Rediscovery Corner: Monaco’s ‘Music For Pleasure’

If you like any kind of dance music, Monaco’s ‘Music for Pleasure’ will easily fit in well with your collection.  It’s a well-paced album with varying shades of disco rock that explores the complexities of modern relationships–of love and loss, of attraction and revulsion.  ‘Happy Angst’ just might sum it up fairly well.  From the incessantly listenable “What Do You Want From Me?”, an international hit, to the intentional ‘alternative rock’ of “buzz gum” that features flavors of beatles-esque breaks (complete with caliope and brass), this album has a little bit of everything.  But to really understand this album, it helps to know some history. (No, not the War of 1812).

Close your eyes (I promise I won’t hurt you).  Slip back to 1977, to a lousy club somewhere in Manchester, England. It’s the age of disco, but instead of cheesy strings and a dance beat, some bloke is screaming his arse off into the mic and another is playing the guitar like it’s the first time he’s picked up the thing. The group is billed as ‘the Sex Pistols’.  A loud buzz remains in your ears long after the show is over.  Your name is Peter Hook (“Hooky” to your mates).  You’re with a couple of lads by the names of Ian Curtis and Barney (Bernard Albrecht, later changed to Bernard Sumner).  After the noise dies down, you pick up a bass guitar (Barney beat you to the electric), find a drummer and who cares if you don’t know how to play?  If those Pistols can do it, who can’t?

Influenced by the the Brian Eno/ David Bowie composition “Warszawa,” you name the band “Warsaw.” You record a demo, lose a drummer, find a new drummer in Ian’s friend Stephen Morris.  Then there’s all this talk of another band called “Warsaw Pact” that’s getting more publicity than you are. So what? You change you name to Joy Division.  You sign a record deal and success in Britain follows.

But Ian, your lead singer, has been having problems.  Frequent epileptic seizures and black-outs onstage lead to serious depression.  On the cusp of plans to conquer America, on Sunday, May 18th, 1980, Ian is found dead, an apparent suicide.

What now?

The demise of Joy Division and its re-birth as New Order (with Gillian Gilbert) is well known, among those who have followed either band.  For the casual music listener, the story may be new.  But chances are good that you, or someone you knew in college, own a copy of New Order’s “Substance”, a source text for the history of pre-electronica, international techno-pop.  New Order’s 12″ dance single for Blue Monday is the best selling dance single of all time, and their song “Bizarre Love Triangle” has been remade in the nineties and still remains on the alternative rock play-list.  And Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’ albums have just recently re-entered the UK charts upon the unexpected success of the band’s box set ‘Heart & Soul’.

But the tragedy-turned-triumph that became New Order has been inactive since their Republic album (1990) spawned four international singles including “Regret”, “Ruined in a Day”, “World (The Price of Love)”, and “Spooky.” Then there was their obligatory greatest hits album, ‘(the best of) New Order’, for casual fans; and for those die-hards out there, ‘(the rest of) New Order’.  But those Manchester natives, weened on punk music, who popularized a brand of music influencing a whole new wave of musicians, including Robert Smith (of the Cure), haven’t rested on their musical laurels. They are, in fact, planning a new album to be recorded sometime at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, side projects abound.  Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris have married, started a family and formed, literally, “the Other Two,” composing a variety of music for British television and releasing the album “the Other Two and You” (1993). Bernard Sumner teamed up with Johnny Marr (formerly of The Smiths) to form the band Electronic (with part-time collaborators Neil Tennant & Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys). This “super-group” recorded 1991’s self-titled release, which met with international success, along with 1997’s follow-up called ‘Raise the Pressure.’ Meanwhile, Peter Hook’s post-New Order project, ‘Revenge’ (dubbed a ‘greasy, rock ‘n roll monster’ by some, entirely unlike the sterility of New Order) released several recordings (the ‘92 EP ‘Gun World Porn’ and their sole album ‘One True Passion’) that never quite hit it off.

