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Dec 10

ADAMSKI – “Killer”

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#645, 12th May 1990

From Yazoo onwards, collaborations between electronic musicians and soul singers have followed certain protocols. The singer is the star, the living presence on the right-hand side of that “featuring”: the producer is the mood-setter, the collective. Human vs robot, emotion vs rhythm, soul vs body, warm vs cold, blah vs blah. It’s not that the resulting records have been bad – smoky voices and harsh synths do sound terrific together – but the rules of engagement were laid down early and hard.

“Killer” shows us a different approach. What was startling about the record in 1990 – and what lets it keep its charge now – is that the music simply refuses to get out of Seal’s way. In fact, if you only knew Seal from the rolling smoothness of his latterday career “Killer” would come as a real shock: here he is, making his debut not as a highfalutin’ loverman but as an isolated paranoid battling through a tangle of wires and buzz. Adamski is truly as much the star here, putting together a tense, crisp piece of house music which doesn’t actually need his singer to be memorable (though surely needed him to reach number one).

The nature of the game becomes apparent very quickly: when Seal sings “Will you give, if we cry?” and as he emphasises “give” the keyboards suddenly flare angrily up, a surge of 303 squelch almost drowning him out. From then on the track matches him blow-for-blow for a while, backing him up with the snap of martial hi-hats then upstaging him with harsh acid textures. Both sides have moments where they relax – that house piano break (which dates the record badly, since it fits the song far less well than it did “Vogue”) and Seal’s widescreen musings about racism and sons of future kings. He’s never been the most comprehensible lyricist – but on “Killer” it doesn’t matter at all, since the meaning and meat of the song is all in the co-dependent struggle between voice and sound.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    wichita lineman on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Can I suggest The Space Jungle as the most inexplicable follow-up to a number one ever?

    I think it has helped to perpetuate a myth that this is Seal’s record and Seal’s alone, which I’m really pleased Tom has binned. More melancholy Euro nu-mellotron chords (the same ones that mean The Power is still close to my heart), only now with Warp-ed black metallic edges, and a genuinely soulful if ambiguous plea for unity. I didn’t see Kiss From A Rose coming at this point.

  2. 2
    Tom on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Offhand it’s hard to think of anything close.

  3. 3
    wichita lineman on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Having said that, it’s up there with Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow as pop’s most unfair label credit.

  4. 4
    Ciaran Gaynor on 14 Dec 2010 #

    The dog on the cover is Adamski’s, his name was Dis. I was surprised Adamski didn’t go on to have a string of hits, as this and N-R-G promised so much. The parent album, Dr Adamski’s Musical Pharmacy, was a complete mess of a record.

  5. 5
    Tom on 14 Dec 2010 #

    NB worth pointing out that this is not only a really good run of #1s but also a really consistent run of #1s, the sound of a new decade*: synths at the back, beats/voice/samples at the front – even though the emotional jumps from Sinead thru Snap to Adamski couldn’t be more different.

    *how foolish we were

  6. 6
    Mark G on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Still, Seal was to remake this record and credit it to himself, solely.

    How did it do in the chart? Surprisingly well, I recall..

    (looks it up)

    Yeah, Number 8, 18 months later.

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 14 Dec 2010 #

    The sleeve looks like a new aesthetic – possibly early DTP? – which feels like the 90s have arrived.
    I have this along with several other number 1s past and future on a CD appropriately entitled ‘UK Dance Number 1s’
    I’ve always enjoyed Adamski’s contribution – something of the Numan about this sound but with a funkier edge – the alienation blending into the rave nation

  8. 8
    Billy Smart on 14 Dec 2010 #

    I’ve always read this as being a sort of blues song. Space-blues, obviously, but a repetitious song about coping with suffering. Where Killer’s tremendous power dissipates a little is in the “racism … can only lead to no good” fade-out, which might be attempting to attain a universality and leave the listener with a message, but only lessens the effect for this listener. It also traps it in a very period-specific 1990 sense when every other record seemed to be an unwelcome didactic tutorial in positivity. Gary Clail’s ‘Human Nature’, or the works of Guru Josh, for example.

    Sixth form reaction was near-blanket approval, although Seal’s soul man persona was received with greater enthusiasm than Adamski, who was deemed to be an opportunistic wanker.

  9. 9
    punctum on 14 Dec 2010 #

    There is something rather heartbreaking about the eagerness of Liveandirect, the mini-album Adamski released at the beginning of 1990. With titles like “The Bassline Changed My Life,” “You Me House,” “A Brand New World,” “Into Orbit,” “Love And Life” and “M25,” you could trace out a pocket proposal of how rave culture should have turned out; a genuine communality, a multicoloured rose of newness and togetherness. The record’s bouncy, optimistic toytown electronica reminds me somewhat of the hopefulness of B.E.F.’s Music For Stowaways.

