INNOVATION IN NEW WAVE:
Photo by Anastasia, thanks to Blue Hotel
by Jason JuneauLene Lovich's most famous lyrics are not even real words. "Uh-oo-uh-oo", the refrain from her greatest hit single, "Lucky Number", certainly caused a number of heads to turn, not the least being Dave Robinson, the president of Stiff Records, who exclaimed, "That's the chorus?!" He needn't had worried too much. As Lene herself put it, "Sometimes when you don't have a word for what you want to say, you say the nearest thing - or you make a sound that's the nearest thing." At any rate, "Lucky Number" shot up the UK charts reaching #3, turning Lovich into a overnight pop sensation. Yet therein lies the pity. Most only remember Lene as a one-hit wonder who vanished with the disintegration of New Wave in the early '80's. In truth, she, and her constant partner Les Chappell, were some of the most creative and innovative musicians in rock music.
Lene's own distinctive take on music springs from her own unconventional background. Born as Lili-Marlene Premilovich on March 30, 1950 of a Yugoslav father and an English mother, in Detroit Michigan no less, Lene, as she later called herself, was one of four children. Home life was unpleasant to say the least (it would inspire one her most important singles "Home") as her father showed distinct signs of mental instability. At one point he threatened to move the family to the Soviet Union. This ended in Lene's thirteenth year, when her mother took Lene and her siblings back to her home in Hull England.
Now a teenager in Britain, Lene showed an interest in both art and music. At some point during this time she met Les Chappell, who played guitar. Deciding to go to London together to attend art school, Les became Lene's lifelong romantic and professional partner. In 1968, they arrived in London, attending several schools, including the Central School of Art. There, Lene initially focused on sculpture. This led to her famous habit of wearing her hair in plaits, so as to keep her hair out of the clay. Eventually, she became dissatisfied with the art world as it as no one seemed to understand her "spontaneous self-expression." Instead, she turned to music. Les did teach her some guitar, and she also studied the violin, but it was the saxophone that became Lene's definitive instrument. She was taught by Bob Flag, leader of "Bob Flag's Ballon and Banana Band," one of several of Lene's artistice endeavors. As she put it, "I learned to play sax because people weren't really ready for my voice."
By the early '70's, Lene was engaging in whatever opportunity the world of music and theatre had to offer. In addition to playing sax for Bob Flag, she also worked as a street busker, a go-go dancer on Radio One, a singer in a mass choir in "Quintessence" at the Royal Albert Hall, as an "Oriental" dancer in a cabaret, and even made dubs of screaming for horror films, among other things. Then in 1975, she, Les and several others formed a funk/disco band, "The Diversions."
In Lene's first true "band", she played the sax, while Les accompanied on guitar. The group recorded a few covers, most notably, Carl Malcolm's "Fattie Bum Bum," but their own singles failed to garner any success. Also, during this time, Lene was recruited to write English lyrics for the French disco sensation Cerrone. While not being credited on the records, Lene assisted in three of Cerrone's works, including the successful "Supernature." As Lene put it:It all started with a vague phone call while I was in the studio with a soul band (The Diversions?). Somebody needed somebody to work with this foreign guy who couldn't speak much English, but he was into disco, and because we were doing soul/funk, they just sort of shouted in our direction. And I, grabbing every opportunity whether I could handle it or not, said I could do that, and because I had put my hand up I ended up being on a plane to Paris and had to figure out how to do this new thing.In a nutshell, this illustrates Lene's idea of "spontaneous self-expression." Despite this, and an attempt to record a Christmas record, with Lene singing "I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" in a "ghastly Shirley Temple voice", the group was not a success and by December 1976, The Diversions were no more.
It was at this point that recognition came in a curious manner. Charlie Gillett, a writer/disc jockey, hosted a radio program that featured spots for musicians to advertise. Lene rang him up, "My name's Lene. I'm a sax player, and I'd like to be in a band." Gillett gave out her number and, "...nobody called! Not one person, and I was sitting by the phone." Later Lene wrote a letter to Gillett giving more information about herself. This encouraged the him to record a demo of "I Think We're Alone Now," a Tommy James tune (she would later record this song in other languages including German and Japanese). Gillett took the tape to Dave Robinson of Stiff Records. He liked it and decided to sign Lene.
