Thirty-one years ago, I think it was at the start of the school summer holidays, an initially mysterious envelope arrived in the post, containing a single sheet of photocopied paper, the majority of one side featuring the black and white image of a leather-jacketed individual, cropped a little below the shoulders, gazing confidently back out at my then not quite teenage self. Below it, in a couple of inches of white space, a few lines of typed block capitals spelt out the message: “Hello! Hope you’re OK! This is just to let you know that Vince Clarke has just produced a single for a new artiste, ‘Robert Marlow’, which is to be released on July 11th. It’s called ‘The Face of Dorian Gray’ – in both 7” and 12” versions. It’ll be released by RCA on the Reset Records label.” Everything became a lot clearer, however, when I looked in the bottom right-hand corner of the page and read the word “DEB” followed by four kisses, partially chopped off by the parameters of a photocopier, this being Deb Danahay with whom I’d corresponded gently for the previous several months, as I sent off my stamped-addressed envelope expectantly each month for the latest newsletter from the Yazoo Information Service which she, Vince Clarke’s other half at the time, used to run in just the same cottage-industry fashion that Dave Gahan’s girlfriend and future wife, Jo Fox, did the Depeche Mode Information Service for several years into their successful career, each of them willingly answering questions fans posed in cheerful, hand-written replies, all of which I still possess years down the line.
Anyway, back to Robert Marlow. As the days passed, his fizzog began to appear in some of the glossy music papers of the time, ‘Smash Hits’ and the less enduring ‘No.1’ most notably, in short inches of column space declaring the single’s arrival to its readers. An interview I read with Marlow states that RCA put quite a bit of promotional weight behind the single, assuming that a bit of the Vince Clarke magic was sure to rub off, simply by proxy. In my memory, these were always accompanied by a triptych of facial close-ups, depicting the singer’s increasingly made-up visage aging to oblivion, just as Oscar Wilde’s anti-hero’s does at the end of the novel. The clipping I pasted away in a scrapbook all those years ago, in anticipation of a moment such as this, no doubt, certainly has these pictures in it, along with the words: “No, not the effect of repeated listening to positive punk records. This is in fact Robert Marlow – the first signing to Vince Clarke’s Reset Records (see singles) illustrating his debut single ‘The Face of Dorian Gray’. It’s loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s novel in which the nasty Mr. Gray stays young and pretty while his portrait gets old and rather horrible. Marlow, incidentally, comes from Basildon and has been in bands with Martin Gore, Alf Moyet and Vince himself.” I can’t vouch for the exact origins of these words but they will have certainly come from one of the two aforementioned magazines and I presume the reference to a single review matches another clipping I can find preserved on an adjacent page and which rather cruelly reads: “This is the sort of stuff I expected to hear from Vince Clarke after he left Depeche Mode, rather than the gems he produced with Alf...RM has got a bland voice and the song is probably a Yazoo reject.”
Although I was partisan and probably outraged at the time, I wasn’t in a position to argue as I didn’t get to hear the song until about six months later when a 7” copy turned up in a ten or fifty pence bargain bin of singles the shop wanted rid of as unsalable at their full price, this being despite a promotional video being produced in which Marlow plays the role of a mad artist in a garret tormentedly doing battle with his creation, in a mise-en-scène which combines elements of Bowie’s “Look Back in Anger” and a BBC Sunday teatime adaptation of a Penguin classic with the over-sheened, over-lit style of many a pop promo clip of the time. Was this ever shown on British television? Blow-torching rather than stabbing the painting, Marlow’s tortured artist meets his demise in a car which explodes dramatically at the video’s denouement, quite the opposite, unfortunately, of the impact of the single itself. Apparently, he also performed the song on Channel 4’s short-lived Friday evening pop show “Switch” but I’ve never seen this clip, even though I was quite an avid viewer at the time. If anybody has it and fancies loading it onto You Tube that would be simply marvellous. Anyway, the record was right up my street when I eventually lowered the needle onto it, providing exactly the same vibe I enjoyed so much in Depeche Mode’s “Speak and Spell” and everything Yazoo had produced, albeit a little more thinly in texture, perhaps. Here’s the video so that anyone who has not heard it can see what they think.
