The founder was Tony James, former bassist with Generation X, a group that was falling apart by 1981. James re-channelled his energy into creating a post-punk supergroup, incorporating members of Gen X (himself and Billy Idol), The Sex Pistols (Paul Cook and Steve Jones) and The Clash (Terry Chimes): “We did some rehearsals,” he said, “but the spirit wasn’t there”. 8 Cook and Jones went off to form The Professionals, Idol went solo, Chimes went back to The Clash, and James went on the dole. He moved in with girlfriend Magenta Devine and between the two of them, the basic idea that was to become Sigue Sigue Sputnik was developed. It took some years though before a band was put together.
James attended a Sisters Of Mercy gig and was impressed by Andrew Eldritch, but Eldritch declined starting a new band with him. He recorded a few demos with Annie Lennox but they came to nothing. Eventually he placed an advert in the classifieds section of Melody Maker and hired Neal Whitmore as a result. (Whitmore was to become known as Neal X after a journalist, having forgotten the surname, used the letter X as a temporary substitute and forgot to update his copy.) Shopping in Kensington Market, they passed the clothing shop YAYA, and spotted owners Martin Degville and Yana – Degville had the attitude, a unique image, and the willingness to be a singer, and was invited to join the band. Yana would become one of the Ultravixens, supporting the group: James was clear the women would not appear in the publicity photographs of the band. Instead, he wanted two drummers and hired Ray Mayhew and Chris Kavanagh who were taught to drum using kit loaned from The Clash. The band’s name came from a newspaper article about a Russian street gang: “I really like the idea of a capitalist gang in the heart of communism,” James told Tom Hibbert in Smash Hits 1. (In the same article Hibbert helpfully explained how to pronounce the band’s name: “Sigue (pronounced zeeg) Sigue (pronounced zeeg) Sputnik (pronounced sputnik).”)
The track selected to encourage the offer of a recording contract was Love Missile F1-11 (Shoot It Up). James, experimenting with a VCR hired from Radio Rentals, put together a promotional video using clips from movies featuring ‘designer violence’, as he described it, and discovered he could overlay sound effects from these film clips (explosions, gun shots, etc) on the music track; ‘sampling’, as it was known, was about to become a ubiquitous recording technique in pop and so the timing couldn’t have been better. The unusual use of a visual rather than an audio demo to take to meetings at record companies made the group stand out; EMI made the best offer. “We got signed for a LOT of money – it’s the largest deal anyone’s ever signed a new act for – because we’re the most exciting, innovative act there’s been for the last ten years,” he said. “The record company only heard one song and they signed us for a fortune.” 1 (Press speculation was that the value of the signing was anything between £1m and £4m – but Smash Hits said the actual amount was £350,000.00.)
With Magenta in charge of PR, the band was launched in the media. James acknowledged they would not be for everyone: “A lot of people are going to hate Sigue Sigue Sputnik because here comes a group that says ‘We’re not into being miserable and we’re not interested in music – we’re just into glamour and excitement.” 1 Elsewhere, he criticized some of his fellow Smash Hits cover stars for selling their audiences short: “Frankie [Goes To Hollywood] used to be good but suddenly it all stopped for them. They became very smart and inaccessible. They started buying designer clothes and that rubbish from South Molton Street. Their guts have gone… I don’t think I could take performing alongside miserable Paul Weller… Billy Idol has two or three good records but when he opens his mouth he’s still a prat… For a while I was interested in The Jesus and Mary Chain because of that guitar sound, but they don’t have any personality.” 8
James used as his model the Japanese outlook on fashion and technology. “In Japan they’ve got a totally different attitude towards the future. The philosophy of this group is the opposite of punk rock (no future), we’re saying the future’s going to be great.” 9 The influence of Japan could be seen in the packaging of the Love Missile F1-11 single (the bracketed portion was removed from the original title in case it was assumed to be a reference to drug use): the sleeve was designed to look as if it had an ‘obi strip’, the paper slip wrapped around Japanese records containing information about the release.
The critical opinion of the single was muted, even at the pop end of the music press. Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan was reviewing the singles in Smash Hits the week it was released: “It’s got some good sound effects but I’m not sure it’s worth all the fuss – it’s all a bit suspect. I suppose the ‘shock value’ is quite good but it doesn’t shock me.” 2 Record Mirror: “If you’ve heard this nonsense, you’ll know it’s not the worst record ever made, just one of the most boring: the two-note Moroder angle, the breaking ex-Gen X guitar and the cut-up film dialogue (done by DJs in NYC at least three or four years ago).” 4 The response to the subsequent LP, Flaunt It, was similar: “Someone should have told producer Giorgio Moroder what a wild, writhing sex flash this was supposed to be, because most of it sounds pretty tame.” 3 “Sigue Sigue Sputnik are, in fact, the reincarnation of Racey and/or Kenny and/or all those other third division glitter bands of 1974…. once you’ve got the joke, it’s really quite enjoyable: not as good as Adam Ant but a birrovalaff anyway – even if you do know that it’ll all sound horrendously dated by this time next year.” 5
The response from the rest of the press was decidedly negative, particularly in the daily tabloids where much was made of the violence witnessed at early gigs on the tour the band undertook to promote the single: Degville was injured at one event and Mayhew (renamed Mayhem by journalists) was arrested for throwing a bottle into the audience and ended up in court. The tabloids charged the band with corrupting the nation’s youth, while the rockist music press focussed on the band’s musical limitations (sample headline: “Would you pay ‘£4m’ for this crap?” 10 ). But James had ambition beyond the music: “It seemed to me that it would be an exciting concept that a group could be massive without being solely involved with music. A group could be big from being media stats involved in television and film and other areas. A group could be a total leisure industry. It could become a massive corporation like ICI or Thorn but the five directors would be stars. And we intend to take the Sigue Sigue Sputnik dream all the way – music is just one step on the ladder. You name it, we’re going to do it. We’re talking books, films, TV shows, video arcade games, right up to the top. We’re going to be bigger than Rank. We’re going to be bigger than General Motors.” 1 In the meantime though the day-job called. The second single, 21st Century Boy, tried the patience of some: “This record’s already been reviewed. Then, of course, it was called Love Missile F1-11 and the joke gets less funny every time you hear it.” 6 But not everyone agreed. The following glowing review appeared in Smash Hits: “This record will stand the test of time. It has the sweet sound of success and the singer is the immaculate conception. The singer is so fabulous – he is sex personified. Yum yum! He is Elvis 1990. The ultimate product. The new religion. The second coming. The sale of the century. The definitive rock’n’roll record. Everything that music should be. Single of the fortnight. Single of the century. The most immaculately fabulous….” 7
Who was reviewing the singles that week? One M. Degville.
1 Smash Hits, 12 March 1986.
2 Smash Hits, 26 February 1986.
3 Record Mirror, 2 August 1986.
4 Record Mirror, 22 February 1986.
5 Smash Hits, 30 July 1986.
6 Record Mirror, 31 May 1986.
7 Smash Hits, 21 May 1986.
8 Record Mirror,15 February 1986.
9 The Hit, 10 May 1985.
10 NME, 8 March 1986.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Feb. 17
Ian DURY Very Personal (Polydor POSP673)
Billy IDOL Rebel Yell (Chrysalis IDOL2)
SOFT CELL Down In The Subway (Some Bizzare BZS22)
Kate BUSH Hounds Of Love (EMI KB3)
NEW EDITION (Bobby Brown) Little Bit Of Love (MCA MCA1032)
SIGUE SIGUE SPUTNIK Love Missile F1-11 (Parlophone R5551)
SINITTA So Macho (Fanfare FAN7)