On one hand, I’m pleased that the shot-callers in the club scene have finally worked out and acknowledged the significance Electronic Body Music (EBM) had on the development of various contemporary dance music genres. But simply name-checking an early 242 single doesn’t make you an expert in the style.
Conversely, I once had a conversation with a noted goth/industrial/whatever-we-call-it DJ who simply wasn’t aware of any notable 242 tracks pre-Headhunter. Which was better than some DJs, who thought that one song was the only thing by them worth playing. Or the fact that my corporate social networking profiles all feature a ‘242’ in the username and no-one’s spotted the relevance yet.
What I’m trying to say is that there’s quite a few songs worth listening to along the way, and they’re not always the obvious hits. I’m going to take you through the complete history of a Belgian electronic legend. Let’s head back to 1981. If this is too much writing for you, skip to the end!
Formatting note: If a single or EP featured entirely new music – it gets covered in the main text – if it was alternate versions of album tracks already released, it comes under ‘Versions and Singles’.
EBM – Where It All Began
Front 242 was originally a duo under the name ‘Prothese’ – Daniel Bressanutti (Daniel B. from here on) and Dirk Bergen, with the name change to Front 242 (which never had an official meaning) coming in 1981, alongside their first single Principles. Backed with a version of Body To Body very different to the one you’ll hear today, it was a lo-fi, 2-track adventure in minimal electronics. A historical curiosity for sure, but there were a lot of similar electronic projects emerging at the time, particularly from mainland Europe, an area where traditional ‘rock’ musicians were harder to come by than, say, London or New York. There’s enough history here to fill multi-part compilation series, but for now, the definitive 242 sound was still a way off.
A year later and the members of ‘Under Viewer’ (Jean-Luc De Meyer and Patrick Codenys) came on board. Settling on De Meyer as lead vocalist, the album Geography was released as their first LP (33rpm vinyl still the dominant album format). Even here, the distinctive sound of the band was still under construction, but it does stand as a worthy entry in the canon of early 80s electronic music, a kind of dystopian variant on the Kraftwerk sound that every music writer name-checks when covering this period. Operating Tracks is a good a mission statement as any, the dark synth lines and an intonation about the mysterious Ms.Van De Veer setting the tone.
The first real evidence of the prototype EBM sound 242 developed comes on U-Men. The grating synth line, the seething noise and the chants of ‘I Think It Ain’t Just’ gave us their first real dancefloor hit. The album does veer off into some overly experimental territories at times, the still not-yet-mastered synthesizer not always bleeping and blooping in the most satisfying manner, but the two title tracks, Geography I & II generally get all the knobs and buttons in the right places. The album’s final track Kampfberiet is the hidden gem – the plodding synths and German-language lyrics gives the first chance for Jean-Luc De Meyer to demonstrate his portentous side. For a band that would become renowned mainly for their rhythmic elements, it’s important to note the atmosphere they could create when they wanted to.
Versions and Singles: Most versions of Geography on CD have the Principles 7” tracks, as well as the U-Men 7” B-side “Ethics”, of interest to those not deterred by weak vocals. The Alfa Matrix 2CD version from 2004 has a second CD with excerpts from the pre-242 project ‘Prothese’ and ‘Underviewer’, a treat if you like early experimental synth recordings, even if they only give a hint of the sound to come.
There’s also some alternate/live versions of various tracks of interest to completists (some related to songs from later albums). Kampfberiet is surprisingly effective in instrumental form, replacing Jean-Luc’s vocal with a delicate e-piano melody. There’s also a couple of tracks with Jean-Pierre Pauly (of Parade Ground) credited on percussion, one featuring Kampfberiet (there it is again!) in French, a rare use of one of Belgium’s two main languages in a 242 song.
1983 arrives. Dirk Bergen steps back to a management role, and in comes Richard Jonckheere (aka Richard 23) as a vocalist and (for a while) percussionist. His vocal style is best described as ‘rhythmic shouting’, something that really came into it’s own during live performances. But recording-wise, you can hear his initial contributions on the Endless Riddance EP, mainly on “Take One”, with Jean-Luc the star of “Controversy Between”. The beats are getting harder, the two vocalists each making a distinct contribution, but significantly, 242’s melodic sense hasn’t been lost. The sound that got them through the rest of the 1980s began here.
The sound in question was Electronic Body Music. EBM. You could quote several bands, 242 among them as bands who produced recordings that inspired the style, but now the musicology of the genre was defined. 1984’s No Comment (mini-album or EP, call it what you will) claimed itself as an exemplar of the style. Which track you chose as the stand-out depends on your approach towards music. If you’re of the meat-and-spuds mentality, go directly to No Shuffle. A kick drum so thick it resembles a pounding industrial machine rather than a small box of electronics, an authoritative 4/4 bassline that goes double time in the chorus, fill the mix out with a choice selection of noises from various sources, and add Jean-Luc’s vocals over the top. Lovely Day pulls off the same tricks almost as well.
If your tastes are for something more ‘technical’, then the nine-and-a-half minutes of Commando Mix would be of interest. I’m rare amongst 242 fans as not really rating this tune, spreading too few ideas over too long a period, but others mark it as the highlight of their early catalogue. The other tracks sit between these extremes – the two parts of S.FR Nomenklatura sees a diversion into the Russian language whilst Deceit is a curious but unnecessary drum machine adventure. Overall I still find this collection of tracks leaves me wanting more. It’s not like Front 242 haven’t got their EBM sound ‘right’ because they have. It’s just we haven’t yet heard the album where they can’t get it wrong.
Versions and Singles: The early 1990s CD versions include the B-Side of the ‘No Shuffle’ single – a radically reworked ‘Body To Body’. This is the first time we really get the interplay between Jean-Luc De Meyer and Richard 23 captured on a recording – it’s an essential part of any 242 listening experience. Some versions also feature a couple of excerpts from the rare ‘Live In Ghent’ release, but these aren’t essential for anything.
Released in 1985 was the 12” single Politics of Pressure. Two big hits from this were Don’t Crash – essentially still in the ‘No Comment’ style, and Funkahdafi, famous for it’s sample introducing Mummar Gadaffi. It’s important to stress at this point that Front 242 never stated any ideology that drove their music, neither did they seek out to deliberately provoke. They simply picked out samples and phrases and let the listener decide – no one knew what an ‘edgelord’ was back then. This EP also has a remix of Commando and the CD versions add the 7” version of No Shuffle, only a slight variant on the album take.
After reading this, you might think there was quite a bit of collecting to do. There is a corner you can cut at this point, though. 1987 saw the release of the compilation Backcatalogue 1981-1985. This included all of ‘Politics of Pressure’ and ‘Endless Riddance’, a decent chunk of ‘No Comment’ and ‘Geography’ and a couple of rare live tracks to close. Almost every essential tune from this era of the band is collected here. The only key omission is “Body To Body”. Given all three “SF/Special Forces” tracks made it on, I’m sure one of them would have given way for this if pushed. Suffice to say, the Front 242 sound is now defined. It’s time for a shot at the big time.