A few months later, a second envelope arrived including a similarly photocopied A4 single sheet, this time with a little more white-space and with Mr. Marlow in profile, the swept-back hair and leather jacket, though, matching him undoubtedly with the image that had come during the summer. This time, bizarrely, the text began, “I am writing to tell you about my secretary,” these last two words struck through with hyphens rather than tippexed away, before continuing, “a great new single from Reset Records artist Robert Marlow. It’s entitled ‘I Just Want To Dance’ and it’s produced by Vince Clarke & Eric Radcliffe. ‘I Just Want To Dance’ is released on Friday 11th November and all the shops listed overleaf should have the record on the day of release. ‘I Just Want To Dance’ is an even better record than ‘The Face of Dorian Gray’ and it’s sure to be Robert’s first Top 20 hit!”
Despite featuring the perennially popular Sylvia and the Sapphires on backing vocals and Marlow appearing on the weekday afternoon children’s pop and games programme “Razzmatazz” (which many of my generation tried never to miss, if only to see kids they wanted to kill out of envy run around the Pop Scotch board and then win a shopping trolley full of records, posters, promotional items galore – you name it – or open a similarly stuffed treasure chest if they successfully repeated the words “Peggy Babcock, Babcock Peggy” against the clock without floundering) this single flopped, too. Once again, a copy found its way into my record collection via a bargain bin about six months after its release, something which happened with every release from the ill-fated Reset Records I encountered at the time. I did hear this one on the radio when it was current this time, though, and wasn’t surprised, to be honest, by its lack of chart success. I always found it a little bit obvious and lacking in substance, a bit childish even, unlike the b-side “No Heart” which had a sophistication much more pleasing to these ears...but more of that in a bit.
That was it, then, for a number of years. A fellow Mute-head and pen-friend for a while (Jim Mortleman of “Mutations” fanzine, if you’re reading) told me of two more singles that were released, the first in 1984, then the second in 1985, but my never coming across them in the mid-eighties 50p and 10p boxes (where I found other Reset releases by Absolute and Hardware) made me doubt their existence a little, even though my source of information was impeccably reliable and trustworthy. That was until, several years later, a box of records shoved amongst some old shoes in a charity shop threw up a copy of single number three “Claudette”, an electronic ballad, lacking the bounce and fizzle of the first two releases, but telling instead a tale of French resistance love and separation in the streets of occupied Paris, the couple being reunited twenty years later on a platform of the Gare du Nord. Again, much as I like it for what it is, it lacks that something that makes you feel it was unlucky to chart. By 1984, anyway, it appears, RCA had lost interest in the label and Reset was backed by the Swedish company Sonet; hence distribution was even more sparse and sporadic than previously. Those old mailouts from 1983, which came with a list of shops which would be stocking the record, never included any in places near to where I lived, anyway: Stockport, Manchester, Macclesfield. I think the nearest were places like Liverpool and Accrington, oddly enough. Anyway, I digress. With the internet, though, came the era of nothing being wholly elusive (except for “The Pepsi Cola Addict” by June Alison Gibbons, perhaps) and, true to form, the fourth and final single soon reared its head in this new era of consumer possibility. “Calling All Destroyers”, is a jaunty electro sea shanty, with a sleeve a bit like a tattoo, which would have had the front section of any Erasure concert jumping around and pounding the air only months after its release had it, in fact, been part of their Hi-NRG repertoire, rather than the recent progeny of their founding father. It’s a bit like “Captain Pugwash” or “Friggin in the Riggin” with the salty bits replaced by sequencers, synth-pop melodies and a slight whiff of poppers mixing with the sea air, and it's certainly a long way from the T.Rex cover version I expected it to be for years, that’s for sure. Unsurprisingly, given its obscurity, it was another non-hit.
As if often the case in tales such as these, punk proved to be the catalyst for greater things with Alison Moyet persuading Marlow to provide guitar for The Vandals, the band she formed with school friends in 1978 ... and then came the famous Basildon Futurist scene, so well documented in Simon Spence’s book “Just Can’t Get Enough: The Making of Depeche Mode”, our subject allegedly being the first of the gang to buy a synthesizer, a Korg 300 acquired on hire purchase, which was initially used in the band The Plan (no, not the more celebrated Düsseldorf outfit with a similar name) which also included Vince Clarke and Perry Bamonte, who went on to be a member of The Cure from 1990 until 2005. Next came the all electronic band French Look, for whom, the story goes, Dave Gahan acted as sound man, as well as featuring Martin Gore, who was a shared member with rival group, Composition of Sound, who eventually turned into Depeche Mode at some point during 1980. In fact, both bands debuted on May 30th of that year at a party organised by the aforementioned Deb Danahay and a friend at a Basildon community centre called The Paddock, French Look’s repertoire including nascent versions of “The Face of Dorian Gray” and “No Heart”, alongside a cover of Sparks’ “Amateur Hour”, and an Ultravox number. Then, prior to the solo outing under discussion, came Film Noir, again featuring Bamonte, who filled the support slot when Depeche Mode played a hometown gig at Racquel’s on their “Speak and Spell” tour, Blancmange securing the role for the rest of the tour.
