an appreciation of Frank Tovey

By Sarah Nowicki

There was a man
There’s a special place I crawl into every time I feel the need to revamp my deteriorated and confused soul. Our souls are ugly places and many shuffle far away from their inner core of disgust, but for some of us disgust is irresistible. There's just not enough self-loathing in the world. After all, disgust and degradation belong somewhere and that somewhere is the dance floor. And if you're on the dance floor you need a beat and that beat is EBM (Electronic Body Music). The EBM/Industrial-house scene is no place for the new-wave-y and the happy. The need for EBM began somewhere in the 60’s or maybe the 70’s. It could have been punk or heavy metal or the jolly act of Charles Manson grooving to the Beach Boys, but let's not go there, that's for other histories and other music. What we're interested in is the burning beginning of EBM and that starts with one man in 1979, Frank Tovey, may his soul rest in peace and in the dust of the dance-floor.

EBM has been critically neglected and has mutated into a myriad of weird post-genres-such as post-industrial cyber-goth and rave or even trap and dub-step. But underneath all the post-post-sub movement is Tovey. His DNA/Brain-waves should be kept inside a Korg or Casio synthesizer. You can imagine the Cronenberg film where two teenage boys come along a stash of abandoned equipment and discover Tovey's soul in a VHS tape. And yeah, there was Cabaret Voltaire, Blixa's Neubuten, and S.P.K., Front 242, some other great 80s bands that celebrated the gruesome, but they were all play-acting strange.

and his name was Frank Tovey
Tovey completed a degree in Art and Mime in London and then worked some random day jobs while messing around with recorders and other scavenged electronic instruments. He recorded a cassette for Mute Records and somehow became a star, which is laughable. He looks like a normal guy, tall and lanky in his sweater, slacks and Nike tennies (yes, I wrote tennies). When his friends saw him up on stage, though, they were pretty freaked out. I'd be pretty freaked out too if one of my happy-go-lucky pals start writhing around naked on stage, plucking out his pubic hairs, while gagging himself with a microphone.

Tovey was kind of gross and he wanted to openly express that. It was the early 80’s and he didn't have anyone else weird enough to look up to, so he became his own weird-hero. It's as is he were giving birth to himself and if he could have, he would have. His most revered and successful project was Fad Gadget. The first Fad Gadget song I ever heard was "Collapsing New People.” It starts out with a screeching synth looped with the sound of an old clashing printing press. From there Tovey sings about the collapse of the Berlin Wall… Pretty normal stuff for the eighties, until you watch the music video and he looks like a shit-covered birdman from purgatory. But Tovey wasn't in it for the drugs or to be cool. He understood the impermanence of bands and fame. He came up with Fad Gadget, got a lot of recognition then took the hype, tossed it away and started singing folk tunes. And so, Fad Gadget strummed along on his new acoustic guitar as Cabaret Voltaire, Nick Cave, and others blasted on in their play-acting adventures in pseudo-weird.

He created Fad Gadget
About fifteen years later, the 90’s club kid, cyber-goth rave scene and the 90’s punk blow-out fades away. And from its remains, a man romantically draped in black leather emerges, Robert Lane. That man is Al Jourgensen from Ministry and it’s 1982 and he’s still young and cute (watch the music video for 'Same Old Madness'). Lane, unlike Tovey, needed a sidekick, which always turned out to be his girlfriend of the moment. He stuck to the name //Tense// with his ex, Mariana Saldana, who is the lead singer in Medio Mutante, plus the occasional friend. He and Saldana together are nihilistic magic and were proper heirs to Tovey.

Imagine you're in a venue and in front of you is a couple in black leather pounding away on a drum-kit and synth. Your whole body is pulsating from the speakers and you should have brought earplugs, but that doesn't matter since you won't be “hear” for long. Instead, you're in a realm of pure adrenaline. Lane grunts so loud there might as well be a wild animal back stage.

and had some heirs
What I love about this duo is their passionate dancing in the face of dread and disgust. They look so happy as they lovingly battling over the microphone. It's an uplifting downer, like someone pointing out that marriage is both fun and crippling. The music is 1984-esque, a combination of George Orwell and Tovey’s more industrial leanings. Their “Sin Realite” is about the numbness of contemporary reality—a “Please save me from this human race/I never want to wake up to this reality/pick up the receiver and hope for a voice/nothing but silence and static.'” Other songs take on the problems of a conformist culture with television being the object of scorn. Imagine what they must feel about the Internet?

But it all comes back to Tovey and he encapsulates the aesthetics of dread and disgust in, "Swallow It”:
You believe in anything
Put in front of your face
Watch the mass be served more trash
Up to my neck in garbage
Swallow it
Like a good girl
Swallow it
Like the fool you are
But in the end
Tovey and Lane are morbid, that's how they see the world, but most of Tovey's lyrics have a more layered, apocalyptic-folk vibe that straddle between dark humor and light-hearted fun. Upon reading Lane's influences in an early interview I noticed he made no mention of Fad Gadget, only Nitzer Ebb, Cabaret Voltaire, and Depeche Mode. Although I know that Tovey's seed is blooming deep down in Lane's soul. It's especially important that Mute Records had signed Fad Gadget. If you've never heard of that label then I suggest you check out their website which features every artist that you should have listened to (get with it people). The musicians range from Anita Lane, Ipso Facto, Throbbing Gristle, The Boys Next Door (Pre-Birthday Party), Boyd Rice (who collaborated with Tovey, Death in June, Rose McDowall from Strawberry Switchblade, and even admired by Charles Manson), Goldfrapp, A Place To Bury Strangers, The Residents, and Can. There's more people I've never heard of, but I'd say that's a nice little mix-up.

There is a documentary on Tovey during his prime on youtube for free ( that discusses how he formed his band and constructed his songs. Sadly he had a congenital heart condition and died of a heart attack at forty-five. His daughter, Morgan Tovey Frost has a rather popular twitter account. His son Joseph Tovey Frost helped produce the film on his father and is a photographer. You can find him on Wordpress and Blogspot. Perhaps the music gene skips a generation, but we shall see in time the little Frank that emerges through that perfect crystallized DNA of degenerating artists.

It all comes down to you, Frank Tovey

©Sarah Nowicki and the CCA Arts Review

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