From the beginning, Lene regarded this new project as a collaboration between herself and Les. But as Les preferred to remain in the background and as Stiff feared a future breakup, it was decided to name the new act, Lene Lovich. In July 1978, Stiff released the first limited quantities of "I Think We're Alone Now" backed with an early version of "Lucky Number." From this beginning, Lene and Les went on to record their first LP, Stateless, a nod to Lene's unusual background, not to mention the trouble she was having with her passport at the time. Stateless was released in October with eleven tracks, seven of which were penned by Lovich/Chappell.
From there, Lene went on a package tour with other artists on the Stiff label including Rachel Sweet, Mickey Jupp, and Wreckless Eric. With a punishing schedule of 32 dates in the UK and 8 gigs in New York. By February of 1979, "Lucky Number" had reached #3 in the UK. Lene was now a pop star, and an unusual one at that. She refused to give Stiff much biographical detail, leaving them to fill in the blanks (one writer claimed that she was wanted in several foreign countries). The result was that Lene was painted as Stiff's most exotic offering, a concept only heightened by her own unconventional look: long henna plaits, black lace mantillas. Very soon many began to see in Lene a media operation, especially as facts from her real past began to leak out.
Lene soon showed, however, that she was no mere media star. "Lucky Number" was just the first in a series of songs that established her as one of rock's most unusual artists. Lene's music features jerky rhythms that often use guitars as well as synthesizers, but that make sounds "humanly," as Lene herself puts it. Lene loves technology, but believes that "synths are as inventive as the person who operates them." Of course, she adds her work on the sax and her own distinctive vocals, "noises" which have led some to compare her with Yoko Ono. Lene has a philosophy behind making music:Sometimes you can create an emotion without saying any words; its a little bit subliminal, but it is direct communication. The human voice - there's nothing like it to really get through. All the songs that I do are to create an atmosphere, an emotion, so that I can tell my story.The need to capture this voice is paramount for Lene. For her, the voice is an instrument as well. Even these days now, she keeps a small tape recorder near her sink in the kitchen. Its there whenever a musical idea worthy of consideration comes into her head.This is the most practical way for me to register my ideas. When I was little, I used to write da, dum, da, de, da, dum, dum, those actual words, on a piece of paper. Then, I looked at them the next day, they didn't make any sense at all. So it was a great help when cassette players were invented I've really just stuck to that simple method.Thus many things inspire Lene's music. She comments that many songs do not spring from one source, but instead that many pieces come together. Then sometimes, as she puts it, "I'm inspired by a riff that Les is playing on the guitar - I just suddenly see the whole movie."
This becomes apparant also in Lene's choice of song topics. Even songs, such as "Lucky Number" which deal with that most common of rock themes, love, take on an unusual modern twist. Many of Lene's past experiences come out in some songs such as "Home" about her early life in Detroit, or "One in 1,000,000" which shows her theatre background.
After Stateless, Lene began writing more towards the unusual, even the supernatural. She already dealt with romantic ramifications with having mind powers, "Telepathy." She also took on a Sci-fi number, "The Fall," which dealt with reincarnation. In her second LP, Flex, she continued in this vein with such singles as "Angels," "You Can't Kill Me," and "The Night." In Lene's lyrical world, the supernatural meets the sentimental, bring the alien world in contact with our own.
Lene adds to this her own distinctive stage presence. Combining the feminine with the forceful, Lene distanced herself from the sexy image of the female pop star. In fact she was often accused of being a man in drag as she wore scarves that covered her head.
Flex was released in 1980 and was followed by another tour. Songs from two of these concerts found their way on an EP, Lene Lovich... Global Assault. Flex has better production than Stateless and has a more otherworldly feel to it. Here the synths, guitars work well with Lene's own voice and that of her wonderful backing chorus. In many ways it is the quintessintial Lene album, though it lacks the rough charm of "Stateless".
