Frank Tovey (Fad Gadget), singer, electronic musician and guitarist: born London c1956; died London 3 April 2002.
Under the moniker Fad Gadget, Frank Tovey pioneered a genre of electronic music which is now part of the mainstream.
A cult figure and a contemporary of the early Human League, Gary Numan and Cabaret Voltaire, Tovey joined Daniel Miller's fledgling Mute label in 1979 and took up the Fad Gadget persona. "Frank was the first artist I ever worked with on Mute. He made some very special and influential records and was an exceptional live performer," recalls Miller, who subsequently signed Depeche Mode and Moby. "Frank played a big part in helping to lay the foundations of what the label was to become in the ensuing years."
Bridging the gap between Kraftwerk's robotic rhythms and glam-rock, Tovey had a compelling stage presence and would cover himself in shaving cream over the repetitive drone of "Lady Shave" when he wasn't pulling out his pubic hair or waving an electric drill around whilst singing the bizarre "Ricky's Hand". Last year, he supported his labelmates Depeche Mode on their European your. In 1980, the electropop group had opened for Fad Gadget.
Born in the East End of London, Frank Tovey grew up obsessed with the music of Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. He formed his first group in his teens but really began developing his radical outlook when he enrolled at St Martin's School of Art in 1974. By the following year, Tovey was studying for a degree in Fine Arts at Leeds Polytechnic, becoming interested in performance art and fiddling around with tape recorders.
Graduating in 1978, Tovey returned to London and took up a succession of dead-end jobs to pay his share of the rent on a tiny flat he shared with three other people. However, he was much more interested in the music he could make in a cupboard there. "That was the only space I had," Tovey later told journalists. Using a drum machine and an electronic piano, he concocted a rudimentary demo tape and became Fad Gadget. "I picked that name because I didn't want people to think there was only one person in the group," he explained:
My flatmate said he knew Daniel Miller who was into electronic music so I arranged to meet him at a Monochrome Set gig. I got kind of pissed and fell behind the drum kit so we didn't meet that night. I met him at Rough Trade later.
Calling himself the Normal, Miller had already issued "T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette" as a single on his own Mute label and was greatly impressed by Tovey's demo. "Daniel wanted me to make the tape into an album," remembered Tovey:
I couldn't be bothered and asked him to do it. Daniel said he liked "Back to
Nature" so he stopped being an artist and went into becoming a record label.
In fact, Miller added his own synthesiser parts to "Back to Nature", which came out on Mute in October 1979. The eerie Fad Gadget track fitted perfectly alongside the likes of Wire, DAF and Throbbing Gristle on the John Peel show.
After a manic live début at the Moonlight Club in London, Fad Gadget released his first album, the ironically titled Fireside Favourites, in September 1980. He toured Europe and America, collaborated with his fellow electronic pioneer Boyd Rice in 1981 (the resulting album, Easy Listening for the Hard of Hearing, came out three years later) and posed as Mr Punch on the cover of Incontinent, his second full-length recording. The following year, Fad Gadget presciently sang "Everyone should have the right to own a gun, every man should have the right to shoot someone" on the twisted single "Saturday Night Special" which preceded Under the Flag, his third album.
Alison Moyet of Yazoo fame guested on "For Whom the Bell Tolls" but, by early 1983, Fad Gadget's psychotic persona was beginning to take its toll on the singer. During a particularly edgy gig in Amsterdam, Tovey jumped off the mixing desk, snapped both his ankles, still managed to finish his set but then had to cancel a UK tour. "Every gig until then, I was injuring myself," Frank reflected:
At one concert, I swung the mike around my neck and it came round and smashed me in the face. It cut my nose open and blackened both my eyes. I have lacerated my back with glass and every joint in my knuckes and toes have been grazed so when I came home with both my legs in plaster, I started to sort out why I was doing it. The trouble is I get so involved on stage, there's so much adrenaline flowing, that I don't feel pain. I think in the end, it all comes down to entertainment. Whether you have something to say or not, people want to be impressed and excited.
Tovey recovered enough to support Siouxsie & the Banshees at the Royal Albert Hall on two consecutive nights in October 1983 and record his last album as Fad Gadget in Berlin. When Gag appeared in February 1984, he decided to ditch his alter ego:
Because of my reputation, Fad Gadget songs were hardly ever played on the radio so I started using my own name. I went through a phase. After doing all the electronic stuff, I realised I still couldn't play anything. So I started to practise playing the guitar.
Tovey eventually came back as a spaghetti-western version of himself on the Snakes and Ladders album in 1986. Becoming increasingly politicised, the singer attacked complacent yuppies on the near-hit "Luxury" whilst "Luddite Joe", the follow-up single, poked fun at our obsession with technology:
I had this vision of the kind of people that are always talking about how they hate machinery but they totally rely on it. I'm a bit like that myself, even though I use synthesisers and computers, I have that kind of love-hate relationship with them. I can never play anything like that on stage as I end up breaking it.
Indeed, after the shortlived Mkultra project with the visual artists Malcolm Poynter and Simon Stringer, Tovey became a more traditional singer-songwriter though the subject matter of Civilian (1988) remained as bleak as ever. In the early Nineties, he released two albums – Grand Union and Worried Men in Second-Hand Suits – backed by three banjo-toting Irish musicians, the Pyros.
Still Fad Gadget wouldn't lie down. Mute reissued his four seminal albums on CD and last year compiled The Best of Fad Gadget, a double set also including remixes of his stark, dark tracks by I Monster and his U2 collaborator Flood. Tovey's louche cabaret ran riot again in 2001 as a new generation of Goths and electronica connoisseurs discovered his bizarre act at the Festival des Musiques Electroniques in France, where he appeared with Temple X, an Austrian group he also produced.
This January, Fad Gadget headlined the Garage in London. He was still crowdsurfing and showing Aphex Twin and Marilyn Manson fans new tricks. "As you know, I'm currently writing new material," he reported in a message posted on his website the day before he died:
Be patient my little rodents, I know you crave blood but these things take time. You may not see me again for a few months while I check my circuits, reprogram my nerve system and generate some new flesh for you to devour.
Frank Tovey had suffered heart problems since his childhood and died of heart failure at his home in London.
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