    But there was also the facade which Jarvis Cocker later pinpointed with sore accuracy (“It’s six o’clock! I wanna go home – but it’s ‘No way,’ ‘Not today’…makes you wonder what it meant to them”), the pretence of community by people who’d hug you when high and then spit in your face if you approached them on the street, sober. Before long, the mutually assured forces of big business and the Criminal Justice Bill would render the whole enterprise neutered. And Boring Old Politics which, however old or boring, refused to go away and allow people a future; there were the riots, the unrest, Thatcherism tottering towards its inglorious demise (you might be able to sense how, the day after the poll tax riots, the strident siren song of “I’ve got the power!” sounded like insurrection, or a triumphant rebel refrain), the racism, the no such thing as society…

    “Killer” was a disturbing record from its cover inwards – Adamski’s pet dog scowling at the camera, at an angle, while a queasy orange psychedelic backdrop swirls in the background – and perhaps its most disturbing factor was the fact that the title is never uttered at any point in the song. Yet it didn’t need to be; the backwards boomerang of the fade-in intro quickly gives way to a brutal variant on post-Acieed beats, with a rhythm and right-angled bassline which are demonstrative and in your face but also questioning.

    Both lyric and vocal delivery – both provided by an unknown singer named Seal – personify anxious urgency. Seal’s vocal here is like a grainier, colder rationalist Richie Havens, but he is pleading for warmth and bonding and, indeed, a true society. “Solitary brother! Is there still a part of you that wants to live?” he cries as the music gradually escalates behind him; the car horns following in the trail of the charity fundraising sideswipe “Will you give (if we cry)?,” the scythes of stuttering cymbals which enter with “Tainted hearts,” the stately string synth lines which essentially halve the speed of the song’s topline in preparation for the chorus; all seem like totems of a crumbling Establishment which Seal is urging that we bring down. The cut-up of the “be” in the line “The way we wanna be” symbolises the attempts by unconcerned government to turn the living human into a docile machine but is instantly defeated by Seal’s half-ecstatic growl of “Yeah!” which in turn leads directly into a minor key Jack-The-House piano line, percussion dots and loops – and a sampled dog bark – raining all around. In the third line of the final chorus Adamski’s synth plays a tortured, high-register melody, like a weeping computer; and finally it settles with Seal’s closing, out-of-tempo warnings: “Racism in amongst future kings can only lead to no good…and besides…all our sons and daughters already know how that feels” before culminating in a sad smile of a 1967 memory: “Yeah, yeah, yeah…Love, love, love.” It is one of the most minimally articulate anti-New Right protests in all of pop – and little wonder that neither Adamski nor Seal ever surpassed this, that Adamski settled for novelty Elvis covers (and, later, anonymous ambient techno) or that Seal (with the aid of Trevor Horn, producing his most commercially successful work and also his worst) became merely a slightly higher-tech Cat Stevens. “Killer” is the necessary conscience of a culture which should have changed everything.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 14 Dec 2010 #

    #2 Watch: A week of The Adventures Of Stevie V, ‘Dirty Cash’, then two for Kylie’s quite glorious ‘Better The Devil You Know’.

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 14 Dec 2010 #

    The Space Jungle was rubbish, of course, but N-R-G, Adamski’s only other hit, was berserk! It’s funny how all of the silly embellishments the “Woo!”s and “Whee!”s once struck me as a tiresome imposition of enforced jollity, but now seem integral to the actual fun that I derive from the piece.

  12. 12
    Tom on 14 Dec 2010 #

    #8 When the poll tax riots happened, Guru Josh was the only pro-Thatcher pop star the NME could find for comment, so I’ve always heard his records as rather more selfish than didactic: “1990…TIME FOR THE GURU [to coin it in]”.

    “Human Nature” was higher-order finger-wagging though! That would be nowhere w/o the didacticism, its the fierceness of the condemnation that gives it any hook at all.

    #9 lovely in-depth discussion of the music there Punctum. Top comment.

  13. 13
    Steve Mannion on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Yeah I felt like this song sounded really nicely “alien” and somewhat edgier than what Vince Clarke had been doing (people may recall the remix of Yazoo’s ‘Situation’ that came out in 1990) tho he seemed like a clear influence on Adam Tinley (the other strongest one perhaps being Captain Sensible).

