11 January 2011
It remains one of the great mysteries of the age. Like who built the pyramids, or what was the purpose of Stonehenge. How did Phil Oakey come up with Dare!, one of the defining statements of eighties synthpop?
The odds were certainly against him. When the League Mark I split, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware took all the song writing and production skills with them. Oakey was left only with Adrian Wright, the guy who did the slide projections for their live shows, and his trademark hair cut. Neither Oakey nor Wright had any real experience playing an instrument, let alone knew much about writing a hit single. And Oakey's first move was hardly one to inspire any confidence: rather than hire some musicians to play the backing parts for a European tour that had been booked before the split, he recruited a couple of school girls he had spotted at the local disco to be dancers for the band.
So where did Dare! come from? Well, the simple answer, and the one most commonly advanced, is: Martin Rushent. Having cut his teeth producing first-wave punk and post-punk acts like The Buzzcocks, Generation X, and XTC, he had spent the better of a quarter million pounds setting up Genetic Sound Studio, the centre piece of which was a Linn Drum machine. Where earlier drum machines could only play a fixed number of preset rhythm patterns, typically associated with rather dated dance styles like the Cha Cha or Bossa Nova, the Linn could be programmed to play anything the programmer liked. What was more, the Linn could be synchronized with arpeggiators and sequencers, allowing each part to sound perfectly in time with every other part. Rushent's mastery of the Linn drum machine, together with an innovative production style that isolated each instrument, affording each its own precise place in the acoustic field, gave the album its air of sleek, cool modernism.
The other answer looks past Rushent's studio skills to credit Ian Burden and, especially, Jo Callis, the hired guns that Oakey belatedly brought on board to help work out the musical backing to his and Wright's early song sketches. What this two cd set shows, however, is that neither answer fully suffices. The demos present here show that even at a very early stage in the album's development, and certainly well before Rushent was to add his distinctive touches, Oakey and Wright had begun to forge a very different conception of the band's sound. Where the songs for Reproduction and Travelogue were audio collages, built up from tracks painstakingly pieced together from individual modular synth patches, the songs for Dare! began with simple chords, mostly picked out on on the new generation of cheap polyphonic synthesizers (such as the Casio M10), and plaintive one-finger melodies that express an aching romanticism that was new to their sound. The League Mark II wrote songs, in short, with memorable lead lines and a distinctive tone--the very limitations of their abilities seem to have kept them from becoming overly predictable or formulaic.
The story of how Oakey and Wright, together with Callis, Burden, and the school girl dancers, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, developed these songs from the most rudimentary sketches to dance floor classics that still inspire shrieks of recognition whenever they're played, is presented in wonderful archaeological detail in this two cd set. There's plenty to intrigue the dedicated League fan who doesn't already have this set: alternate lyrics to "The Things That Dreams Are Made Of," early versions of "Do or Die" and "Open Your Heart" (here titled "Letting It Show" and "Banjo Song," respectively), and songs that didn't make the album, such as "In The Park" (a variation on Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" I suspect), and "Boxing on TV." But to my mind, the real answer to the question with which we began can be found at the very end of the second set, a methodically worked out bass line for the Ike and Tina Turner classic, "River Deep, Mountain High." The League Mark I was keen on on sixties r'n b standards, and even included "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" on their first album. Clearly at some point there must must have been some thought of doing something similar for Dare!
In the end, however, there would be no Phil Spector covers on Dare! Instead of RDMH, they included the haunting, austere, vaguely sinister theme from the film "Get Carter." That choice, and I suspect it was Oakey's choice, speaks volumes about how clearly the vocalist understood what he wanted from this album: romantic but danceable, glamorous but minimal, modern but nostalgic. If the success of Dare! belongs to any one, my money's on the guy with the lopsided hair cut.
-- Crash the Driver
The two cd set posted here is identical to that which was posted over at Going Underground, the links for which have now been dead for some time. We're posting it here following repeated requests from the members of the Blind Youth list, the place to go for all things related to the League Mark I. Our thanks to Going Underground for making it available.
The Dare! Demos CD One
The Dare! Demos CD Two