined us and his first impression was that the record was fantastic and was going to be an even bigger hit than the first single.
Maybe the problem was that the sound was too similar to “Love Missile F1-11”. Or it might have been a good idea to acknowledge the fantastic work that Giorgio did for us with producing our first single but to have left the next one in the hands of another producer, who could have come up with some fresh, new ideas. Anyway, at the time, it hadn’t occurred to us as when you are a band that is signed to a major label that just had a number 1 hit in 20 countries that would be it. It’s obvious that the label management in this kind of situation will choose the same producer for the next record.”
But “21st Century Boy” was soon followed by the debut album “Flaunt It” as was planned. The album was a big commercial success, which worked well to lift the mood and the band’s team spirit on the one hand, but on the other, it received major criticism from the English media, which was harmful as Tony James remembers it:
“The album ‘Flaunt It’ finally came out and went straight in atnumber 10in the charts. That was good too. It was selling everywhere. It went platinum in Brazil.
Unfortunately Flaunt It got crucifying reviews in England. I can’t say it didn’t hurt. In the moment you have no choice but to try to rise above it and not care but we couldn’t understand why it was getting slated. It was a great record and nothing else around at that time came close to it’s sound. We would go on to sell almost a million copies worldwide and I still believe it stands.”
These crucifying reviews in the press led to poor ticket sales for our UK album tour and most of the shows ended up being cancelled. Tony, with the help of Magenta, invented a PR strategy with which he tried to hide from the press the real reason for cancelling most of the shows and somehow it worked but not in the best way:
“Unfortunately I had to give a press conference to announce the change of plans, to try and put an upbeat spin and hide the fact that we’d cancelled nearly all the upcoming UK tour dates due to poor ticket sales. The spin was that it was to be all video walls now and we could not take that to ordinary venues, and would concentrate on one big show in capital cities. Of course.
I gave an emotional performance asking the press monster to stop hurting us — well me actually. Maybe it touched a few hearts and watching a video of that day at the British film institute with my gang and JSP around me, I looked human for the first time, standing at the lectern with my trusty brick-like, iconic mobile phone by my side and looking the journalist pack in the eye, trying to hide my emotion.
It was a tough day and I thought I did okay… but it was too late, as in all good horror films, the scent was up and the jackals could smell blood…”
Anyway, according to Tony’s memories, the big gig in one of the top London venues, the Royal Albert Hall, with their revolutionary video wall technology was a big success. The only problem for the band’s promotion was the fact that it was mostly ignored by English press:
“It was a monster project and I was basing it on the film Rollerball. At the rehearsal rooms I could not believe how many people we were employing. There was an entire TV crew in white lab coats, an articulated lorry just for the CRT monitors to make up the video wall, satellite dishes feeding in live TV from Russia, video monitors as well as audio monitors so the band could see… and I was going to film the whole thing on a 7 camera shoot. It was a massive operation.
The gig at the Albert Hall went off perfectly to a packed crowd. It truly was an amazing spectacle the likes of which had never been seen before.”
A gig in Royal Albert Hall was a monster project
After the gig in the Royal Albert Hall, the band and crew went to on a successful tour around the USA. And besides the UK there were many countries where Sigue Sigue Sputnik was really loved by the media and fans. For example, in Italy, Spain and Brazil (where they were touring intensively) they were being treated like the real visionaries of contemporary pop-culture. A hint that things were not going exactly according to the brilliant Tony’s plan was coming but it was still not really noticeable. The guys were young, full of energy and enjoying the best time of their lives as real rock-n-roll stars.
DRESS FOR EXCESS
The huge success of the first album meant that the next chapter regarding the groundbreaking second record was definitely expected by the band members, fans and the record label. In the meantime, Sigue Sigue Sputnik were playing numerous huge gigs all over the world and the strong interest created by the press put them in the spotlight.
The biggest problem with planning the second album (as Tony James recalls) was the fact that at that moment he ran out of ideas:
“I’d put all the ideas into the first chapter and how could I possibly come up with a story to top the last one? All the innovations, the slogans, the ideas, the visuals were all last years chip wrappings by now. I stared at the first page of the next script and it was blank.”
