I first saw the new wave singer Lene Lovich on a children’s programme called “Magpie”. She sang her new single, “Lucky Number” in a strange voice sometimes spiky, sometimes ululating. I hadn’t heard pop so strikingly weird and to my ears so wondrous since “Wuthering Heights.”
“Oh my God,” I said to my sister, “Who is she?”
I wrote down something approximating the singer’s name, and bought the 45 the next weekend and, soon after, a picture disc of her first album, “Stateless.” This thrilling gem was released on Stiff Records, the hippest pop label of the time. I played it very, very loud that Saturday morning. “Stateless” was full of astounding pop songs, most written by Lene and her partner Les Chappell, performed in a vocal style I had never heard before, and neither had anyone else. A mixture, incredibly, of punk, bubble gum pop and ‘20s Euro-Cabaret, all stirred into a pungent blend. Though coloured with soul instrumentation – sax, organ – the album was as difficult to define as the title suggests. It was gothic pop before gothic pop existed. It had a ghostly quality, though muscular, not wispy at all: “Telepathy,” about a woman who knows when her boyfriend is cheating because his mind’s “like a TV” to her; “Sleeping Beauty,” about extreme plastic surgery, the complete reforming of a body; the dark, uncomfortable “Home,” about escaping it, which has become her theme song. There’s also a marvelous sex song, “Say When,” written by a man from the POV of a woman. “Hey, I call the shots. Baby, I say when!” This was a hit single.
“Stateless” was followed by “Flex.” Posters advertising “Flex” – images of Lene in a wedding dress – were all over the London underground when I began working for the BBC. “Flex” wasn’t “Stateless II”. It was eerier, more personal, a tilted, original vision, with subjects like reincarnation, angels, (a song which manages to be about both hairy bikers and the cherubim!) and suspended animation. Yet there’s still room for “Wonderful One,” a bouncy love song of great emotional clarity. I love the way her words embrace the dreamlike and impossible without seeming merely escapist, like all good fantasy they’re rooted in something.
The dying moment of “Flex” is “The Freeze,” one of the best science fiction songs you’ll ever hear. It was not her first such venture. Before she found a recording contract, she was asked by the French dance producer Cerrone to write lyrics for him, and she turned out a song called “Supernature,” which was a big hit. Lene can claim with these lyrics about a lost paradise, a theme to which she returns, to have invented the small, strange genre of science fiction disco…
A third of a century after it was made, “Flex” is still a unique artifact.
The third album, “No Man’s Land,” appeared after a wait of three years and, again, it feels less like a follow-up than an entirely separate work. This is 1982 and the sound is brighter, poppier, synthier, more polished, I suppose more commercial, though the songs are as vivid and unique as ever. They’ve taken on a widescreen, cinematic quality. (“Savages,” “Rocky Road.”) There is a startling, unforgettable song called “Blue Hotel” which seems to be about telepathic communication in the sky.
Les Chappell plays many of the instruments and co-writes the songs, and most tracks include his vocal contributions. These are rarely backing vocals in the orthodox sense. He interjects whoops, swoops, hollers, roars, banshee moans. Sometimes he sounds like a phantom on a football terrace. These effects are an integral part of the texture of the records.
I have been listening to these three albums again recently, because they’ve has just been reissued, in luminous new remasters overseen by the artist herself on her new micro-label Flex Music.
But the Stiff Records trilogy is not at all the whole story. When she was widely written about in the late seventies, articles made mention of a mysterious three-track Christmas single which had been released before her contract with Stiff. The articles and, in interviews, Lene herself, talked of this as something of a skeleton. I had the happy fortune of discovering a copy in the mid-eighties in one of those fabulous, dusty Camden Town record shops. (An actor friend lived in the flat over the shop, though I did not know him then.) The ‘A’ side is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and on the sleeve Lene is peering through a snow-frosted window, looking like a cross between a shocked French maid and my friend Bonnie Langford. The record is great fun, and I like the summery sound of the kettle drums, which must be unique in the history of Xmas musical oddities.