    ‘NRG’ was like a ravier ‘Pacific State’ and almost equalled the latter’s chart position. Its cheeky Lucozade bottle sleeve gave it a little publicity boost and prior to ‘The Space Jungle’ at least, Adamski seemed happy to stay in the background. It’s a cracking one-two for any debut bedroom producer to have wanted to play at being an unconventional pop star and I think people were initially v surprised by ‘Killer’ as ‘NRG’s follow up – markedly different in tone, a proper song etc. The bigger buzz revolved around Seal tho whose subsequent signing to ZTT was interesting (why not MCA? or Island?) and probably down to Trevor Horn’s apparent belief that the guy was the future of British pop (and/or soul). And Seal so nearly made it to the top himself with ‘Crazy’ which I still love a lot.

    #5 yes for me what makes this extended run of #1s so great is the modernity plus quality.

    Now to attempt some coherent thoughts on Vogue (and probably fail again)…

  14. 14
    Billy Smart on 14 Dec 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: Adamski performed ‘Killer’ on Top Of The Pops on four occasions. You’ll have to wait to discover about the Christmas one;

    19 April 1990. Also in the studio that week were; Sonia, Alanna Myles, The Adventures Of Stevie V and Faith No More. Jakki Brambles was the host.

    3 May 1990. Also in the studio that week were; Sinitta, Morrissey, and BBG with Dina Taylor. Simon Mayo was the host.

    10 May 1990. Also in the studio that week were; Kylie Minogue, Mantronix featuring Wondress, Beats International and Michael Bolton. Gary Davies was the host.

  15. 15
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 14 Dec 2010 #

    I like that Adamski’s dog is also nicely alien — viz two noses, one at front one on top

  16. 16
    flahr on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Great sleeve!

    As a dance track this one doesn’t really get going* – at every point it feels as if it’s about to burst into boshomania but it never does – but I reckon it makes it better as a song, meaning throughout it broods as the layers of mechanical beeping slide on and off of each other. A lot like Neu! if Neu! was more noisy**. Love it; 9.

    *I am not actually a clubber so I know even less about this than usual; it’s less obviously danceable than “Theme from S’Express” or “Ride on Time” is what I mean, probably because it’s slower and squelchier. I daresay those of you who spent the early 90s raving can point to a million times you danced to this

    **trying not to say ‘more of a racket’ here

  17. 17
    Tom on 14 Dec 2010 #

    I did not spend the 90s raving! But I also can’t remember any time I ever danced to this, though you could. I don’t think of it as a dance track particularly.

  18. 18
    Cumbrian on 14 Dec 2010 #

    This is pretty good. 8 seems a fair mark. The remake by Seal lacks something – I’d have to listen to the two back to back to try and put my finger on what it is but there is definitely something missing.

    Better The Devil You Know was damn good though. I was a bit young at the time to be into the zeitgeist aspect of Killer but one can only assume it was pretty strong to be able to hold that particular Kylie track off for two weeks.

  19. 19
    Steve Mannion on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Should’ve been ‘Devil’ at #1 instead of ‘Tears On My Pillow’. But everyone else so far in 90 had the “right” number one if you get me (er, New Kids don’t count as all the singles were pap).

  20. 20
    MikeMCSG on 14 Dec 2010 #

    At last ! This was the first number one since “Always On My Mind” that I was really enthusiastic about. I think Tom And Marcello have nailed all that’s good about it.

    Incidentally Marcello are you saying the Seal LP was Seal’s worst work or Trevor’s (surely in the latter case it was Philip Jap ?)

    #1 probably although “Complex”, “Ant Rap” and “De Do Do Do De Dah Dah Dah ” were odd choices too. All time winner would have been “La Folie” if “Golden Brown” had gone one place further.

    #3 I’d nominate also Dean Freidman’s “Lucky Stars” and Hazel O Connor’s “Will You” in that category.

  21. 21
    Kat but logged out innit on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Love this of course, solid 8 like pretty much everything else on Best Dance Album In The World…Ever! Part 1. If you much prefer this to Seal’s soppy Lighthouse Family style ballads then I recommend you check out the Tiesto remix of The Right Life from 2008. Seal’s original is fine but Tiesto nixes all the duff mid-range 1997-style filler and replaces it with GRINDING BUZZ MENTALISM ripe for putting one’s hands in the air. That Youtube link is a bit iffy but stick it out until the excellent PICK POCK PUCK PACK DIMF DOOMF DUMF DAMF drum bit at 3.46.

  22. 22
    wichita lineman on 14 Dec 2010 #

    Re 20: Lucky Stars – yes. And no, you’re not just being nice. Didn’t they sound (quite literally) like a pair of muppets?

