Fad who? You might well think that, and you wouldn’t be alone either.
In the late 1970s, Daniel Miller was toying with the idea of expanding his label Mute records, then in its infancy. "A mutual friend, the writer Edwin Pouncey, or Savage Pencil, the cartoonist for the NME, as he was known then, played me Frank’s tape," explains Miller. "It stood out head and shoulders above anything else I’d heard, and in many ways he was the spur for me saying, ‘OK, I'll start the label properly now’. It was only afterwards I realised there was an ulterior motive as Frank was actually living in Edwin’s house and getting him a record deal was a way of getting rid of him."
The fledgling label duly signed its first artist - "although it was more of a handshake agreement," claims Miller - and a serious of relatively low key releases followed. Then Miller signed Depeche Mode. "I first saw Depeche Mode supporting Frank, and they were huge Fad Gadget fans, which led to me working with them as well."
It’s easy enough to see the initial attraction. Utilising newly affordable cheap synthesisers, Fad Gadget combined the punk ethos of Iggy Pop with his own live performance aesthetic gained from a spell at Leeds Art school, which he attended alongside Marc Almond and members of Gang of Four. "Marc Almond sent Frank the first Soft Cell demo to give to me," adds Miller, who went on to produce Soft Cell’s first proper release Memorabilia.
Live performances remained central to the Fad Gadget project, with gigs often ending with Tovey bleeding through his elaborate costumes from self-inflicted injuries. "He was a huge Iggy Pop fan," explains Miller. "He had this Syndrum, an early electronic drumpad. It’s supposed to be hit with a stick, but he ended up using his head. There was one memorable show in Hammersmith where he was just completely covered in blood and had to go off stage. I thought he was going off stage to stop because of his injuries, but he just got bandaged up, came back on and finished the set. That to me is a legendary moment in pop." In a show in Amsterdam, Tovey broke both his heels by jumping into a crowd that wasn’t there. He finished the gig sitting down.
It was probably humour that was one of Tovey’s most significant contributions to what can often be seen a cold or soulless musical genre. His biggest hit, Ricky's Hand, is a satirical cautionary tale on the perils of drink driving. The cover of his third album, Incontinent, features Tovey as a warped Mr Punch. As Miller remembers of his friend: "He didn't take himself quite as seriously as some of the other people who were around at the time. He was completely unpretentious."
Mute went on to sign artists such as Nick Cave, Erasure and Moby and was pivotal in what would later become house music. Meanwhile, having reclaimed electronica back from the overly-earnest sci-fi types, Fad Gadget went on to address the issues that the man on the street might care about. His third album, Under the Flag, examined the Falklands War, Thatcherism and satirised the rise of technology. After a long spell of silence during which Tovey worked on production, engineering and projects under his own name, Fad Gadget made a comeback in 2001, working on some new material, a greatest hits album and - suitably enough - supporting the band who were originally discovered supported him, Depeche Mode.
Fad Gadget might not occupy much shelf space on the designer shelving systems of the discerning CD collector, but he does have a special place, that of the overlooked pioneer, a maverick and a true original. So file somewhere between Depeche Mode and Kylie, but not too far away from Marilyn Manson. And near Iggy. He’d have liked that.