18 February 2009

Music For Stowaways by B.E.F.

It held no more than ninety minutes of music. Individual tracks could be located only with a great deal of button pushing and waiting. And invariably its tape store came unwound, wrapping yards of sticky brown ribbon around the capstans of your player. But in the early eighties the cassette struck fear in the heart of the music industry. Prominent artists and label execs alike lined up to announce, "Home taping is killing music." Profits plunged. The vinyl record seemed doomed.

But there were others who saw the cassette tape as a harbinger of a brighter future. Malcolm McLaren, architect of the punk revolution, declared that it was a radically democratic medium, allowing every day users to become pop artists and music label owners in their own right. His band Bow Wow Wow had a hit with "C30 C60 C90 Go!," a veritable clarion call to the disciples of ferrous oxide, and a prodigious underground trading network sprung up. Bands that had no hope of ever securing a deal with an independent let alone a major found themselves being played on the Peel show and being reviewed in the weekly music press.

British Electric Foundation were firmly on the side of the cassette rebels. Following their split with The Human League, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware set up B.E.F. less as a band than as a corporation, an umbrella organization which would oversee any number of different kinds of musical and artistic endeavours. And to make it clear that this new enterprise was opposed to the interests of the industry, a means of using the system against the system, they launched it with Music For Stowaways, a cassette-only release of meditative mood pieces, very much in the manner of the League's Dignity of Labour, and politically-tinged dance grooves that presaged their work with Heaven 17. "Stowaway" referred to the name originally intended for what became the Sony Walkman, and the release as a whole celebrated the freedom of the personal cassette recorder.

In the years that followed, B.E.F. would be responsible for a couple of glossy collections of pop standards covered by an eclectic group of vocalists, including Billy MacKenzie, Sandy Shaw, and Tina Turner, but somehow the early promise of this tape and of the idea of the anti-corporation corporation got lost. What was to be the beginning of the revolution seems now to have been its last gasp, but it remains a fascinating glimpse of a future that might have been.

--Crash The Driver

Music For Stowaways

01 Optimum Chant (4:12)
02 Uptown Apocalypse (3:13)
03 Wipe The Board Clean (3:48)
04 Groove Thang (We Don't Need This Fascist) (4:07)
05 Music To Kill Your Parents By (1:28)
06 The Old At Rest (5:37)
07 Rise Of The East (2:51)
08 Decline Of The West (7:20)
09 B.E.F. Ident (0:36)
UK Cassette Virgin [TCV2228] 1981

Truly one of the more astounding post-punk electronic releases, this built perfectly on the rather crude Dignity Of Labour EP and established this particular Human League axis as purveyors of fine instrumental electrobeat. Not to mention that it helped ring in the bumper crop year of 1981 on an inventive and playful note.

Most of the contemporary attention was paid to "Groove Thang" and its companion vocal piece "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang", released as Heaven 17. Perhaps this was because it was funky and perhaps because it had a vocal line to follow. It was a bit disingenuous though, considering the quick slide Heaven 17 took into nothing but "groove thangs". And though it's fine, there's better stuff here.

From the very start of the tape the interlocking rhythmic interplay of "Optimum Chant" and "Uptown Apocalypse" defines a tension between change and stasis that was later to become a primary goal of most electronic ambient works. "Wipe The Board Clean" seems to be waiting for a vocal line, but it's one of those backing tracks better left without a front. Rarely has there been a record with three stronger opening tracks.

"The Old At Rest" is noticeably mellower, with something of the dark timbre of the Bowie-Eno Berlin instrumentals, and something of Cluster or Harmonia as well. The expansive "Decline Of The West" harks back to some Reproduction sounds, with a lovely little sonar ping thrown in.

Marsh and Ware rushed on to redefine pop music (or so they thought) but never again managed to be half as innovative as on this lost piece of tape. It was issued in an edition of 10,000. And every one is loved.

-- Second Chameleon


  1. wow, this is one i was looking for a long time. many thanks. i'll put up that link to my blog


  2. Had this when it came out. Suffice to say got chewed up by a cassette machine. Great to add it to my iPod. Thanx so much!

  3. much appreciated - I tried and tried to buy this when it was new
    28 years later I finally get to hear it for the first time

    many thanks for posting :)

  4. One of my favourite LPs ever, it still sounds terrific... x

  5. There is a CD of this, more of less. There was a Vinyl EP for export in 1981 called "Music For Listening To" that had 2 tracks not on the cassette replacing three tracks from the cassette. In 1997 there was a CD made of the vinyl EP with the cassette only tracks added back into the mix. The cassette has by far the best packaging.


    Buy it quick. It's not getting easy to find. I'm lucky enough to have all 3 editions.

  6. Awesome! also been wanting to hear this since i was a teen!

  7. It was the future and still is the future. A totally sublime album. I remember being so excited as I bought this from my local record shop and still play it to this day; the deteriorating tape somehow adding a haunting sound to something that already seemed ghost-like.

    A dream of what could've and should've been...

  8. Caroline Records released this in the US some years ago (by the end of the 90s I guess?). It fairly reproduces the cover of 'Music For Listening To' (as the CD is actually that album) with extras from this tape. Stunning collection of experiments it is.

    'Uptown Apocalypse' in particular.

  9. In "Black Words On White Paper", a book of Clock DVA documented work up to 1990 (released by Contempo), it was stated "Uptown Apocalypse" actually being a CDVA track "included on compilation" - and that compilation in mind being "Music For Stowaways". In addition to this curiosity, Ware and Marsh were also involved in Newton's TAGC during mid-80's, providing some fairlight and emulator samples for him on one of TAGC EPs ("Morpheus Baby", I think it was).

    Regarding "Music For Stowaways" / "Music For Listening To" - yes, Caroline Records did make a nice job restoring both - cassette and mini-lp tracks onto one decent disc in 1998. The sound is superb and one couldn't believe such an obscure collection would ever face a CD variant, which is of absolute recommendation.

    1. It was the track Shgl that March/Ware worked on. :D

  10. Nice Please Post More

  11. Thanks!Haven't really heard this since my mate bought it in '81...we used to drive around in his car with this playing (amongst loads of the other good stuff)...Days of Glory!