Of the late ‘70s class of synth-pop artists, Gary Numan, Soft Cell and DEVO are among the best remembered thanks to having all scored massive international hits. But there were, of course, influences and contemporaries who were every bit as innovative and exciting, but not as lucky. High on the list of lesser-known greats is Frank Tovey’s incredible Fad Gadget.
An art student like so many rock-era musical innovators, Tovey took an interest in music, but found he lacked the coordination to play an instrument. He turned his attention to performance art (he was a mime student at Leeds Polytechnic) and recording technology, and re-engaged with music making when he discovered that synths and sequencers allowed him to realize his ideas without traditional instrumental proficiency. Around the same time, Daniel Miller founded Mute Records to release the single of his minimalist synth-pop project The Normal, and Tovey sent him a demo of the song “Back To Nature.” Tovey thus became the first artist to sign to Mute and a re-recorded “Back to Nature” would become one side of his first single in September 1979. Pay attention to the lyrics—he’s singing about a post-climate change apocalypse.
”Back to Nature” demo
”Back to Nature” single
Tovey selected the name Fad Gadget for his project, likely, it seems, not just for its cool cadences, but because he embraced the idea of pointedly making a gimmick of himself. His performances were directly confrontational affairs in which he’d put his body on the line. He appeared dressed in nothing but shaving cream, as a Punch puppet, he even had himself tarred and feathered. He’d leap into the crowd Iggy Pop style, and was even known to shower “lucky” front row audience members with his own pubic hair, ripped out on the spot. Per his NYT obit:
Mr. Tovey’s performances were often highly intense and theatrical. He tore the ligaments in both of his legs diving into the audience at one show; at another concert, he swung his microphone around his neck, and it hit him in the face, cutting open his nose and blackening his eyes. After a show in 1980, he was taken to an emergency room after cutting his head open while using it to play an electronic drum.
Lyrically, Tovey’s themes of dystopian alienation put him in more or less the same camp as Gary Numan, only with a dark, wry bitterness taking the place of Numan’s sci-fi trappings. His thematic darkness combined with his haunting deployment of the squared-off coldness of that era’s synth technology made for a potent sound that crossed over to the early industrial scene (he even did a collaborative noise album with Boyd “NON” Rice), and Fad Gadget would become a major part of the blueprint for electronic music from Depeche Mode to Nine Inch Nails and beyond. Fad Gadget released four LPs: Fireside Favourites, Incontinent, Under the Flag and Gag. All are superb. If you’re the kind to get your feet wet with best-ofs, there are two in print, the 2XCD The Best Of Fad Gadget, and the more recent (and more bargainous) 2XCD/2XDVD Fad Gadget by Frank Tovey. Here’s a handful of my faves:
Insane performance of “Collapsing New People” on TV Playback, 1984
After Fad Gadget, Tovey continued making music, moving beyond electronics and recording more straightforwardly rock and acoustic music under his own name and with his band The Pyros. He reactivated Fad Gadget in 2001 to serve as the opener for a Depeche Mode tour, and sadly, died prematurely of heart failure in 2002. He was 45.
This documentary does a fine job of introducing Fad Gadget to newbies, and has plenty of great footage to satisfy longtime fans. Enjoy.