The Comsat Angels, C.S. Angels, The Headhunters, Dream Command...  All this & more

Selling Sheffield By The Pound  - Melody Maker

20th August 1983 

Unlike boxing, there is no knockouts when art and commerce enter the ring, though the least we can do is award points.  

Several months ago The Guardian's Mick Brown had a go at this when, in a timely and lucid article, he pointed to the concept that seemed the likely winner. The commercial motives have always been an essential presence in pop-music, he argued, it used to be the case that esteem and artistic respect were at least as important to the performer as cash. But nowadays that didn't seem to be the case. Groups and singers talk openly of hitting the jackpot as if they didn't really care how they did it, the result being a surfeit of woolly, undistinguished music.

It was a view I strongly sympathised with. For the past couple of years I have watched with dismay as a wave of blandly constituted watery pop swept onwards. Some critics tried to surf the crest, but it eventually proved too difficult a task for most of them. They can be seen these days spluttering and choking on their own hypocrisy, whingeing about the distressingly calculated nature of the charts as if this had suddenly arrived from nowhere and they had nothing to do with encouraging it ("honest guv'nor! Honest!'')  

The problem wasn't that there was an emphasis on pop-music (anti pop bigots may as well not bother reading any further), but that so much was at best mediocre and at worse bad. The most heartening thing was discovering jewels like Scritti Politti, Heaven 17 and Simple Minds lying among the tinsel, music that reminded us that the greatest pop was that which balance artistic and commercial motives on either side of a fulcrum of personality.  

And so where do the Comsat Angels fit into the picture? This is a debate which particularly concerns them. Having been born in the flowering of experimentation and followed on the heels of punk, the Comsats had forged a powerfully tense personal style. Their music sometimes hovered on the brink of the abyss, yet the prospect of hope never allowed them to slip into despair. This was a haltingly edgy sound that in it’s own way seemed to sum up something about our natural condition.  

The Comsat's released three albums, but none of them sold spectacularly well, and earlier this year they were dropped by their record company, Polydor, with no immediate prospect of finding another one. They were faced with a simple dilemma - either make their style more accessible, or split up. The option they chose was the former. They signed a deal with Jive records - known largely as a dance record label, and recorded new material with OMD and A Flock Of Seagulls producer Mike Howlett. 

Some of the results can be heard on their new single Will You Stay Tonight? In many ways the more overtly commercial sound of Stay is an improvement on their last LP Fiction, which at least to these ears - was a disappointing and largely unsuccessful attempt to reach a larger audience. I still feel an air of ambivalence, there are twinges of worry that they could and should be producing music that makes a deeper, if not so immediate, impact, though these are largely dispelled by Shining Hour on the B-side - a beautiful song that drifts as if suspended in fluid, and reminds us that songwriter Stephen Fellows has a gift for melody that makes the current aspirations for a much wider audience seem not only logical but likely to meet success.  

The central question is, of course, what configuration the forces of art and commerce will take in the future Comsat's career, or to put it another way, are the Comsat Angels Paul Young or are they Duran Duran? and does it matter anyway? These were the issues explored when we met for an interview at bassist Kevin Bacon's house in Sheffield last week. The referee is you. 

Fellows: ''I wouldn't say we did more accessible things because we need to do that, but that's what I liked at the time, and now. I find my taste has changed away from the more extreme things. Maybe I'm getting old or something. I can't explain it … is more a challenge. It’s actually easy to go away and make esoteric noises, is much harder to confront the thing square in the face and try and pass through it.''  

Bacon: "The hardest thing is to get a song and play it to somebody and they say yeah I really like that I think it's great and they’ll mean it.''  

Fellows: ''I can't deny that people liking it is crucial to me. I hate it when people don't like the things. It's really central. I would never go as far as writing a song for a specific market, what I am saying is that the approval is very important. It's what you kind of feed off.''  

Reviewing the single, Adam Sweeting felt that the Comsats had made some '' radio pleasing compromises ''. Did they agree?  