    I’m very fond of Ant Rap, mind, and that intro alone to Prince Charming could give Space Jungle a run for its weirdness money. I suppose I just think Space Jungle is the hands-down worst follow-up to an era defining single. What was the A&R man doing to earn his £250K? Apart from enormous quantities of happy meals?

  23. 23
    Steve Mannion on 14 Dec 2010 #

    imo Seal’s finest moment in recent years was the Thin White Duke Dub of his ‘Amazing’ single from the System LP but annoyingly this exact mix isn’t available on YouTube (apart from a dodgy clip of – that man again – Tiesto playing it out but WAY TOO FAST bah).

  24. 24
    anto on 14 Dec 2010 #

    This is a truly radical number one. Adamski and Seal could have stuck together and become a sort of post-rave Eurithmics.

  25. 25
    swanstep on 15 Dec 2010 #

    I knew this song only though the trevor horn/album version until about a year ago, and still much prefer that version, which I guess I’d give a 7 (whereas I’d give Crazy an easy 9). This original version to my ears really does sound like a demo, hence this strikes me as a pretty radical (bona fide, 4 weeks) #1 – a little like if Being Boiled (esp. the original sparse version without horns) had become a massive #1 (but even on its best days Killer doesn’t have half the menace and mystery of Being Boiled). At any rate, I reckon this is a 6 as a record, but I can understand why people ‘who were there’ would +1 it, as it were, for exactly the things I’m -1-ing it. There’s no doubt as Tom,5 says above that Killer as a massive hit caps an incredible run of #1s that really does amount to a kind of manifesto for space (as well as a kind of electronic hand-made quality) in pop and dance records.

  26. 26
    punctum on 15 Dec 2010 #

    #20: I get to pay a fair few visits to Seal’s oeuvre via TPL; not sure what I think of it/him as a whole at the moment other than “the sound of money being spent” and “I suppose it gave Trevor something to do in the nineties.”

    I bought the Philip Jap album on the strength of “Save Us” (one of the great #41s!). Actually not that bad but you can see why he never made it big, despite Peter Powell’s persevering efforts.

  27. 27
    weej on 15 Dec 2010 #

    Re: #25 – I bought the Adamski version when it came out and have loved it since then, while the Seal re-make just sounds like a slightly inferior copy. In particular

    * The synth sounds seem more generic and dated
    * The interaction between backing track and vocal is slightly off
    * It really is a backing track, the variety in it is gone
    * There are a couple of pointless “woah-a-oh-a-oh” bits which don’t work, and the vocal breakdown at the end doesn’t fir the mood at all
    * There’s a layering of guitar sounds on top of the chorus which just dilutes the overall effect
    * All of the most interesting little bits (like “we wanna be-be-b-b-b-b-bbbb-yeah”) have been cut

    I think what it all may come down to is a preference for a particular set of sounds – I’d rather listen to anything made on a 303 or an 808 in the late 80s than the more polished studio-based stuff of the early 90s.

  28. 28
    MikeMCSG on 15 Dec 2010 #

    #26 I remember Philip Jap winning the David Essex Talent Show in 1982 and the prize was his own TV show. This turned out to be a half hour showcase at 10.45 pm on a weeknight between Christmas and New Year. I don’t think it’s ever been repeated – Billy ? Peter Powell featured as his MC.
    I seem to recall around that time that PP, drunk on the kudos of “breaking” Spandau and Duran, became obsessed with spotting the next big thing and championed a number of duds like Buzzz, Bim, Leisure Process and Fashion. It almost became a kiss of death to have him on board.

    By the way does anyone else recall the 10-year old Adamski’s first TV appearance on Nationwide in 1980 performing the atonal “Babysitters” with his kid brother as The Stupid Babies ? I seem to remember Peelie gave it a few plays.

  29. 29
    Mark G on 15 Dec 2010 #

    Yep, it’s on Earcom 3 – Fast Product.

  30. 30
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Dec 2010 #

    Leisure Process! “Make way, here comes a love cascade…”

    As for Philip Jap, “Total Erasure” wasnae bad.

    Thank God for early 80s compilation albums for introducing both of them to me.

    Anyway, this version of “Killer” is well, a killer track, and far superior (and far more innovative, musically and in terms of production far rawer) than the version that Seal released a bit later on (the less said about the other version that will be troubling a bunny the better I think – talk about stripping away fragility and vulnerabilty). The fact that part of it was “reused” (in a rather more different styley) in “Future Love Paradise” also demonstrates an admirable versatility.

    The comparison with “Being Boiled” is a fine one to make: this was indeed the sound of tomorrow today. Of course it would never last, but I don’t think anyone saw Adamski fading away quite so quickly as he did.

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