In the 1980s, a decade epitomised by big hair, outlandish outfits and believing your own press, nobody did it better than bizarro electro-rockers Sigue Sigue Sputnik, a band that viewed hyperbole as a badge of honour rather than an insult

“I look back at the group really fondly,” says Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Tony James. “I think it was extraordinary. Even today, nobody has created another electronic rock ’n’ roll band like it.”

Every single thing about Sigue Sigue Sputnik was immediately and intentionally unique. Their image was bold and eye-catching, even in an era of bold and eye-catching, as was their distinctive brand of electronic sound. They occupied a crossroads between music and film, adopting a futuristic stance innovative for its time, and which no artist since has come close to repeating. They became the darlings of the music press overnight – and a sensation for the tabloids the morning after.

Sputnik called it quits after just two albums, ‘Flaunt It’ and ‘Dress For Excess’, the first of which has now been reissued as a four-CD boxset. They left behind what some might regard as low-orbiting space junk, but which was in fact a highly calculated, ambitious statement that caught the record-buying public’s imagination like no other.

Tony James already had one band under his belt by the time he envisioned Sputnik. He had been the bassist and lyricist with pioneering London punks Generation X – the launch pad for Billy Idol, another artist to cast a long shadow over the 80s. After their early success fizzled out, Idol relocated to New York in 1981 to reinvent himself as one of the biggest solo pop-rock artists of the decade, while James began drawing up blueprints for what was to become Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

“I imagined a band from the future,” he recalls. “That makes it sound contrived, but it was actually my dream group. I always said, ‘How would Elvis look if I walked into a club in 50 years’ time?’. I took influences from musicians and styles I really loved, like Suicide, T Rex, Ziggy Stardust and dub reggae, and I wanted two drummers like Pink Fairies. I put all those ideas into a big melting pot.”

James and Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s co-founder, guitarist Neal X, recruited vocalist Martin Degville on the strength of his dancing rather than his singing, and Chris Kavanagh and Ray Mayhew for their double-drums energy. Two other elements gave them their musical edge – electronics and movies. From the outset, James wanted to use the electronic equipment of the day to play his version of rock ’n’ roll, initially through covers of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Elvis.

“We didn’t want sequencers and drum machines,” he says. “We wanted to actually play it like rock music, we wanted to play it live but just with modern instruments. We had two Simmons drum kits and I had a Roland guitar synthesiser. To me, that gave us a futuristic sound.”

The equipment, however, wasn’t always as unfailing as his vision.

“It was incredibly hard with those instruments back then because of the massive MIDI lag. I had to play so many milliseconds ahead of the beat to stay in time with the drummers, which is why so many people thought we mimed. We didn’t mime at all. Everything was done live.”

photo: derek ridgers

Theirs was an era of memorable cinema and James made sure the films that he was drawn to were part of the Sputnik output, thanks to a Betamax video recorder and some arresting fashion decisions initiated by Degville, a former clothes designer.

“We were hugely influenced by movies like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Pink Flamingos’, ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Mad Max’ – all those films really informed our image. We were one of the first bands to be imagined in three dimensions and it gave us a fantastically futuristic vibe.

“Back then, there weren’t any other groups with that kind of freaky hair and exaggerated style. I don’t think Sputnik has aged in terms of its look. The phones are a bit old-fashioned but that’s about it.”

With his then-girlfriend, former Queen publicist Magenta Devine, and the inside track on how to make an impact from what James calls “serving my apprenticeship in the punk rock explosion” with Generation X, the pair began plotting how to snag major press attention.

“I was very conscious of what makes a great image,” says James. “And I was also very aware that when we sent out a press release with a photo of us looking like we did, the picture editor at NME or Melody Maker would go, ‘Well, we’ve got to put that on the cover’. It was extremely important to understand the sensibilities of the music papers and how they worked.”

In addition to the meticulous planning that went into their look, one of James’ early edicts was only allowing the band to be photographed at night, believing that best evoked the “neon space gang from another planet” vibe they wanted to channel.

“Once we became successful and had hits, it was unbelievably hard to maintain that strict rule,” he admits, ruefully. “We kind of lost the plot by the second album, when we were photographed dancing around a swimming pool and I was as crazed as everybody else. I have to hold my hands up – it was probably my fault for letting go of the helm of Starship Sputnik. In hindsight, I could have kept better control of things.”

Sigue Sigue Sputnik became the archetypal band that peaked too soon. They were hot property from the moment their first press release was issued, before they’d even recorded a note. EMI swept in to sign them and bankrolled the studio sessions for their 1986 debut album, ‘Flaunt It’, giving James complete control over the choice of producer.

