Graded on a Curve: The Normal, “T.V.O.D.” b/w “Warm Leatherette”

Like any genre, electronic pop has its share of essential early documents, the core releases that helped establish the form and give it a voice in the marketplace. Through his Mute label, Daniel Miller played a huge part in shaping the public perception of what electronic music could accomplish both artistically and commercially. But Miller was also a musician; in fact the inaugural release on Mute was 1978’s “T.V.O.D.” b/w “Warm Leatherette” from his nom de guerre The Normal. It’s a rigid, icy two-sided beast that helped to define a big chunk of what was to come in electro-pop terms, and it remains a blast of a listen to this day.

The records that shape a genre, if not always great, are at least reliably interesting for the glimpse they provide into their time and place of origin. ‘Twas especially so in electronic pop, a genre that largely defined itself as being cutting edge, futuristic, or at the very least, aggressively non-retro in nature. This intent, a trend that was certainly tied up with the advance of affordable synthesizers, drum machines, and effects-loaded keyboards, frequently created curious (and occasionally great) ripples of upstart pop action. Since then, these exercises in flagrant newness have very often engaged in a fascinating friction with the blunt reality that, well, everything ages.

Yes, everything ages, but all things don’t date in the same manner. And datedness is regularly used, particularly in the pop sphere, as a bludgeon to beat down the past in favor of the present. In the case of electronic pop, the aura of becoming old-hat could unravel at what seemed like hyper-speed. One minute you’re ahead of your time, the next you’re sputtering around blooping and bleeping like a boxy robot from some drive-in sci-fi flick.

Obviously science fiction and electro-pop can make for some cozy bedfellows, and not just for their shared futurist elements. For just as a piece of sci-fi that fails as prophecy can still be rewarding in any number of complex ways, so can electronic pop retain its vitality and interest long after the sheen of the new has faded away on the horizon of infinite progress. And in the case of The Normal’s sole single, sci-fi holds an additional rather huge facet of relevance.

For if this record didn’t exist in reality as a part of Miller’s bid for musical immortality (an attempt he’s surely achieved as a mogul if not a performer) it would make an almost too perfect bit of fictive shrapnel hurling from the heavily pulsating right side of David Cronenberg’s brain. To elaborate, I’ve never been able to totally shake a mental association between the a-side of this 45 and the movie Videodrome. This fact betrays my age, for this seven-inch precedes the film by nearly five years; I just happened to see the movie before I heard the tune.

But there’s more, for the flipside “Warm Leatherette” is a menacingly chilly hommage to J.G. Ballard’s car-wreck sex novel Crash, a book that was eventually filmed by Cronenberg in 1996. While dark sci-fi writers like Ballard and William S. Burroughs are often spoken of in relation to electro-pop’s far less accessible musical cousin Industrial, the influence of these wordsmiths upon the heavily literate practitioners of a sound that would become a major chart phenomenon in the following decade shouldn’t be downplayed.

And Mute 001 is accurately described as pop music, its format the long-preferred vessel of the hit song after all, though the sounds percolating, whirring, and spitting from both sides of this record clearly fell substantially outside the mainstream. It’s a hellaciously dark disc, not making any attempt to disguise the subversive qualities of its b-side, and it’s highly doubtful whether any amount of promotion would’ve turned it into even a minor chart success. But with a line like “the handbrake penetrates your thigh” delivered in a soporific monotone, there’s a good reason “Warm Leatherette” is positioned on the record’s flip. And Top 40 dominance wasn’t Miller’s goal anyway, at least not at this stage. That would come later, largely through the work of Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure.

If this slab can be chalked up as a pop release, it is also just as importantly a punk one, though this aspect of its DNA shines through in content far more than in form. The Normal’s debut hit the UK shops (notably distributed by Rough Trade) in that wild period where the punk ideal was still wide open with possibility; at this stage post-punk had yet to gather much if any traction as an actual genre and along with such names as Ultravox, Throbbing Gristle, Tubeway Army, Clock DVA, label mates Cabaret Voltaire, and even the early incarnation of The Human League (to say nothing of US outsiders Suicide and Devo) Miller’s one-man outfit would’ve been described by many of the folks that heard it as simply a “weird” punk or new wave act, just one amongst many electing to take the route of the non-rudimentary.

If the initial 2,000 copy run of “T.V.O.D”/”Warm Leatherette” sold out rather quickly, The Normal’s atypical sonic path is most notable today as a harbinger of things to come, not only for Mute’s long-term success but also as an influence on bands and scenes both large and small. For instance, the b-side has been covered dozens of times on record and in performance from names both popular (Duran Duran, Trent Reznor, Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, and new wave/disco diva Grace Jones, who titled her 1980 album after it) and underground (German oddballs Laibach, Foetus leader J. G. Thirlwell, industrial-noise bad-boy Boyd Rice, and Electroclash/art-punks Chicks on Speed).

And if those abovementioned Mute chart-monsters (along with post-Tubeway Army Gary Numan, Marc Almond’s Soft Cell, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, New Order, and the later incarnation of The Human League) found a way to smooth the non-commercial (and definitely somewhat “anti-social”) edges from Miller’s quirky mess of robotic momentum, The Normal also played a role in shaping the sound of the early Neue Deutsche Welle aka NDW or New German Wave, a small but still very potent scene that took this herky-jerky, black turtleneck clad sound into all kinds of interesting areas before sliding into far more mersh territories in the early ‘80s and sputtering out not long thereafter.

But if this single’s fate as a significant bit of innovation is sealed, I can’t help stumping for it as a true classic of bent creativity and pure listening pleasure besides. Dated? Why yes indeed, in particular “T.V.O.D.”, an edgy slice of unrestrained Korg 700S-motion that almost seems to celebrate its unwitting retro-futuristic plasticity.

Miller avoids the use of anything even remotely resembling a singing voice throughout, instead chanting the song’s title and imparting spoken tidbits regarding a mainlined television transmission (“I don’t need no T.V. screen. I just stick the aerial into my skin and let the signal run through my veins…”) In the present tense, the song’s stone-faced veneer surely flirts (some might say it deep tongue kisses on the sofa) with self-parody, but in so doing it also provides a nice time-capsule of a very specific and attractively basic late-‘70s mindset. And yet forward thinking. And very punk, as well; as Miller has explained, three chords was two too many.

And if “T.V.O.D.” embraces its datedness, then “Warm Leatherette” simply transcends it. But it also reveals an obvious formula. Again Miller solemnly imparts the title of the song, and from there he details the macabre elements of automobile eroticism, managing along the way to sound positively blasé about it all. But the giddy kick of being far ahead of the game is palpable, and when coupled with the synthetic and somewhat spastic rigidity of the tune’s rhythmic programming, it’s easy to see why this brilliant piece of warped minimalism has proven so influential.

Miller was involved with one other release as The Normal, a live collaboration with Robert Rental titled Live at West Runton Pavilion 6-3-79. A one-sided LP issued (rather than just distributed) by Rough Trade, it’s a mandatory listen for anyone desiring the whole picture regarding the wily and at times confrontational electronic music scene of the era. But I happen to think “T.V.O.D.” and “Warm Leatherette” are mandatory listens for anyone with curious ears. Daniel Miller may be famous for Mute, but his work as The Normal is truly where it’s at.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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