This Is Telex by Telex - This Is TelexRelease date: April 30, 2021
Here come the Belgians! The arrival of synth-pop futurists Telex on Mute seems like a partnership both obvious and belated. A marriage made in an elegantly modernist European office building. Guests smoke out front, loosening their ties and shrugging “but of course, how has this not happened sooner?” Telex officially called it a day in 2008 following the death of Marc Moulin but the remaining duo Dan Lacksman and Michael Moers are now working with Mute on a full reissue of their back catalogue. This Is Telex is the first release, a new career spanning collection taking two tracks from each album and bookended by a couple of previously unreleased covers. All remastered from original tapes with new mixes by Lacksman and Moers. These often involving subtracting from, rather than reworking the tracks, as Lacksman explains “We simplify, we take away, to create something more efficient, more Telex.”
Their sound is light and clean, an unmistakably 80’s synth pop investigation of new possibilities. Some of the bleeps and tones recall peers like early Depeche Mode or The Human League but without being sonically confrontational or difficult Telex nonetheless became more of a cult concern. In the UK their public profile was just one hit, a disinterested deconstruction of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ which doesn’t merit inclusion here, and the even blanker ‘Euro-vision’ their song to represent Belgium in the Euro-vision song contest. On that basis it’s easy to see how they were regarded as a novelty act or, worse, smart-arse, jazz-muso, studio-bod, euro-trash sardonically taking the piss out of pop music because they felt themselves above it.
This is unfair, if only partly untrue. Telex conceived their entry into Eurovision with a song about the contest itself as a Situationist prank and hoped for the iconic ‘nul points!’ only to be thwarted by Portuguese enthusiasm for their electro stylings. The actual tune is a charming pâtisserie confection of empty calories and their performance a minimalist delight. Their first single ‘Twist à Saint-Tropez’ offers something of a manifesto. The original hit by Les Chats Sauvage saw a French band playing in conspicuously American Rock ‘n’ Roll style. Setting it in bright electronics Telex establish a desire to make something new and European, without guitars, without ‘Rock’. Favouring ideas over emotion and a playful approach to the possibilities of sound they produce music which is smart but not self regarding. Obviously Kraftwerk loom large and early banger ‘Moskow Diskow’ cordially tips its hat in their direction but the more important influence is probably Sparks.
This is a reflexive pop, contrasting authenticity with artifice. Working together for 1981’s Sex LP the Mael’s bring added lyrical wit to an entirely simpatico collaboration. Telex would revisit Sparks on their final album ‘How Do You Dance’ producing a sublime cover of ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’. It’s a tall order I’ll admit but it’s honestly glorious. Slowing things down and flattening the vocal is a standard Telex approach, the energy of their version is far more Ron than Russ, dialling down the dancefloor hysteria to a pulsing meditation. The second half just luxuriates in the synth pattern, the melody delicately stretching out across it, dubbed vocals echoing around. It’s hypnotic and comforting and I love the fact they let it run a full 6 1/2 minutes without fading it. It could easily go another five and I’d still be happy.
Not everything is so lucky, their version of ‘La Bamba’ is more fairground Casio in feel, crass and pointless. Likewise their robot mechanizing of fluid funk on Sly Stone’s ‘Dance To The Music’ has a comedic stiffness that creates a vision of soulless technological dystopia. Of course, cold and inhuman was the caricature of electronic music at the time, an idea they seem to turn over as if it amuses them briefly while reaching for a cigarette. Telex’s futurism is mostly a mundane modernism. They do not want to be robots or conceive sci-fi utopias in sound. They’re named after a piece of office equipment. A distant ancestor of email the telex faded from the world during the band’s original existence. I can’t help wondering if this looming obsolescence factored into the choice or not.
Although this collection is mostly originals their work is marked by an abundance of cover versions, but I think it’s a mistake to see these as uniform in approach or as a simple genre flipping exercise (“what if Death Metal, but like samba, yeah?”) They range from the ridiculous to the sincere, positioning Telex’s own music against or alongside wider musical trends as part of an ongoing discussion of roles and stances taken by pop. Like three guys in a café getting into a passionate but good natured argument. The two unreleased tunes are both in this vein. ‘The Beat Goes On:Off’ is perfect, plugging beat-centric electronics into tradition. Sonny and Cher’s original already had that ‘instant standard’ quality about it, an easy swing as if they’d updated a 30’s jazz tune. There have been many versions since, Telex’s take is typically unhurried yet laconic.
Closing out the collection is a version of ‘Dear Prudence’ which I initially dismissed as obvious bonus track flotsam. The Siouxsie version is superb and Alanis Morissette also had go at it if you’re feeling especially robust. Then I saw the accompanying video of archive clips and wobbly old school text. It felt like an Adam Curtis film. I could began to hear him narrate “in the years since their demise an orthodoxy had presented itself, that The Beatles combination of popularity and rapid invention were unquestionably the pinnacle of what pop music had to offer, but this was an illusion…”
It was a grand pop debate again, pointedly the old Kraftwerk or Beatles one. Listening again to the original I became very aware of it as a studio creation, the curious space in it and Lennon’s doubled and effected vocal. Perhaps the versions were not so opposed but a continuation or a blend. A more successful hybrid suggests itself on their own ‘Rendez-Vous dans L’Espace’ where the smoothly melodic backing vocals of Beverly Jo Scott and Julia Loko bring some warmth and a welcome Kraftwerk meets Abba feel. This particular combination, you could probably argue, has subconsciously underpinned the ambition of euro pop ever since. Yet still feels like an idea with a great deal more potential.
If you were wondering what Telex reissues might have to offer in 2021 beyond a kind of retro futurist nostalgia then it’s there or thereabouts. The future has currently frozen or been abandoned but for Telex it was still full of possibility. The harsh edge of these sounds has been smoothed by time but it is not entirely pushed into the past. There are forgotten or unexplored potentials hiding here, hand in hand with the novelty degradations. It may be knowing but it’s still a lot of fun.