Lene continued recording into the eigthies. In 1981 she recorded "New Toy," a Thomas Dolby song satirizing consumer culture. In the following year, Stiff released her final LP for many years, No Man's Land. This record, while good, relied more on synthesizers and was less distinctive musically, though the lyrics remained top-notch, especially "Blue Hotel" and "Rocky Road," where Lene continues to look at human hopes and thoughts and how these fit in the context around us. Thereafter, Lene did not put out another album until 1990, March. Some say that her "quirkiness" did not translate into LP's and thus as "New Wave" dissolved, she went with it. Lene herself, I think disagrees when she said, "I'm interested in a limitless range of things; singing and writing are just tools that I happen to be using at the moment."
Thus Lene did not confine herself to pop music. In 1980 she also worked with another current pop sensation, Nina Hagen in the film Cha-Cha. Lene and Nina were to remain friends, the latter actually did her own German version of "Lucky Number" on the Ubehagen LP. The two also collaborated politically, being involved with PETA. In 1990, however, she came back with March. This record musically picked up where No Man's Land left of, with a synth sound and Lene's usual quirky vocals and thoughtful lyrics. The album did not draw much attention, in spite of the burgeoning "alternative" scene.
At this point, Lene again diverted away from the rock scene. She gives many reasons, not the least being having two daughters now. Her family takes up much of her time. Still she does not shy away from creativity. In addition to releasing some material on the Pathfinder Jazz label, she also put on a theater work called Mata Hari with Les and Chris Judge Smith. The play focused on the infamous World War I spy. Also Lene is currently writing a novel, which a great change of pace from lyric writing. As always, Lene sees this as trying something different and not being stuck on the same path.For the first time, I couldn't see the usual album tour, writing the next album, recording, you know, the usual cycle. I couldn't see it. There was a space in front of me. So I did try doing some other things, mainly writing a novel.A sample of her writing can be seen, along with a full interview by Mike Thorne. Checkout www.stereosociety.com for more information.
Singles - "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"/ "The Christmas Song"/ "Happy Christmas" - (Nov. 76) Polydor 2058 812 "I Think We're Alone Now"/ "Lucky Number" (Not officially released) Stiff BUY 32 "Lucky Number"/"Home" (Feb. 79) Stiff BUY 42 "Lucky Number"/ "Home"/ "Lucky Number" (instrumental) (Fe. 79) 12'' Stiff 12 BUY 42 "Say When"/"One Lonely Heart" (May 79) Stiff BUY 46 "Say When"/"One Lonely Heart"/"Big Bird" (May 79) 12'' Stiff 12 Buy 46 "Bird Song"/ "Trixi" (Sept. 79) Stiff Buy 53 "Bird Song"/"Trixi"/"Too Tender To Touch" (Sept 79) 12'' Stiff 12 BUY 53 "Angels"/ "The Fly" (Jan 80) Stiff BUY 63 "Angels"/"The Fly"/"The Fall" (Jan 80) 12'' Stiff 12 BUY IT 63 "What Will I Do Without You"/"Joan"/"Too Tender To Touch"/"You Can't Kill Me" (March 80) double-single Stiff BUY 69 "New Toy"/ "Cats Away" (Feb 81) Stiff BUY 97 "New Toy"/"Cats Away"/"New Toy" - extended version (Feb 81) StiffZBuy 97 "New Toy" - extended version/"Cats Away" (Feb 81) Stiff BUY IT 97 Albums - Stateless - October 1978 - Stiff SEEZ 7 Flex - April 1979 - Stiff SEEZ 19 No Man's Land - 1982 - Stiff 38399 March - 1990 - Pathfinder 8909 CDs - Stateless... Plus Rhino(This has been dropped from their catalog) Flex... Plus Likewise as above EPs - Global Assault - recordings from Flex tour in 1979 from both London and Boston shows
Further Bibliography - In addition to the Mike Thorne interview, I recommend people check out Lene's official site, Blue Hotel. I also culled information from the book New Women in Rock by Liz Thomson (1982).
Also see our interview with Lene
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