Saturday, 8 February 2014

REVIEW: Various Artists - 'The Organisation Of Pop: 30 Years Of Zang Tuum Tumb' (ZTT Records)

If it wasn't for ZTT, popular music during the 80's would have certainly been less interesting. 

Redefining what pop could be, the label wanted to create an experimental hit machine that could break boundaries as well as entertain. In a way it was a music factory producing songs strategically aimed at the charts, but with far more substantial and imaginative ideas than the rubbish that comes from Simon Cowell's modern day shitepile. The artists had talent too, skills which were taken to odd yet accessible new places with the famously perfectionist production skills of Trevor Horn. With Horn dealing with the musical side, his wife Jill Sinclair took charge of the business element, and NME journalist Paul Morley took the role of PR man to completely unprecedented levels, catching the attention of the public with unusual slogans and maverick promotional tactics. Until the late 80's, the label had its own internal cataloguing system where singles and albums designed with hits in mind were released as part of the 'Action Series', while the 'Incidental Series' featured experiments and more unusual records. Even objects, people and moments that the label had contributed to the era's culture were given their own 'ZTTIS' catalogue number, with examples including the day 'Relax' was banned and Holly Johnson's walking stick. 

"The business is as good as people make it... We've got to make the marketplace a more exciting place for everyone to be" Horn said. Celebrating three decades since the company's birth, the tracklist of this two CD compilation reflects the diversity of ZTT's roster, inevitably making for a rather hit and miss collection. 


The innovative 'Close (To The Edit)' by The Art Of Noise is made up of a wild mash of samples, sound effects and odd noises set to tight rhythms. Their beautiful 'Moments In Love' hasn't dated one bit, and sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. It was in fact recorded the same year that this reviewer was born. The darkly dramatic synthpop of Propaganda's 'Dr Mabuse' features some fine synths, while the group's other inclusion 'Duel' is a well written song given a boost by Horn's bright production. Dated certainly, but enjoyable. It would have been ridiculous not to feature at least one Frankie Goes To Hollywood number, so we get their three biggest smashes. As well as a less familiar version of the controversial 'Relax' there's the thrilling confrontation of 'Two Tribes' and in direct contrast, 'The Power Of Love', which is genuinely one of the most magnificent ballads ever made, still sounding as sweeping and enticing as ever. Shades Of Rhythm's irresistible 'Extacy' highlights the label's continuing ability to move with the times, in this case a top class anthem from the house era.


Three of 808 State's classics are present: the menacing acid groove of 'In Your Face', the hectic hip hop-flavoured MC Tunes collaboration 'The Only Rhythm That Bites' from 1990 and the legendary euphoria of 'Pacific 707' from the previous year. From the 90's we get Seal's smoothly powerful 'Crazy' and his rather nice 'Kiss From A Rose' while Kirsty MacColl's delightful 'Angel' showcases a fine songwriter, musician and vocalist who needed nothing but the music to prove herself. One of the true jewels in the crown of this compilation is 'Haunted', an old Pogues B side reprised as a breathtaking duet between Shane MacGowan and Sinead O'Connor. It's great hearing Shane's gruff tones countered with such a delicate female voice, and what a lovely song too. Should have received more airplay, and should have been a bigger hit. Not so successful is Tom Jones attempting to rap on the hideously naff 'If I Only Knew'. It gets much worse than that though, but only once... David Jordan's terrible gypsy pop stomp 'Sun Goes Down' from 2007 is a woeful addition which annoyingly features in between two of the CD's best songs when it doesn't deserve to feature at all, and Claudia Brucken's dreamy, mysteriously ambient trip hop 'Thank You' is OK.

The second disc deals with the label's experiments, oddities and songs that could have been hits if they appeared at a different time. Among the finest of these is Andrew Poppy's fantastic 'The Amusement' from 1984, which piles together varying elements and becomes somewhat trippy in places. What begins as some slap bass-fuelled funk turns into sample-heavy hip hop rock on Nasty Rox Inc's standout selection '9th Wonder', while Sun Electric give Cream's 'I Feel Free' an awesome 'Screamadelica'-esque psychedelic house makeover.

As well as those, other highlights of CD2 include Glenn Gregory and Claudia Brucken's lovely synthpop ballad 'When Your Heart Runs Out Of Time' and best of all, The Art Of Noise's extraordinary mini opus 'Overture From The Seduction Of Claude Debussy', riding through orchestral waves, drum and bass rhythms, hip hop lines and big beats. Adamski's Thing's 'Picadilly Circus' layers harpsichord, trumpet, strings and thrashy guitar over each other to create a pleasing atmosphere, while selections from Das Psych-oh Rangers and Mantra are also pretty great. 

It's best to avoid the post-2000's choices here: The nauseatingly bland 'Sign Of The Times' by Lee Griffiths on CD2 is an uninspiring dip and Lisa Stansfield's 'The Moment' is (as you'd expect) a bore. While it's understandable that they'd want to include some more recent material, it seems that they're using some of CD2 as an excuse to showcase new offerings that you probably wouldn't own unless they were on a compilation like this. Leilani's 'I Am The Greatest' is shallow and irritating in a sub-Lily Allen way, which is obviously very bad. Luckily another 2014 cut from Aurora fares a lot better, in fact 'Craving' is a catchy, shadowy tune which seems to borrow vibes and sounds from Mansun of all people. Elsewhere we get the good (Hoodlum Priest), the listenable (Instinct, Act) and the bad (Anne Pigalle, Sexus). Interestingly, ZTT also released early recordings by 90's girl group sensation All Saints, or All Saints 1.9.7.5. as they were known back then. What begins as a typically sleek bit of 90's soul quickly reveals itself to be a pretty shocking bit of songwriting, particularly in the lyrical department.


It would tell more of a story if it was sequenced accordingly, yet I suppose if they put all the label's best hits in chronological order, you'd have multiple tracks from the same artist together, which is often grating. But then again it's not as bad as just separating these tracks slightly... We get two helpings of Seal during the first 7 tracks, and just three songs are placed between two of the Frankie numbers. So they may as well have just featured the songs in order of release rather than put such little thought into the running order.

It does also feel like an incomplete document, and maybe they could have instead featured all 45 of the label's UK Top 40 hit singles across the two discs, and released the oddities plus more on another compilation. Since the hits ran dry after the 90's, ZTT has focused mainly on constantly reissuing it's back catalogue and no longer looks forward like it used to, so maybe a more extensive overview of the hits could appear one day. However, the eclectic nature of 'The Organisation Of Pop''s combination of hits and oddities is one of its most endearing qualities. An interesting and varied bag. 7/10


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