The band had to look for a new producer who could refresh its sound and push them in a new direction. And finding this kind of person was a long and complicated process according to Neal X:
“ We had really used up all the ideas we had in making the first album and were looking for somebody who could help us to move in a new direction. We met a lot of people while looking for a new album producer with a fresh vision. We talked with Rick Ocasek from The Cars and Nel Rogers from Chic. They were really cool people but we really didn’t have this feeling of kinship for them and didn’t fell that they had this magic wand that could have helped us.
Then EMI management told us: “Don’t worry, we will find you the right producer“ and suggested: “Why don’t you try to make a record with Stock Aitken Waterman?” They were a trio, consisting of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, who were responsible for some big, commercial pop records of that time like Dead or Alive, Bananarama and Kylie Minogue. I really hated the idea of working with them, I hated their records and thought that they were shit. But Tony was quite positive about this collaboration. He said – “Look, we are the most unpopular group in the country and they are the most unpopular producers, it could be a situation when two wrongs together can make a right.” But it didn’t happen.
When it came to working with Stock Aitken Waterman as the producers of the new album it really sounded like a fun and original idea. They had a single in mind called “Success” and there was a lot of irony in working with massive pop producers on a song with this kind of name. This is how Tony recalls his first acquaintance with Pete Waterman:
“Stock Aitkin andWaterman were that year’s most successful producers, having hits with everyone they worked with. Surely they could be the only producers worthy of a song called Success?It was one of my more perverse ideas, going against the obvious as always. Doing exactly what we should not do. Outrage working with pure pop.I called my old friend and the bands original benefactor Fatchner. It’s brilliant he said. Do it. So we did.
Pete Waterman came over the river from Southwark and was sitting in my garage studio. I played him a cassette of the demo we had finally recorded. Solving the missing chorus conundrum by just using the bridge as the chorus. Pete listened once, said yes, its definitely a hit and off he went with the cassette in his pocket.
A week later he called me at home. “Come to Southwark and have a listen” he said, “its done. We just need Martin to sing along with the guide vocal and you’re gonna love it”. What? Done, finished, recorded and we had not even been to the studio? That’s the way they worked I realised. Who did the guitars I coughed, grasping for something to say. “Kids don’t like guitars Tony”, said Pete with confidence, dumbfounding me even more.
This was going to be harder than I thought. The track did sound like a hit, that much was certain, but a hit for Kylie not Sigue Sigue Sputnik. I was to spend the coming weeks (or was it months?) over at their studio, at war with Stock, Aitken and Waterman battling to get guitars on the track, battling to to get heavy synths on the track. I resorted to subterfuge, when Pete had gone home for the weekend to play with the real life steam engines he collected (thats right, real ones, giant ones, not Hornby models I used to own as a kid) and sneaked into the studio to record with the assistant engineer.
I don’t know who eventually pummeled who in to the ground. I suspect it was a bit of both, but X played his guitars, Degville sung for his life and I came away with a Kylie record with a bit of Sputnik on it and the distinct impression that Pete was really glad to see the back of me. It did sound like a hit though and I needed a hit to keep the label’s confidence in us.”
So it was a hard mission to find a balance between the vision of the most commercial successful producers of that time and Tony James approach – who wanted to keep the bands unique sound and spirit. Somehow they found understanding and then new album was ready in summer 1988. First Tony’s impression was that it is really good, he was totally satisfied by the result and thought that it is going to be even more massive than the first record:
“I was really happy with the album and its triumvirate of 3 singles: Success, Dancerama and the minimalist Albinoni. The album, titled ‘Dress for Excess’ – elaborately packaged with Cyberpunk slogans from Bruce Stirling and William Gibson – was finally ready to go. We played a series of low key dates in village halls and tiny pubs to try to find our way back to the adrenaline-pumped enthusiasm and excitement of the early days.