Also included are the extended versions of “The Face of Dorian Gray”, “I Just Want To Dance” and “No Heart” which were released on the Reset 12” singles, and make the release a tad repetitive towards the close but are, nonetheless, essential to the collection. Now the question has to be begged whether “Claudette”, “Calling All Destroyers” and their b-sides emerged out of larger sessions and whether these, too, will one day see the light of day through Vinyl-on-Demand. Given their form, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Go on!
Which now brings us to the matter in hand, “The Blackwing Sessions: Demos 1982/83” which were recently released as a vinyl album, limited to just 500 copies, on the quite phenomenal Vinyl-on-Demand label from Germany which is an absolute cornucopia of releases by just about anybody you can think of who comes under the umbrella terms of industrial, experimental and obscure electronic music, Frank Maier’s achievement in curating and anthologising these artists with such attention to detail being both incredible and invaluable. Have a look at his website, if you haven’t done so already (http://www.vinyl-on-demand.com), and you will also see, amongst other recent releases, the entire early works of Val Denham, under such names as Counter Dance, The Death and Beauty Foundation and Silverstar Amoeba, being made available to a wider audience for the first time, as we speak. When I get time, and I receive my copies, I’ll hopefully say a few words about these, too.
Back to Mr. Marlow, though, the earliest tracks on offer here date back to the Spring of 1982, when Vince Clarke was just launching Yazoo onto the wider world, and were programmed at the Gravesend home of Eric Radcliffe, whom Marlow was apparently “thrilled” to work with as a result of him being instrumental in the early career of Fad Gadget, someone whom our subject, according to one interview I read, “worshipped”. Well, didn’t we all? Produced and recorded at the now defunct south London Blackwing Studios, housed in the former All Hallows Church, which was partially bombed during the Blitz in 1941, the tracks included are mainly demos of those which went on to feature on the first two singles, whilst some were intended for inclusion on the album “The Peter Pan Effect” which was originally due for release through Reset/RCA in 1984 but was shelved, eventually being salvaged by and seeing the light of day through the Swedish label Energy Rekords in 1999. Some of the songs are familiar, such as “No Heart” which appears in two early versions, as well as “I Just Want To Dance” with alternative lyrics to those which made it onto vinyl, whilst others remained unknown at the time. And what of these latter tracks? Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Torch Team” is perky, springy and super-catchy, texturally reminding me of the theme tune Yazoo produced at the time for the Saturday morning children’s TV show “Data Run”, although with a stronger song-based structure. The boxes of tricks which produced it were probably very similar, if not the same. “When Sleep Was Easy”, which claims to be the same song but with different lyrics to “Ambition” from the proposed album, employs a similar palette, with strong sequenced backing which reminds me a little of an early Erasure track such as “Who Needs Love Like That”, although with darker, rich passages and elements which put me in mind of later Yazoo songs like “Good Times” - sorry for the continual comparisons but they are a bit inevitable. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it’s stronger and more sophisticated structurally than much from that which saw the light of day at the time and it’s a crying shame it didn’t. “The Kiss” begins more pensively, before adopting a more mid-paced tempo, complete with a beaty, bassy backing we’ve become accustomed to, bleeping layers and a simple, catchy riff which one assumes could have been played with one finger; a middle eight with appealing key changes and some barely audible “Are Friends Electric?” style mumblings add to its appeal and, again, make this listener question the decision makers at RCA in abandoning the project. With continued work, all three could have graced a 7” platter, which is most definitely the case with “Life in a Film”, too, which continues in the same Hi-NRG, ultra-synth pop vein which went on to earn Erasure such a lot of money over the years which followed, with a darker more mysterious current running beneath it, as well, which also brings to mind favourite moments from “Speak and Spell” and “Upstairs at Eric’s”. Methinks a little bit of poor judgement possibly went into the selection of singles at the time, based on these outings, and also makes me wonder if things may have panned out differently were alternative choices made back then.