For a while, it seemed that whenever I’d go to a used record store, they’d always have a copy of Official Secrets Act by M. Strangely enough, none of his other records. I think I ended up giving up looking for M vinyl after around a year or so, and to date, I only have two: The 12″ of “Moonlight and Muzak” and (my first M release ever) Official Secrets Act. It’s funny – I couldn’t even find a copy of his hit album/single (New York London Paris Munich and “Pop Muzik“). I mean, I’ve got all the material on the CDs released by Westside in 1998 (which are out of print now, though JVC Victor in Japan is re-issuing these discs in mini-LP sleeves, complete with the same bonus tracks), so it’s not like I don’t have the material, but still.
This record is one of my favorites by anyone. It’s even better than his excellent New York London Paris Munich, also a pop masterpiece. M’s last record, Famous Last Words, though it featured Thomas Dolby and Ryuichi Sakamoto, isn’t nearly as great, but it’s still got a lot of classics (“Neutron” is one of the catchiest songs ever, at least amongst songs about the bomb). I never bought the fourth, unofficial M record (He recorded it under his real name, Robin Scott, though it does still seem grouped with his M stuff) Jive Shikisha, recorded with African vocal group Shikisha. It’s a combination of western pop music with African tribal type music and from what I’ve heard from it, it’s all right if you’re into that sort of thing, which I’m not (I must say it didn’t turn me off immediately like most of that type of record does, though). It does tend to show off M/Scott’s talent for pop hooks, though.
Back to Official Secrets Act, though. The great thing about this album, aside from the songs, of course, is that the genre is best classified as Paranoid Dance Pop. In fact, that could be said about a lot of M’s songs, but the ones on Official Secrets Act in particular. The theme of the album is betrayal by the government and totalitarianism. The album opens with “Transmission”, a composition based around snatches of radio transmission (fabricated, though), with swirling static as bits of information come in and out – including a sly jab at his previous success (A eastern-European sounding voice telling people to stay tuned for “Pop Muzik” (listed that way in the liners) after the news) and great one liners (“I love the American Sense of Humor; sometimes I wonder if the Moon Landing ever left Hollywood”).
From there, it leads into “Join the Party”, about the strongest contender for a single, and about the closest to anything on New York London Paris Munich — a dance song that plays off of both types of “party”. One of the charms of Robin Scott is the way he sings – often he’s either neurotic and frantic or completely sarcastic; it’s the latter in “Join the Party”. The narrator of the song is one of the behind the scenes types, and when he sings “Are there any people here tonight/who believe they’re equal in every right”, it’s just dripping. Removed from context, it might look a little odd, but considering the song is an intentional confusion of “party” and comment on distracting people with fun over issues (there’s millions of examples I could point to here, so I’ll refrain. It should be obvious whichever scandal of the moment would fit) – lines like “Your manifesto is to get up and dance” and “Hey man, your slogans are outta sight/Get yourself elected, right here tonight,” it fits right in.
In most of his songs, though, he’s not the character behind the scenes; “Relax” takes two different points of view – the first 3/4 of the song is from the perspective of someone who knows something he shouldn’t (it’s never made clear who exactly he is; perhaps a spy, or perhaps a normal guy who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time), and the final quarter’s changed (Scott’s still singing, though) to the government technicians who’ve sedated him through their special, shall we say, techniques. In “Keep It to Yourself” (like “Unite Your Nation” from New York London Paris Munich) he’s a dissident along with collaborator/then-girlfriend/vocalist Brigit Novik, who sings “Why are you silent?/You can speak your mind/We are indifferent/Partners in crime”. And in other songs, like “Your Country Needs You”, he’s a detached observer reporting on events as they happen.
The final song, “Official Secrets”, is the conclusion to his work, restating his main points like a good five-paragraph essay should. The combination of “Transmission” and “Official Secrets” provides the structure of the album and the emotional arc. It’s a dark, dark record – but also a very catchy one. Every song on the album has a great hook and worms its way into your head and doesn’t leave. The album’s heavy in atmosphere, but doesn’t go the way of relying on sound-scapes, either. While it’s best to listen to the album all the way through, you can just drop the needle anywhere and get great enjoyment from it.
The CD adds a bunch of bonus tracks, and while they’re all very good (especially “Don’t Believe What the Papers Say/Bride of Fortune”), they’re not necessary to the enjoyment of the album, and not all of them really fit. A lot of the bonus tracks are from an EP that Brigit Novik made with Scott, which, while still very, very good doesn’t fit the album’s theme. Where the album is dark, eerie, depressing and industrial-in-feel (Not industrial like the type of music, but industrial in the sense of a dark, polluted all-factory-no-nature type sense), the EP tracks are more bright, cheery and pastoral. It’s more like a 19th century folk celebration; no government thugs going to carry anyone off to torture them for what they know here.
The nice thing about how pretty much every record store has Official Secrets Act (I assume they still do, even though I haven’t looked for a while), is that they’re usually about 2 bucks. (When I bought my copy, there was a beat-up one for 99 cents, and a nice one for 2 bucks. I went for the nicer one, of course.) Which means that they’re relatively easy to find (I’m talking about the LP here, of course, not the CD, which is a bit harder to find and probably more in the neighborhood of $20) AND cheap.
Anyway, next time you’re in a used record shop, flip through the miscellaneous “M” bin. There’s a good chance you’ll find this LP, and when you do, pick it up. It’s definitely worth the two bucks.