ARTHUR BROWN: SPEAK NO TECH (1981)
1) King Of England; 2) Conversations; 3) Strange Romance; 4) Not Fade Away; 5) The Morning Was Cold; 6) Speak No Tech; 7) Names Are Names; 8) Love Lady; 9) Big Guns Don't Lie; 10) Take A Picture; 11*) You Don't Know; 12*) Old Friends My Colleague; 13*) Lost My Soul In London; 14*) Joined Forever; 15*) Mandala; 16*) Desert Floor.
Very little information is available on this and the next album: minimally distributed upon original release, out of print for years, we are nearing the bottom end of Brown's «scale of recognizability» out here. The original date does seem to be 1981, and the only other thing I think I know is that the producer was Craig Leon, for whom this must have been quite a curious stop in between working with the Ramones and Blondie on their self-titled debuts and then working with the likes of Joshua Bell since his late-1990s «conversion» to the world of classical.
And there was quite a lot to produce: Speak No Tech, contrary to its self-ironic title, is completely electronic — and we know that when Arthur Brown goes all the way in any direction, the man may overdo it, but he certainly does not underdo anything. So here, there is a transparent attempt to show us all... or, at least, just to check up on the idea that electronic music does rule the day. Not in the Kraftwerk sense («robotic-flavored minimalism for elite audiences»), not in the early period Depeche Mode sense («trivial, but catchy dance music for the masses») — simply as an answer to the question: «What will music sound like once live instruments and analog equipment are gone for good?»
Silly-sounding question, for sure, but not that silly when answered by somebody like Arthur Brown — a guy who, no matter how obnoxious or pretentious he might get at times, has always meant business. Speak No Tech is not an example of «electronica» as such; rather, it is an experimental art-rock album made with exclusively electronic means. With dramatically recited theatrical pieces, lyrical ballads, «rockers», and only a few numbers that bear a strong «New Wave» stamp, it manages to be surprisingly diverse and inventive for a record that seems to have been born out of a simple «oh, I got me a brand new Yamaha, I wonder what I can do with it now?» type of idea.
As with all of Brown's albums where «experiment» takes precedence over «artistic expression», Speak No Tech is a little baffling, and is more likely to pique one's curiosity than the soul. The best example is probably Arthur's daring deconstruction of Buddy Holly's ʽNot Fade Awayʼ — what used to be a prime example of Diddley-beat-based dance-pop has been transformed in a sea of electronic waves, lapping against the aural shore with perfect clock regularity. It's quite a puzzling piece of work, particularly so if you are familiar with the original — or, at least, the Stones cover. But who knows, maybe that is exactly the way that the little green aliens who made their camp in the back of Arthur's mind dance to Buddy Holly in their parallel universe.
Odd enough, some of the numbers are quite catchy: the New Wave synth riff in ʽConversationsʼ, for instance, might owe its existence to a period of heavy listening to Gary Numan, but is quite self-contained nevertheless. The repetitive mantra «speak no tech, speak no tech» in the title track is annoying and hypnotic at the same time; so is the melancholic dirge melody of ʽNames Are Namesʼ and the amusing «romantic techno» of ʽLove Ladyʼ. In fact, most of the songs here have something at least to draw our attention — and the something can well be anything, including, for instance, an artificially prolonged scream at the end of ʽBig Guns Don't Lieʼ.
If only there had been some clearer sense of purpose to the album — its least comfortable aspect is that it seems to be so totally committed to electronics just for commitment's sake. Usually, electronica artists are «sonic painters», plunging us into sci-fi environments, or «atmospheric prophets», using the coldness and detachedness of their instruments to express cool subtle irony on the dehumanization of humanity, or something like that. Speak No Tech, however, is neither complex and multi-layered enough to create such an environment, nor does it present any good reason as to why synthesizers are the only musical means on it. Okay, so if this is the music of tomorrow, then why does the first song divert us with a monolog on the fate of the ʽKing Of Englandʼ? What's up with the modernist poetry recital on ʽThe Morning Was Coldʼ? Neither these nor most of the other tracks seem to actively require an electronic coating.
Consequently, Speak No Tech still gets a thumbs up for curiosity's sake — it is certainly a different album from most, and a «different» album from Arthur Brown that stands out in his own catalog is different indeed. But do not despair if you are not able to lay your hands on it: it is anything but a «lost masterpiece» — an attractive period curio, for sure, but reflecting much too blurry a vision to fall in love with it, I'd say.
For the record: the (semi-official?) CD release of the album adds a bunch of bonus tracks that seems to be randomly assembled from various points in Arthur's career — including a very early, hiss-crackle-stuffed white R'n'B number, ʽYou Don't Knowʼ, that he recorded in 1965 with his first band, The Diamonds. Funny coincidence, I guess, but the heavily distorted electric organ that drives the song, from a sheer sonic perspective, fits in brilliantly with the electronics of Speak No Tech — and beats most of it to hell.