I decided to play up on the ‘sell out’ derisive aspect that the the Stock, Aitkin and Waterman collaboration would almost certainly provoke, by turning it into the campaign itself with the ‘Is it Sputnik or is it Waterman’ slogan everywhere on giant yellow poster’s and T shirts. Multiple single sleeves came out as Sputnik/Aitkin/ Waterman with pictures of Pete with pink hair. We even did an Acid house remix and a heavy metal version just to cover all bases…..
The record sounded like a hit and the timing, coming up to the Christmas rush where all the big straight acts put out singles, was critical. It was nearly two years since the last album came out and everything had to be right.”
The band was looking for new producers that could refresh their musical ideas
But hopes for the big success of the new album didn’t work. As Tony believes, one of the biggest mistakes was the video for the song, Success, that was followed by the album. In Tony’s opinion it killed the essence of the band’s futuristic image that people were expecting from them:
“Remember how great and ahead of its time the Love Missile promo was? That Neon lit Blade Runner Dystopian future it conjured up? It was amazing, the computer graphics, the voice overs, the dub effects. I simply couldn’t better it.
The first idea I came up with this time was good and ironic and funny. I announced I would film 100 famous people all simply saying the word “Success”. They would be cut together on top of the song, the famous voices obscuring the music underneath to make an anarchic mash up, like a TV news documentary. Very Sputnik. I was pleased with myself as it would mock the track as well as selling it which was Very Me.
The Vixens and me were immediately equipped with portable video cameras and we went to parties. Everyone was up for it. I filmed Kylie and Rick Astley straight away back at PWL studios for an ironic twist. Simon Le Bon, Lemmy, Donny Osmond, S Express, Actors, TV people and chancer celebrities were all there. I got my hundred faces. Genius.
The only trouble was, because we shot everything at night in clubs and parties it all looked badly lit and a bit amateurish and dark. Those cameras were hopeless in low light in those days.
Maybe another element was needed I concluded.
And then the person I had become, totally detached and out of touch with the original ideals, the person having too good a time, me and X and Degville, hanging out in the sunshine, being IT and dreaming about pulling Princess Stephanie…..Well we all fancied a bit of a holiday in the sun as Lydon had once sneered, especially one on EMI’s expense. So here we go!
We’ll film a swinging sixties party video in MARBELLA just like in the lyric. We’ll even get Duffy, the famous sixties photographer to direct. It will be such fun – we can spend a whole week pouncing about getting pissed.
There, in that single, fun-seeming idea, I destroyed the whole image of Sputnik. From Elvis 2020 to Freddy and the Dreamers, from Clockwork Orange to the Birdy Song, From Blade Runner to Bognor Regis in one painful four minute clip that I would never live down.
The whole image of Sigue Sigue Sputnik was destroyed in one painful four minute clip
And the video was terrible. All the 100 famous people demoted to tiny unrecognizable cameos overlaid silently over the blaring jaunty track. No famous people saying Success, just a succession of half-recognisable faces.
I have to accept full responsibility. It was my idea, on my watch. Where was my celestial Svengali protecting me from myself? No tap on the shoulder with a “what the fuck are you doing Tony?” Of course the band loved it, a week in the sun and they definitely got very drunk. I somehow accurately predicted and portrayed my very own Kubrician Peter Sellars-like character in Dr Strangelove as the Meglomaniac pushed around in a wheelchair by a nurse. How accurate that was to become.”
The single came out right before Christmas and it never got even in the top 10. It’s highest rating was 22. The album that followed shortly after didn’t produce an impressive commercial result either. Neal X thinks that the main reason was the Stock, Aitken and Waterman production team and not the fact that Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s music wasn’t following the latest music trends:
“In a manner of speaking we wanted to create Donna Summer with Marc Boland on guitar and got a Bananarama sound record from Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
Also just at the time when we started to make a second album the Acid House explosion happened, which was like a musical revolution that changed things a lot. And it was a difficult dilemma for us – to jump on a new bus with everybody and start to do just electronic dance music or to stay put. And moving totally to electronic dance music was not really our kind of thing. In my mind, we were always a guitar-based rock-n-roll band. We really didn’t want to be involved in this expanding rave scene as we didn’t like this music much. We wanted to follow our path and to stay honest to ourselves. And this new growing scene around us became much younger and we became a bit outdated.”
