(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #68, August 2020)
Unearthing Electronic Gold
The Gods of Pop, sitting atop their musical Mount Olympus, work in decidedly mysterious ways. For instance, how did Robert Marlow not become famous, a staple of early 80s Top of the Pops and a regular customer of the Saturday Superstore? A cursory glance at his credentials reveal virtually no pop stardom box left unticked. Foppish, clean-cut looks? Check. Insanely catchy and literate synth-pop bangers? Check. A longstanding association with Vince Clarke? Check. With knobs on.
In fact, Marlow even beat Clarke to the punch on two critical 80s pop fronts: buying an analogue synth, and working with Alison Moyet. Not necessarily in that order. In 1978, he’d accompanied the teenage Alf in Basildon punk band The Vandals, before persuading his mother to assist the electronic renaissance by taking out a hire purchase agreement for a Korg 700. And thus was born Marlow and Clarke’s proto-synth outfit The Plan. It didn’t last of course, and – to rub further salt into the wounds – Marlow’s subsequent band French Look were abetted by a teenage amp-carrier who, at a rehearsal session in an Essex youth club, gamely took to the microphone himself. Clarke was also there with his new band Composition of Sound, and knew a decent vocalist when he heard one. The Gods of Pop sniggered up their sleeves once more, and Dave Gahan was subsequently poached.
Cut to 1983. As Yazoo disintegrated, Marlow approached Clarke and asked about the possibility of a day’s recording in the latter’s beloved Blackwing Studios, a converted South London church. The resulting single, ‘The Face of Dorian Gray’, is perhaps the most perplexing flop of the decade. It has literally all the ingredients of early 80s chart success: insanely catch synth hooks, a melancholy singalong chorus, literary references impenetrable to eight-year-olds and the unmistakeable sheen of Clarke’s perfect pop production. It is magnificent. And yet… No 83 in the charts. British public, hang your heads in shame. You could have Robert Marlow in your hearts forever, and you chose to buy Rod Stewart’s ‘Baby Jane’ instead. You can’t be trusted with anything.
The album, The Peter Pan Effect, recorded in a rush of enthusiasm after successful sessions for the single, was quietly shelved. Its eventual release, 16 years later, only came about when Sweden’s Energy Rekords persuaded original co-producer Eric Radcliffe to search for the master tapes in the Blackwing Studios bell tower. But it’s glorious: ‘Calling All Destroyers’ has Hi-NRG beats and the campest maritime metaphors this side of Carry On Cruising. ‘Crying For The Moon’ somehow finds the musical middle ground between Depeche Mode and Eddie Cochran, and ‘The Kiss’ is genuinely soulful and sultry, a marrying of glacial synths and heartfelt emoting that Moyet herself would have been crazy to snub.
The Gods of Pop have had the last laugh, of course, and shoved it back into the virtual bell tower: the album has vanished once more, the 1999 CD now long-since deleted. But do some digging, and make Robert Marlow the pop star he always deserved to be… in our own hearts, at least.