Enter Monaco.  No, not the country.  The band (from the opening sentence–remember?). I picked up a copy of Monaco’s “Music for Pleasure” at a used record store, along with “Pet Shop Boys Discography”.  Monaco is Peter Hook with former tape op guy Dave Potts.  Potts worked in a record store, putting up New Order displays during the band’s British heyday, and later worked in Hook’s studio.  From his vocal style, you can tell Potts practiced Bernard Sumner’s smooth delivery and the sound-alike quality has not escaped the attention of critics.  But there’s a chemistry here–between the mentor and student; between this product of the disco age & the punk movement and this product of sixties classic rock & the 90’s indie-dance interface that makes this more than a New Order wannabe album.  Potts’ mere influence as a fan brings a freshness and enthusiasm to Hook’s music that goes beyond the often sterile core of New Order.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up Monaco’s “Music for Pleasure” was that Peter Saville, the graphic designer noted for Joy Division’s austere album covers, and New Order’s uncomplicated artwork, switches style to something more human.  Instead of distorted photos in black-in-white or depressive white lettering on matte grey, this album cover’s predominant color is blood red.  It features a couple of vaguely European-looking women in slinky dresses, one looking bored and seated in the corner, the other in the foreground looking straight at the camera through dark sunglasses, both occupying a room in a kind of neo-space-age bachelor pad.  Sunlight pours in from the sky-light.  A plant hangs in the corner.  And I began to wonder if this isn’t someone’s actual house, not some make-believe, show-biz set.  Then I realized that these women looked like actual women, not stunning, drop-dead gorgeous models.  Then I opened the CD’s jewel-case, pulled out the sleeve and found that the cover is only part of a fairly long fold-out mural revealing a veiled bookshelf; a young, black-booted, long-haired grunge rocker guy looking contemplative; a rack full of crystal, a cabinet of dishes, and other domesticities, including a naked guy (!?) in the kitchen scratching his ankle while loading/unloading the dishwasher–go figure–and a seated figure in the background who looks as if he is practicing conducting an orchestra.  I began to think there must be a lot more to this album then meets the eye…

…and ear.  While Music for Pleasure has a definitive New Order feel, with Hook’s distinctive bass lines and David Potts’ Bernard Sumner sound-alike vocals, there is a thoughtful intensity and an emotional balance here that’s missing in the works of both Joy Division and New Order.  In interviews, Hook has mentioned early influences to include the bass playing on old Temptations albums and that kind of informed, musical depth is evident. The skilled use of layered vocal tracks and overdubs bring out the conflicting emotions in these song rather than acting as mere backdrop gimmick, as is usually the case with most techno-oriented songs.

One song that owes it’s lyrical content to the punk tradition is “Under the Stars,” a anthem-esque new wave guitar song featuring the chorus ‘so let the violence begin/if we can fight than we can win’.  My first thought was that they had written a theme song for NHL hockey.  But the fatalistic verses show a darker trend that stems directly from the punk aesthetic.  But most of the music on this album owes more to the electronic era.  The last track “Sedona”, in fact, is a seven-minute instrumental that combines melodic electronic composition with shades of industrial elements.

One exception is “Blue”, a simple, surprisingly acoustic guitar song that conveys a hopeful realism, but does so with lyrical clunkers that distract from both the meaning of the song and a potentially interesting juxtaposition between it and the track that follows–the over nine-minute long techno/disco opus “Junk”.  Lines such as “when I’m down and can’t get up/and I’ve just run out of luck” would play off well if performed tongue-in-cheek, but come across as unintentionally comedic when sung dolefully against the folksy background of this song’s gently strumming guitars.  Then again maybe it is a joke.  I don’t know.  But fortunately, being the weakest song on the album, “Blue” is also the shortest, at two-and-a-half minutes.  Fortunately too, gems such as the moody “Billy Bones” and my own favorite, the disco bonanza called “Sweet Lips” more than make up for any flaws in Monaco’s freshman effort.

Ironically, though it was born from the punk tradition, ‘Music for Pleasure’ showcases elements far closer to the 1970’s disco and Beatles-eque pop that punk rebelled against.  But instead of the self-absorbed vacuity of disco and the soulless, detached throbbing of techno music, this album presents soul-searching songs that roll together bubble‑gum techno‑pop with the yearning optimism of mature, modern relationships and straight-ahead guitar rock.  If you’ve never even heard of Joy Division or cared to listen to New Order, this album will still strike you as a refreshing collection of songs that actually entertain in a creative way.

Oh, I’m sorry.  You can open your eyes now.

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