VARIOUS ARTISTS, Mute Audio Documents
The Wire, summer 2007
by Simon Reynolds
“Label mystique” is a strange business. Compare their respective ledgers and it’s clear that Mute’s output of great music easily surpasses Factory’s. Furthermore, the latter sputtered into oblivion many years ago, whereas Mute prospers to this day (technically-speaking no longer as an independent, having plighted its troth to EMI in 2002, but very much still a creatively autonomous operation). There’s no doubt, though, which of the two labels has the higher profile in terms of rock historiography and cult appeal. Factory mystique and Anthony H. Wilson’s charisma sustained the movie 24 Hour Party People, but you can’t imagine a director embarking on the Mute Story. Daniel Miller has always maintained a low profile and the label he founded in 1978--initially as a DIY outlet for his music as The Normal--still has the aura of a stealth operation.
The company has maintained a steady course over its nearly three decades, latching onto trends only where they’ve had an organic affinity with its founding principles (basically anti-rock’n’roll and Europhile), as when the label started its own techno imprint Novamute in the early Nineties. Mute still takes its bearings from postpunk’s ethos of wide-open experiment and its aesthetic of stern modernist austerity: its very name is stark and sleek, paralleling the four-letter economy and blank impersonality of Wire (one of Miller’s fave groups and in their Eighties reincarnation a Mute act). Miller continues to support elder statesmen of that vintage like Throbbing Gristle and Nick Cave. Moreover, the label started curating, via its Grey Area division, the oeuvres of Cabaret Voltaire, Swell Maps, TG, et al, well over a decade before postpunk became a fashionable and profitable region for the retro industry.
Twinned concerns with futurism and history inform Mute Audio Documents, a gargantuan box set containing every single and EP released by the label from its inception through to 1984. Like most boxes, it’s a curious object, not so much an entity to be listened to in its entirety as a resource, a reference work (as the matter-of-fact title Audio Documents hints). Although it’s not sequenced in absolutely strict chronological order, each double-disc (there are five altogether) is indexed to a particular year (exceptions being the first, running from 1978 to 1981, and the last, which corrals various rarities). This preserves some of the haphazardness of a fledging label’s output, imparting a sense of nonsequitur to the listening experience: early Depeche at their most jejeune and jingly collide with Boyd Rice, Yazoo rub up against Liaison Dangereuses, and, most incongruously of all, the Birthday Party’s fetid and febrile swan-song EP Mutiny is preceded by the palate-cloying appetizer of The Assembly (a mercifully short-lived collaboration between Vince Clarke and ex-Undertone Feargal Sharkey).
Committed to comprehensiveness, Audio Documents presents lesser outfits (I Start Counting, anybody?) on an equal footing with visionaries like Einsturzende Neubauten. But this dispassionate, non-judgemental approach has its advantages, salvaging many skewed gems and charming oddities. Did you know that Smegma put a single out via Mute, the “Mother Sky”-homaging “Flashcards”? Miller has been relentless in his support of Wire and Bruce Gilbert appears here solo with the rattling metallic sound-contraption “‘U, Mu, U” and also, alongside Graham Lewis and Miller himself, in Duet Emmo, whose synth-psalm “Or So It Seems” is almost nine minutes of exquisite sorrow. The fifth rarities set is variable, the considerable plus factor of that hard-to-find The Normal and Robert Rental EP Live At West Runton Pavilion out-weighed by the cosmic inessential-ness of the five live Yazoo tracks.
In some ways the archetypal Mute artist was Fad Gadget (real name, Frank Tovey), a performance artist turned electro-popster spawned, like Mark Almond, out of the art department of Leeds Polytechnic. Miller possibly saw Fad as a one-man Soft Cell: glittering synths entwined around a heart of darkness. Copiously represented across all five double-discs, the Fad Gadget material reveals Tovey as an under-rated electronic musician, ranging from the baleful “Back to Nature” (with its imagery of “burning bodies in the sun… just like lemmings, everyone”) to the out-right Gothtronica of “Ricky’s Hand” (Tovey sounding like an exact hybrid of Gary Numan and Peter Murphy) and its clanky, skeletal dubversion “Hand Shake”. “Back to Nature” was Mute’s second release back in September 1979 and Tovey remained Mute’s mascot artist to the end, Miller putting out his music right up until his death (which in freaky symbolism coincided almost exactly with Mute’s selling itself to EMI).
As much as Mute is a home for artistic extremists (verging on an arts council subsidised by the global sales of Depeche and, shudder, Erasure), the label also warrants admiration for the way it has elegantly walked the line between mainstream and vanguard, pop and unpop. DAF exemplify that spirit, although here they are caught at a transitional moment with 1980’s “Tanz Mit Mir” (slashing punk-funk guitar over writhing proto-techno synthbass) and its perverted nursery rhyme flipside “Der Rauber Unde Der Prinz”, tracks that look ahead to the stripped-down , hard-body Eurodisko of their Virgin albums, which made them pop stars (well, in Germany). DAF offshoot Liasons Dangereuses feature with the slinky ‘n’ sinister “Mystere dans le Bouillard” and “Los Ninos Del Parque,” a real hallucination of a dance track with its Doppler effect synth-smears and pixie-like yelps gleefully darting out of crannies in the mix.
Mute’s greatest art-into-pop group, though, were Depeche Mode. When Vince Clarke quit, most assumed that without the musical brains of the outfit, the Basildon boys would fade fast like the rump of Bronski Beat did when their frontman split. Instead Clarke became a culture criminal perpetrating inanity on a vast scale and it was the left-behind Depeche who grew as artists, evolving from the tremulous poignancy of “Leave in Silence” and mature moroseness of “Get the Balance Right” to the Gang-of-Four-with-synths “Everything Counts” and “Love In Itself.” The metal-bashing “Master and Servant” was Neubauten-goes-pop, while “Blasphemous Rumours” is just an achingly beautiful, exquisitely intricate piece of electronica.
Mute’s knack of bridging out-there experiment and in-here pop attraction was present right from the start, with Miller flitting between two alter egos: The Normal, for the Ballard-inspired and Cronenburg-anticipating “Warm Leatherette”/”T.V.O.D”, and the Silicons Teens, for shiny synthesized covers of rock’n’roll classics like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee”. Mute’s current roster, stretching from Goldfrapp to Grinderman, shows that this agility endures. Get the balance right indeed.
Vince Clarke has a melodic--and harmonic--gift that is matched by few. Sure, he is responsible for some tacky stuff, but I don't think that should define him. Strip away some of Andy Bell's inanities and you have a lot of glorious pop tunes.
"Cultural criminal"? How about "amazing songwriter"? (And, if you like, "poor chooser of collaborators," although Andy can sing. Lyrics are another matter.)
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