Fellows: '' We haven't compromised in any way. Our taste has possibly gone a bit more mainstream, but that's the kind of thing we like at the moment. I bought the Rip, Rig & Panic album that you were going on about. There are some great bits on it, but largely I find it incomprehensible. And that's nothing against the group. What I am saying is, it's me that changed, not them. I think what it was, I couldn't afford to buy any records so I just listened to the radio all time.''

So is it a major objective to have a hit?

Fellows: ''Yeah! All our mates in Sheffield have got one, so we want one. The Human League are responsible for it. They showed that it can be done. You can actually break through. It's revitalised it. ''  

Bacon: '' Every group you speak to in Sheffield, the only thing they're interested in his ‘hit record, hit record, videos and world tours’. ABC were the next band to follow it up in a big way. Half the people that went on tours with the group you see knocking around and everyone knows them, and they’re going on about playing in Japan and all this stuff, and American tours, and it just happens that nearly everyone I know who's a musician now has got their sights set on that because everyone knows is possible.''  

Hasn't everyone been corrupted by the carrot of hit records and lots of money being dangled in front of their noses and thinking this is easy, lets do it?  

Fellows: ''No, it's not easy, it's damn hard. It's much harder to write accessible things.''

Bacon: ''It's not that we've suddenly decided to sell records, where’re just changing our approach 'cos we've learnt from other groups.''  So what about this idea that people are more concerned with selling records that the artistic motive?  

Bacon: ''This is the thing about groups now being into money, maybe. That's because - I don't want to move too deeply into this - it's the only way they can earn a substantial amount of money, the only way they can see themselves earning any money. And they're not talking about getting rich, they are talking about earning a living or even getting abroad. I know people, the main reason they want to get hit records is that this is the only chance they’ve got of doing things like that.''  

Fellows: "That's the reason I started being in a group in the first place. I found myself thinking about that a lot - what am I my actually doing it for? And it’s just a means of escaping the inevitable. What you actually do comes after that. There’s not a lot of other prospects around, in Sheffield, particularly.''  

Pop music can reach you and touch you emotionally, or it can be something that scrapes very lightly across the surface and it diverts you for the two minutes it's on the radio, or make you hum it for a week and then you never want to hear it again. I think it's possible to create pop that reaches large numbers of people that touch you as much as anything that can be considered as pure art. It is perfectly noble to try and produce that kind of music and get it across to a wider audience. My favourite current example is Never Stop by the Bunnymen; is that what the Comsat's are aiming at? Or would they go beyond that and sweeten the pill just to have a breakthrough hit?  

Bacon: ''Well it's not as if we've suddenly turned into Duran Duran or Bucks Fizz, is it?" 

Fellows: ''To me, it honestly doesn't matter what it is as long as you mean it ...and I mean the stuff. That's the only thing that's important to me... that I'm not ashamed of it.''  

There are groups producing pop who don't really mean it...  

Fellows: '' I think they may... but it might not be to your taste. Kid Creole, I couldn't stand that at first, but just recently I have got into it, two years after everybody else. I had to find my own way into it. I remember you did something about Soft Cell and went on about Tainted Love, how you couldn't stand it at first but it just got to you in the end. It had the same effect on me, in the end it turned out to be a brilliant record. That's the exciting thing about pop music for me, that it assaults you in a way that more esoteric forms don't. You have it thrown at you, you don't have to go out looking for it.''

If the charts are a battle ground isn't there a danger of allowing the terms of the fight to be dictated by people who are very narrow, Radio 1 producers who are very conservative about what they will allow on the air?

Fellows: ''They are less conservative than they were... possibly you are. But then again within those terms there is the length thing. Well The Crown is about eight minutes and they always play all of that. ‘You've got to have a catchy hook’ - Blue Monday destroyed that one. So those kinds of limits are beginning not to exist. O Superman - that is a genius record. That was the thing that started this way of thinking for me. ''

What do you say to people who accuse the Comsat's of selling out?

Fellows: "It's a weird word. I was thinking about this quite a lot, because I thought this might be a line of questioning. I thought: well, you sell out the instant you get on stage or make a record - you do things for other people's approval. That's the instant you sell-out, it doesn't come later. You may modify things to make them more appealing - that's not the sell-out.'' 

Lynden Barber

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