THE LAST DANCE
In the summer of 1989, Sigue Sigue Sputnik went on a big tour in Brazil. The band was ultra-popular there – their records were platinum. The whole tour had started in a cheerful, enthusiastic mood but turned to be really exhausting for Tony James as he remembers it:
“However we were still feeling up because for some obscure reason we’d sold lots and lots of records, platinum even, in – ironically – Sunny Brazil and a tour was planned. I was loosing any control of the organisation by this stage. I think I just couldn’t handle it any more, wanted to be like the others, just a guy in the band having a great time with someone else taking care of business. Except there was no one else to do that, so I decided to bring in an “experienced” tour manager for Brazil.
We couldn’t wait to get into our first class seats on the plane, all the giant red flight cases with their Japanese lettering in a huge pile on the terminal floor at Heathrow shipped out too. Fuck America then, lets go Scarface style to South America. Fuck it, lets embrace the sun and the culture. The culture was available at the ridiculously low price of less than 10 dollars a gram too.
I was expecting that we would be millionaires in Brazil, not realising that it was really hard to get the money out of the country with the Brazil/Pound exchange rate being completely ridiculous. They had something like two hundred percent inflation over there.
I don’t even remember how long we were there in the twitching haze, willing girls and a samba mix of Rio Rocks. Were any of the records hits after we left? I have no idea. I don’t even remember what happened to the Rio Rocks single, buried somewhere. But it was sexy and dangerous and we felt great, playing a succession of sold-out gigs in massive arena’s. I think Neal and I stayed another two weeks when the others went home. It’s a little blurred.
It transpired that the “experienced” tour manager meanwhile had stolen all the money earned from the Brazilian tour to feed his own serious drug habit. I was never able to confront him because tragically he committed suicide soon after we got back to England.”
Fuck America, let’s go Scarface style to South America
Neal X’s impressions of the Brazilian tour are nice and positive, he says:
“I loved Brazil and had a fantastic time there and came back absolutely inspired. It was a great experience despite this dark thing that happened with the tour manager.”
After Brazil, the band went to do a bunch of shows in Spain and Portugal and it was Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s last tour in the ‘80s. Tony James remembers that the mood around this tour was decadent and there was a desperate feeling that the story was coming to its end:
“As the massive success and euphoria of being the hottest and most controversial group in the world is replaced by the workmanlike realities of touring and promoting the difficult second album, the band embark on a classic holiday in the sun as they tour Spain and Portugal. The feeling of dancing while our Pompei is imploding is palpable as EMI’s lifeblood money starts to run out.
On the first of September 1989, the money ran out and I had to pull the plug on the Sputnik Movie and all its players.
But boy what a ride it had been. Believe me, the thrill of a lifetime and I don’t regret one single moment.”
Neal X mentions that some of the reasons for Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s story coming to its logical end were the personal tensions between the band members and the creative crisis that they had stepped into:
“There was a big gap appearing between us, it looked like me and Tony were on one side and the other band members were on the other.
In particular, there were a lot of misunderstandings with Martin Degville. After the second album, he had a feeling that he done a lot already and was going to be a big star. As for me and Tony, we were thinking that we were only on the first run and had to work more. We didn’t see Martin at all, he was always hanging out with another crowd that had to do nothing with us, so he became more and more distant. Because of that, the band became less productive and we didn’t make many new songs, and we had to…
We made an effort to continue and to record a new album. But EMI was not up for it as they had a feeling that it would not go well.
Soon, Tony was offered to join the Sisters of Mercy and he went to work with them and I was introduced to Marc Almond and still work with him. So, it all came to an end up naturally and something new started to happen.”