A fourth album, “March”, quietly crept into shops at the end of the eighties. Noticed only by her dedicated following, it’s on a smaller, more intimate scale than “No Man’s Land’” with some inspired songs, one about the condition of sleep and dream, “Night shift,”; one sung from the point of view of a shadow, and one, “Natural Beauty,” which is both a ‘lost paradise’ song and a simple declaration of love. (“Natural beauty still survives,/ I can see it in your eyes.”)
There was an endless, post-“Red Shoes”-length wait, (longer, in fact,) for the fifth, “Shadows and Dust,” which appeared out of the blue on a New York label in 2004, the voice and sensibility intact, the stylistic range wider: there’s the deliciously pantomimic “Wicked Witch” and a setting of Heathcote Williams’ humorous poem “The Insect Eater” in which Lene plays both Renfield and Dracula, alongside the beautiful and uneasy love story down generations “Remember,” the haunting “Shapeshifter,” the desperate “Little Rivers,” the poppy “Gothica.”
Throughout her career, she’s worn home-made stage costumes, which, in sync her performance persona, are exotic but not exactly locatable in time and place, though often loosely historical. The mysterious East? Camelot? A strange lost Europe? All of these. Some of her songs are science fiction, but, whereas the visuals of, say, Bowie or Annie Lennox lean towards the future, Lene leans towards a fractured, imagined past. Sometimes she wears head dresses. In one of my favourite photos, used for the sleeve of a 45, she’s in a sort of leather waistcoat and a black jacket fringed with lace. A deep red ribbon is wrapped around each of her wrists, her hands in black lace gloves. She holds a fan, which is open, resting on her lower lip concealing her chin. Her hair, usually in long plaits, is here piled frizzily, dropped into it more ribbons, looking like wet red roses. Her eyes are wide, her pallor ghostly. Somewhere between a film gypsy and the ghost of a Victorian lady? Very cool.
She has frequently been brought into the studio by other artists. Tom Verlaine of the group Television, The Residents and the Italian singer Giuni Russo all made good use of her. She turned up a few years ago as a randy android on a Hawkwind album, of which she was the highlight. Most interesting, maybe, are her appearances in two long dramatic musical pieces. She was a fragile and finally broken Madeleine Usher on Peter Hammill and Judge Smith’s airless, intense ‘opera’ “Fall of the House of Usher.” This record was a major discovery for me, being an introduction to Hammill’s vast and unique output. It exists in two variations. The first release, in 1991, used a standard rock group format, guitar, drums, keyboards. A few years later, Hammill returned to the tapes, stripped away almost all the rock accompaniment, redid his own vocals to much more powerful effect, and laid the remaining vocals (a superb cast: Lene, Andy Bell of Erasure, Herbert Grönemeyer, the spine-tingling Sarah Jane Morris,) on top of a spectral cushion of guitar sound. Either is worth hearing, but the revision is chilling. “Usher” was originally conceived for theatre and I sometimes wonder how it would work on stage.
Then there is Judge Smith’s recent “Orfeas,” (sic), one of a series of ‘song stories’ as he calls them, designed as sound-only musical narrative pieces. (Think Big Finish, sung.) Whereas “Usher” is doom-laden, “Orfeas” is wonderfully knockabout, Lene’s Eurydice supercilious, contemptuous, comic. Incidentally, she also made the mask of Orfeas which illustrates the booklet.
But now that “Shadows and Dust” is on the cusp of its tenth anniversary, I hope there will soon be a new album under her own name. She’s returned to touring, with a tight new band who plainly adore her. Her audiences are pleasingly mixed, from paunchy old blokes in “Never Mind the Bollocks” t-shirts to Goth girls to young gay guys who own all her records. (I’ve only recently realized that she’s a hidden gay icon, though it’s obvious that she should be.) She’s turned up in some extraordinary venues, including an excellent one underneath Brighton station which in a previous incarnation was a shed for railway vehicles.
I love what she does.
Oh, and she has produced the sweetest piece of pop music merchandise ever, key rings made from her stage costumes. Can you bear to be without one?