Originally formed in 1981 as a duo of Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash and Bauhaus roadie-turned-bassist Glenn Campling, Tones on Tail was a generally interesting, shortlived experiment in various styles. When the parent group called it a day in 1983, Ash chose to make this modest side project a going concern, and Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins hopped aboard to make it a fulltime trio.
Tones on Tail, a full-length album stitched together from the band’s first three records — the initial self-titled EP, “There’s Only One” 45 and the Burning Skies EP (Haskins’ ToT debut) — careens from languid, whispered rock to jumpy light funk to spare atmospheric soundtracks, and offers very little songwriting content, merely scanty ideas in service of largely pointless studio fiddling.
But while ‘Pop’ — the trio’s only actual album — reveals some draggy recidivist Bauhaus tendencies, it also has real songs of modern music that show taste, delicacy and moderate imagination. “Lions,” for instance, roams an attractively light synth-samba range while proffering lyrics like “Lions always hit the heights/’Cause to kill it’s always the easy way out.” Say what? The multi-movement “Real Life” blends acoustic guitar picking with hushed vocals, angry lyrics and weird sound effects — neo-Yes? (The US version is revised, with the replacement of three tracks by subsequent singles, including “Go!,” a B-side that took off in American clubs, and “Christian Says.”)
Ash became unsatisfied with Campling, however, and after a US tour in the fall of ’84, Tones on Tail was shelved. At this point, on the heels of erstwhile Bauhaus bassist David J.’s departure from the Jazz Butcher and the utter failure of Peter Murphy’s experiment with Dalis Car, a full-scale Bauhaus reunion was planned. When Murphy backed out, the three remaining members decided to continue under the name Love and Rockets. Murphy’s absence allows his three former bandmates to avoid any trace of his poseur pretensions on Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, an odd, unnervingly varied album. There’s folk-rock, funk, ominous rock and a number that resembles the Moody Blues crossed with Bow Wow Wow — a huge, boomy drum sound smothered in close harmony vocals and what sounds to be a mellotron. “Saudade,” a similar (albeit instrumental) piece, blends aspects of New Order and the Dream Academy. The faintly Beatlesque, pretty “Haunted When the Minutes Drag” suggests an ’80s take on Donovan in a droney acoustic mode. Neat record — wonder what it all means. (The British CD adds three tracks.) The belated American issue adds “Inside the Outside” and a remix of “Dog-End of a Day Gone By.” In Canada, the record includes a version of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and several other remixes.
There’s less stylistic dilettantism on the fine Express, although disparate variety is still among the trio’s hallmarks. To wit, “All in My Mind” appears on one side as evanescent folk-rock and on the other as a dirgey sigh with echoed snare drum accents. “Kundalini Express” updates the old train gambit with modern ideas; “Yin and Yang the Flower Pot Man” puts another Moody Bluesy melody to a galloping beat; “Love Me” has dubwise backing and whispered vocals. Love and Rockets seem to be charting out their terrain ever more clearly, concentrating on genres that work for them. (The US edition adds “Ball of Confusion.”)
After two good records, Love and Rockets began lurching this way and that as Ash and J began asserting themselves individually, writing and singing their own lyrics in rarely intersecting styles. The self-produced Earth-Sun-Moon is an enigmatic bummer, a dull and often murky digression that buries its few promising ideas in echo and overdubbed guitar tracks. Ash comes up with flaky lyrics and flaky stylistic ideas; J’s work is less weird, but no more effective. (He’s responsible for the album’s funniest track: the Jethro Tull parody “No New Tale to Tell.”) Earth-Sun-Moon has the earmarks of a record cut reluctantly and/or without benefit of ideas. A shame. (The CD adds a “slow version” of the LP’s lead-off track, “Mirror People.”)
Those who bought Love and Rockets on the strength of its coolly atmospheric Top 20 single (the faintly ’50sish “So Alive”) may have been surprised by the rest of the bizarre distortion-heavy album. Ash has obviously been listening to a lot of Jesus and Mary Chain records (check out “No Big Deal” and “Motorcycle”); J seems to be entranced by the magic of vocal processing and string arrangements. Track by track, Love and Rockets is flimsy fun; considering it as some unified artistic effort, however, is utterly impossible.
David J’s first solo record is an indulgent one-man affair with lots of acoustic guitar, a little electronic percussion and occasional keyboards; while some of the songs have amusingly cinematic lyrics (“Joe Orton’s Wedding,” “With the Indians Permanent”), the music is trivial and the presentation underwhelming. Crocodile Tears is much better, an enjoyable singer-songwriter collection with simply effective and varied arrangements (acoustic guitar, string bass, occasional drums, sax accents) and well-developed songs with good melodies and substantial lyrics that strain the limits of poetic unpretentiousness but more often wind up involving than off-putting. Not all of it works, but the title track is fine and a self-examination entitled “Too Clever by Half” is thoughtfully perceptive. “Stop This City” paints an urban landscape with care and precision; with guest flute by the Jazz Butcher, the fantasy romance of the mildly Dylanesque “Justine” is a treat. Elsewhere, however, the influence of Zim overpowers J’s good sense.
David J on Glass is a messy and eclectic collection of little merit. The lyrics are ill-considered and overdone; the uneven material includes inferior examples of the previous LP’s faux-folk (“The Conjurers Hand”), effective rockers (“The Promised Land”), an atrocious piano-and-strings homage to Kurt Weill (“This Vicious Cabaret”), a Clock DVA cover (“4 Hours”) and a solo acoustic demo of “Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh.”
The band kept him busy for several years, and J didn’t make another solo album until 1990. Songs from Another Season follows nicely from Crocodile Tears with accomplished and attractive light folky pop somewhere around Lloyd Cole or the Waterboys. With sax and Max (Eider, ex-Jazz Butcher) helping out, this is an enjoyable and — in light of L&R’s gross unpredictability — reassuringly low-key album.
Coming Down, Ash’s solo debut, takes off in a bunch of different directions — from sedate cocktail swing to low-key salsa (!) to somber atmospherics to jittering dance noise — most fairly understated, several reflecting the Reidian thrall in which he lately seems to be gripped. Joined by singer Natacha Atlas and Haskins (doing a lot of the drum programming), Ash comes off as flaky as his band, with effective originals (“Coming Down Fast” and the pseudo-Velvet “Not So Fast” could easily be L&R tracks) and such bizarre detours as a nearly subliminal “Day Tripper” cover.
With the admonition “don’t rock — wobble,” the 72-minute Night Music CD compiles sixteen previously released Tones on Tails items, including most of ‘Pop’, half of Tones on Tail, the wonderfully bent dance kineticism of “Go!” and a horrible, bootleg-quality live “Heartbreak Hotel.” Three years later, the same basic assortment of tracks was repackaged, under the weary title of — you guessed it — Tones on Tail. This latest compilation (seventeen tracks on CD; the cassette adds “Rain,” “A Bigger Splash” and “Means of Escape”) gets the slight nod over Night Music, as it has some different tracks (replacing “Heartbreak Hotel” with the stellar single “Performance” and adding two others) and liner notes instead of a lyric booklet.