The time and place for this story may require some explanation for some readers. It was my seventh form year, my final year at college. Depending on time or place, you may be more familiar with "year 13" and "high school." In any case, I was 17 years old, living at home and not earning anything more than pocket money.
It was the year I began to take school less seriously, and it was probably while skipping English class again* that I walked into the seventh form common room to hear some most unusual sounds emanating from the turntable in the corner. Unusual but somehow compelling. When the needle reached the end one of my friends got up to flip it over, after which I asked to see what it was.
Released in 1984, Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise was the band's second release, but debut album. I'm not sure I've ever come across a more descriptive band name than Art Of Noise, for that aptly describes their style. Various descriptions label it as new wave, experimental rock, and techno-pop. Without fishing for a single genre, the music makes heavy use of the then emerging Fairlight synthesiser that would mark a lot of early 80s experimental sounds.
What does all that mean in practice? Lots of non-traditional "instruments" including car noises, people talking and various weird and wonderful electronic sounds. But as the band's name implies, from a collection of noises, comes art.
The opening track, A Time For Fear (Who's Afraid) kicks off with Fidel Castro making a speech about the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attack on his nation and later includes what appears to be a radio broadcast message from the (then very recent) 1983 invasion of Grenada. These, of course, are covered with a musical arrangement and this includes electronic 'notes' of some description and heavy percussion. It even includes what sounds like piston engined aircraft passing overhead, but used as a musical element rather than atmospheric sound. The whole track seems to have a military march feel to it – and I don't mean a marching song – but it dips into a most contradictory peace for a while in the middle and again at the end. It is perhaps one of the finest examples of the band's use of 'sound' or 'noise' rather than just pure musical notes. But this isn't the band's whole repertoire by a long shot.
Beat Box (Diversion One), despite it's name, is no mere diversion at 8:33 in length. Punchy, moderately paced, and with an attitude, this song makes use of stereo separation for some strong elements that make it quite fun to listen when you can get that separation in your room (or on headphones). Again, human voice is used heavily, although far more musically in this track. It is one of my favourite Art Of Noise tracks of all.
Snapshot does live up to its name at a mere 1:02 in length and is an odd, happy little tune that serves quite well as a transition to the final track of side one – the track that was the album's single and made a decent climb to number 8 in the UK charts.
Car sounds introduce Close To The Edit before a variety of musical elements including, once again, sampled human voices, build up a musical picture that is a delight at every note. At a similar pace to Beat Box, this track has a "cool" vibe about it that is my second favourite skill of the band after their use of unusual sounds to make music. This same vibe would appear with a vengeance in the Peter Gunn theme a couple of years later. Unlike the preceding tracks, there is actually singing in this one, although not much. But when it appears it is most beautiful and fits with the sound stage. This would have been the song that captured my imagination when I was 17, although I must admit I don't remember that moment clearly.
Side two starts with the album's title track which once again delves into the experimental side of the band – lots of vocal noises here including the almost surprising "Hey!" at the start, laughter of adults and children and even whole phrases – "Can I say something?" – are used as musical elements. This track is probably more typical of the band's eclectic side than A Time For Fear but I enjoy this one a little less as a musical whole.
The second track on side 2 is a magnificent piece of art. Once again switching into a completely different type of sound, Moments In Love is one of my favourite tracks in my entire music collection of well over 6,000 songs. Instrumental (well, almost), etherial, smooth, simple, beautiful, and over 10 minutes long, this track doesn't go many places but it is so beautiful I never want it to end. The reason I said it was almost instrumental is that, like Close To The Edit, the title of the song does make an appearance. But only those three words and they are so lilting that I hesitate to call them vocals rather than an important instrument in the song. In fact, for a time, the word "moments" is actually 'spoken' by instrument only, and not by voice, and indeed other 'notes' are clearly human voice but not distinct words – so where do you draw the line? In any case, if you're not relaxed and happy by the end of this track, then I don't know how I can help you.
If you were just about asleep with the dulcet tones of Moments in Love then the thunderstorm and church bells of Momento will likely wake you and the approaching footsteps – which never quite arrive – and creepy church organ music will freak you out slightly, but it's not far to the end of this 2:13 track where you'll be rewarded with birdsong.
How to Kill is again a very experimental track with a lot of human voice elements. This is probably the one track that might annoy anyone other than true fans or those with a completely open mind to what "music" is. The oft-repeated "it stopped" may well be the wish of many listeners! Fortunately for those people this is another track under 3 minutes.
The final track, Realization, leaps back into a similar groove to the opening track but once again is very short at 1:43. There's really not much to say about this track except that I think this really was just an experiment that someone decided to include on the album. There's nothing wrong with it, but I wonder what the point of it is.
With the wide variety of sounds on the album I don't think I would notice if the tracks were out of sequence, as they do not seem to fit a running order, but as a body of work, it is a great sampler of the capabilities of Art Of Noise and remains my favourite album from the band. Other albums have songs I like better, but considering all of the content of each album, Who's Afraid stands out as the most enjoyable overall. The artiness of A Time for Fear and Who's Afraid, the techno-pop of Beat Box and Close to the Edit, and the mesmerising Moments in Love each lend their excellence to this album while the other tracks flirt around the edges.
I first owned this album on cassette but it was one of my earlier CD purchases as well. The band, and this album in particular, are one of a handful that I am proud to own because they are different. Despite a couple of flirts with mainstream success, Art Of Noise were never really "mainstream" but rather a cult following.
All I can say to end is I'm glad I skipped English class.
* There is an irony in the fact that nearly 30 years after discovering Art Of Noise I am still talking about them and mentioning my skipping of English class. As a result of skipping a LOT of those English classes that year, I was asked why this was the case – I had a near perfect attendance record otherwise. The questioner was the school principal. When I explained that I didn't see any value in studying yet more Shakespeare he said something I will never forget. "What will you do if you're in a social gathering of business people and the conversation turns to Shakespeare? You will be left out of the conversation." As I recall I responded that I didn't think it would be a problem. Very nearly 30 years later... I was right, Mr. Walker.
☞ The album has appeared with two distinct covers. The CD pictures shown above represent what I believe to be a later release, as the vinyl sleeve I saw in 1986 was as pictured here, and as shown now on iTunes.