18 November 2018

Hohokam - Harlequin Tears/ To Sleep

Numan backed synth-pop band who came closer than most of his signings to breaking through

Label: Numa
Year of Release: 1985

Gary Numan tended to be everyone's favourite critical football in the eighties. While Numan the pop star pasted himself in make-up and donned a variety of uniforms for each phase of his career, playing the chameleon role with apparent ease, Numan the interviewee was usually consistent. Family orientated, inadvisably honest, prone to bouts of post-adolesecent naiveté and Thatcher and Royal Family worship.  If he'd been trying to be a wind-up merchant like Jaz out of Killing Joke, I've no doubt this would have hurt his image none. But he wasn't. So it did. The rock and pop world has always admired fraudulence and pretension over straightforwardness. 

I've no idea if the passing of the decades has changed his political views, though his last LP "Savage" had a keen enough grasp on the environmental crisis to impress the Green Party of England and Wales' deputy leader Amelia Womack. What I do have a sneaking admiration for, however, is either the generosity or downright foolhardiness (or both) behind his Numa Records label in the eighties. 

Numan had some form as a talent spotter. On seeing Depeche Mode performing a minor gig in the early eighties, he immediately alerted the boss at his label Beggars Banquet about their existence. While Mute Records got to them first, it must have boosted his confidence and belief that he could find equally huge stars elsewhere. He left Beggars and released his first records on his own Numa label in 1984 - and that's really when the mess starts.

Firstly, his sales and credibility were declining rapidly by the mid-eighties, suffering from the two pronged attack of a newly sincere and increasingly non-electronic post-Live Aid music scene, and continued savage brickbats from the music press and his fellow pop stars. Nor did it help that his material at this point sounded slightly confused and lost, at one moment aping Prince, the next Billy Idol. His confidence in his own style and voice seemed hugely diminished. If the success of his own work was supposed to help bankroll the rest of the label, that set things off on completely the wrong foot.

Handing over Numa's distribution deal to PRT was also a schoolboy error (though obviously, I have no idea what other options were on the table at the time). While PRT - formally trading as Pye - had enjoyed some glorious days in the sunshine, by the mid-eighties they were an even more confused force than Numan himself, and wouldn't live to see the nineties. Numan also found being a music mogul expensive work. In an interview with Fast Company in 2016, he commented: "Back then you still had your big record chains like Tower Records. They absolutely killed me. For example, I put out one album. They would order a thousand and they would only pay for one in 20 of those that they ordered. And if you didn’t accept that deal, they didn’t stock you at all... Because of those ridiculous deals, small labels, and probably even bigger ones would crumble. You’ve got no power. You’ve got nothing to fight them with. So you give them a thousand albums and then hope they do well enough that it gets in the chart. And then maybe someone else will stock it. And you can get your money. Nine times out of 10, that didn’t happen. You go out of business, the company folds. My record company folded fairly quickly."

You get the sense that he remembers this period with little fondness, and perhaps that's no wonder. But actually, it's an interesting label for a budget strapped collector, especially when you step away from his own material and delve a bit deeper. It's filled with failed pop plans and electronic acts who might have fared better a couple of years beforehand, and Gary's own production hand and favoured studios and engineers are ever-present.

Hohokam were probably the label's main hopes, and one of the main reasons Numan apparently started the label. "Harlequin Tears" here is a supremely energetic and menacing slice of synth-pop, sounding bit part Depeche Mode in their leather-and-whips pomp and Dead or Alive at the height of their "Spin Me Round" world domination. It was the closest the label came to a non-Numan chart hit, though given that it failed to even touch the Top 75, it clearly still fell a long way short of the target. 

The flip "To Sleep" shows off the diversity of the band's sound, slipping into moody eighties New Wave exotica and containing the kind of melodies Tears for Fears wouldn't have been afraid of giving LP space. Perhaps Hohokam lacked a strongly identifiable sound of their own, a style that made them instantly recognisable as soon as they came on the radio. In addition, being heavily associated with Numan as his career declined may not have been to the band's advantage at the time, even if the more dedicated members of his fanbase supported the records. Those facts notwithstanding, these are two solid sides. 

An album was recorded by the group, who consisted of Dave Earl on guitar, Steve Devier on vocals, Tony Alum on drums, and George Kamm on synths and bass. Sadly, the failure of both this single and the two others "King" and "Don't You Know" presumably left Numan with his back against the wall and no viable way of releasing it. 

Tony Alum eventually went on to become involved with the progressive House duo Aquilia, while Kamm has sadly passed away. The whereabouts of the others are not clear at this time.  


Webbie - FootieAndMusic said...

Sometimes you are my gateway drug David. I knew about Numan's record label but never really looked. Never heard of this band before either. After reading and listening I went to Discogs and discovered so much more. The other singles by the band were ok but forgettable. The other acts he had on his label though - Caroline Munro recorded and released a single on Gary Numan's Numa Records. How did I miss that back in the day ?!

23 Daves said...

I noticed that as well! Numa singles all sell reasonably cheaply despite their scarcity (and despite the size of Numan's fanbase, at least some of whom you would think would want to own them) so I can see myself digging up some more. Though I should probably shut up about this in case I inadvertently push the prices up.

Andrew said...

I like the theorising about why some acts didn't become famous, but in this case I would ponder that it was the group's silly (to my ears) name that also held them back.

Vlad The Chart Collector said...

One of the better stiffs (sic!) from Numan's protegee camp. Agree that this one deserved to chart at least in the Top 100. Still, they are remembered by the connoisseurs, so not all their efforts were in vain.

Budgie Trousers said...

I saw Hohokam supporting Numan, I cant remember which tour it was but I was bowled over and very excited by the band, buying their 3 singles and waiting in frustration for the Seven Deadly Sins album, which never came.

I did some research and discovered there was some animosity between the band and Gary, leading to the band leaving/being fired from the label.
In an interview with Gary I heard recently, he said there was a lit of 'backstabbing' within the band and they were 'rotten' to Gary, he believes because the band were frustrated/naive/impatient that fame didn't come quickly for them.

I didn't know George Kamm had died, how sad.

I'm sure I heard a long time ago that one of the guys became a Police Officer?

I don't know which band member that was or if that is even true.

I really thought Hohokam were an excellent band and hoped to hear more from them, but alas it wasn't to be.

I've always been a massive fan of Gary and still love all the material he puts out.

Unknown said...

I also remember seeing Hohokam support Numan on a few dates of a tour. I seem to remember the frontman waving nunchaku around on stage, and a major synth/sound failure at one of the gigs:-(
The track of theirs which actually sticks in my mind is American Way, a B side IIRC. A mate had the single, it was probably King.