Like a kid let loose in a musical sweetshop, he pushed for the biggest name in electronic music he could think of – Giorgio Moroder, whose blockbuster ‘I Feel Love’ with Donna Summer more than contributed to the rhythm of Sputnik’s first hit single, ‘Love Missile F1-11’.

“When we wrote our original songs, we had Giorgio’s soundtracks for ‘Scarface’ and ‘Midnight Express’ on rotation. We were huge fans. He totally got that simplistic, futuristic sound, so for us it was a real thrill to work with someone who understood we were trying to merge music and visuals.”

Sputnik often screened pirate copies of banned videos like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ while they were rehearsing, so it seemed natural to both James and Moroder to lift sections from the films and drop them into their tracks.

“It never occurred to either of us that we might need permission to do something like use Al Pacino’s voice from ‘Scarface’, because no one had done it before. It just seemed like part of a colour palette we were using to make the album, which I saw as an action painting of all our favourite movies. It’s hilarious when I think about it now.”

The situation may well have been different if they’d had a manager. The fact that they didn’t was probably one of the biggest factors contributing to Sputnik’s untimely decommissioning.

“We didn’t have a Svengali saying, ‘Tony, you’ve got too many ideas – stop adding parts’.”

One notorious example occurred when James decided to flog advertising slots between the tracks on ‘Flaunt It’ to the likes of i-D magazine, L’Oréal and the Pure Sex clothing boutique in Kensington Market.

“It was like one seamless package. When you watched ITV, the films were interspersed with adverts, so I just saw that as part of the music too. In retrospect, it was possibly an idea too far. It was brilliant, but it is slightly irritating when I listen to it now. If we’d had a manager, they’d have been able to go, ‘Oh fuck off Tony, do you really need adverts between the tracks?’.

“I’d have probably said, ‘Yeah, you’re right’, and gone on to the next suggestion, but at that time I’d developed quite a messiah complex. I thought I could walk on water – and, if not water, then the nodding heads of EMI executives. They said yes to every crazy scheme, which is a very intoxicating situation to be in.”

By their second album, 1988’s aptly-titled ‘Dress For Excess’, the band’s ambitions were on another level. In a moment of what he saw as calculated irony, James asked Stock Aitken Waterman, the Hit Factory team, to produce Sputnik’s ‘Success’ single.

“That was undoubtedly a mistake,” he admits. “It seemed like a great post-modernist notion to use the biggest producers at the time. Pete Waterman came to our studio and listened to the demo and went, ‘Yeah, it sounds really good’. A couple of weeks later, he phoned up and said, ‘Come and listen to the record – we’ve finished it’. They’d made it without us. I went, ‘What about all the guitars?’, and Pete said, ‘Kids don’t like guitars, Tony’. What ensued was months of wrangling in the studio, with us trying to get what we wanted and them trying to get what they wanted. Compromise is never good.”

The media frenzy around Sputnik quickly became unmanageable. When they had started out, they’d been proud of readily getting their distinctive image onto the covers of scores of music magazines, but they soon found themselves at the mercy of the British red-top press, who exaggerated claims of violence at their gigs.

“It happened much faster than I’d expected,” reflects James. “Once we started dealing with The Sun and the Daily Mirror, we were suddenly in ruthless, shark-infested waters. The tabloids have a whole different set of rules and unrules. In the same way the Sex Pistols had been destroyed, once Sputnik were on the front cover of the News Of The World things got totally out of control.”

‘Dress For Excess’ would be Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s final statement of the 1980s. Tony James admits that by the time they were writing the album, it was obvious they couldn’t better what they’d achieved with ‘Flaunt It’. On a few occasions, he has even said they should have called it a day after ‘Love Missile F1-11’.

“In my heart, I’d wanted to form a group along the lines of Suicide or The Cramps – outfits that only ever had cult status. I hadn’t really bargained for Sputnik getting into the Top 10. But I don’t have any regrets. It was an incredible band, with some truly incredible ideas.”

Even in the context of their day, Sigue Sigue Sputnik were audacious, a logical conclusion to punk and to the era of bands like the New York Dolls, who inspired punk’s love of outrage. Much of the music that followed over the next few years seemed largely safe, punctuated here and there by brief flashes of tongue-in-cheek novelty. Nothing so brilliant, though, as a fully-formed electronic group from the future based on a concept as subtle as a Times Square neon billboard.

“I search the internet all the time, hoping to find something extraordinary again,” says James. “Somewhere in a bedroom, maybe in another country, or maybe on another planet, someone’s planning something that’s going to astound me. I look forward to that.”

The ‘Flaunt It’ CD boxset is out on Cherry Red

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