INTO THE NEW MILLENIUM
At the beginning of the 2000s, Sigue Sigue Sputnik had a short, but bright comeback, as Neal recalls:
“At the end of the 20th century we suddenly became contemporary again. In 1999 we received an offer to play in London. We hadn’t played for 10 years but it was a good offer and we were not really busy at that moment and thought – why not. We changed the set-up and did this first show after the long break with a drum machine instead of two drummers. Tony, me and Martin were still in the band. The show went really well.
We made a lot of remixes with Tony for one American label at that time and raised around 15,000$ which was enough to record a new album. And we decided to do it. For the first time after all those years, we had the possibility to do it in our way, how we really wanted to without any dictatorship from the record label. We recorded the album “Pirate Space” in 1999. And we recorded a couple more albums in the 2000s – “Black Elvis” and “Ultrareal”.
But it was really hard to work with Martin in a professional way and to get a proper voice from him in the studio. Probably the last gig with Martin was a great show in Japan. Then he left the band. He just walked away when we had a tour booked and put a lot of energy into fucking up all the things that we had done by starting his own band, Sigue Sigue Sputnik Electronic, which confused many of our fans and it was really sad. His band had to do nothing with the original sound of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. We thought about canceling the whole tour but the promoter of one of the shows begged us not to do it and I decided to try to replace Martin with another singer. Actually, I always loved to sing and knew the words of the songs sometimes better than Martin. We tried to do the show with me as a singer and it went really well. There was a great vibe, like back in the old days. We started to tour a lot again – went back to Brazil, went to Russia, to Germany and Latvia too.
The last gig with Martin was a great show in Tokyo
But at some point we decided to stop. It was too much for us. We were not young, had families and were not really interested in doing a lot of shows in small venues. It was cool when we were young, but not anymore. So, I think we ended that brief time in the right moment too. We had already made a revolutionary and cool band in the 80s, we had spread some joy and good memories in the 2000s and then went back to our separate things. I continued to work a lot with Marc Almond, Tony made a band with Mick Jones from The Clash called Carbon Silicon and is now touring intensely with Billy Idol again with a new version of Generation X, rebranded now as Generation Sex.”
Almost 35 years passed after the creation of Sigue Sigue Sputnik by Tony James. Now, in the new century, it can be seen that the band and the myth around it was a real cultural phenomenon, it’s concept and the way of presenting themselves was revolutionary for the time in which they appeared and in some ways even now looks quite futuristic. Tony feels and sees now his role in this powerful story in this way:
“ I tried to create a great rock and roll band but ended up creating a monster that was more about the hype than the music, more about the visuals than the musical genius… and that – as we all know – is not the essence of rock and roll. As we all should know, rock and roll is ALL about the music.
Even so, I think we created something extraordinary, something unique, and took it all the way to number one. The music business is a scary, uncaring, uncompromising beast that sucks your blood and eats your soul the minute you drop your guard. But for one glorious moment in time we were the hottest, most outrageous, most talked about group in the world.
Will History prove us Right? I’d like to think so. When I look back at those early videos and photographs of the band, I still get a shiver down the spine. It was a magical time when belief and the confidence that comes from that belief when you just KNOW that what you have created is extraordinary, means that for one perfect moment, you can hold the whole world in your hands – or at least believe you can and after all – isn’t believing half of the game…..
I know one thing though. The Starship Sputnik will live forever, immortalised in cyberspace where it truly belongs….. And I’m really proud of that”.
As for Neal X, he thinks that the right time to recall memories about Sigue Sigue Sputnik have just arrived:
“I can’t say the same for Tony, we don’t see each other socially much now, only talk sometimes, but as for me – I hadn’t thought about Sigue Sigue Sputnik much for many years as I try to live in the present. But around 18 months ago there was an interesting situation with Tony. We were sitting in the office of the record label BMG and signing a new record deal for a new repackaged release of old Sigue Sigue Sputnik albums for the new generation and even some music that we never released before.
The band still gets million views on Youtube. Our music was used not long ago in a popular Netflix series “Sex Education” and was used in a French movie too.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik will always be a futuristic band. When we started we thought of ourselves as a band from Blade Runner and as you remember Blade Runner started in November 2019. So it looks like the right time for Sigue Sigue Sputnik has just started.”