Celebrating the life and work of Frank Tovey, whose band Fad Gadget set a course for contemporary pop

Tovey in France, in 2001. (Philippe Lévy)
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Daphne Carr

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Last night, the Belgian artist and gallerist Jimi Dams stood, dressed in all black with silver rings on each finger, in the middle of his small Chinatown gallery as aging electro fans and their early-adult analogues mingled past him, eager to celebrate the life and work of Frank Tovey, better known as Fad Gadget.

Dams' gallery, envoy enterprises, is a narrow box with two lines of fluorescent lights on the ceiling and one small cutout space for larger work in the back wall. Despite this gray in-between time having once been winter, the air was warm and damp, making the room feel overfull even though just 20 people were there. A plastic sculpture by former Limelight club kid Desi Santiago of a terminator-style head with illuminated eyes gnashed its teeth endlessly, but otherwise the room sounded only of other people.

The opening's general tenor (and quiet) was perhaps more telling than any single work of the way in which Tovey, the character it celebrates, made his audience feel: alone at one's own party, at a concert with the sound off. Tovey was the man behind Fad Gadget, the first artist signed to Mute Records and an influential part of a scene that would eventually become fragmented into the three prongs of the early-'80s rock vanguard: post-punk, new wave, and industrial.

The group show at envoy is the first in a three-part homage to Tovey's work and influence on the 10-year anniversary of his death at 46. The other events are a performance by Xeno & Oaklander and Ike Yard this Saturday, March 3 at Dixon Place, and a screening of Fad Gadget By Frank Tovey, a documentary on Tovey's life, made by his daughter, Morgan Tovey Frost at Anthology Film Archives on Saturday, March 10. (All events are free and open to the public.)

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The homage will next travel to the U.K. and then Berlin, with site-specific artists and performers featured to each location; every place has its own community more than ready to honor Tovey. Dams explained that he's committed to this kind of multimedia presentation outside of the “too-narrow” commercial-gallery context. For him Frank Tovey is not just a personal passion but the embodiment of a contemporary artist who worked across multiple forms of media.

Tovey was known mainly as a musician, but he might be better described as a performance artist whose work used synths to set the mood. Mid-tempo, minor, and repetitive, the danceable microgenre of darkwave was a perfect palette for his droll British intonations on alienation from (and the failures of) technology, society, and the body. But the real fun was at the Fad Gadget performances, where Tovey embraced first Iggy Pop–style confrontation and later a kind of Kraftwerkian post-human antitheatricality. He performed under his own name after the first four albums, but never lost his sense of stagemanship.

In 1979, after hearing Daniel Miller's minimalist synth outfit the Normal, Tovey approached Miller, who was thinking of starting a label. He signed Fad Gadget right away.

The first single, “Back to Nature,” is a blueprint for all that would come after: patches of ominous sound over deliberately spare beats, sound effects just odd enough to seem like a joke, incongruent end rhymes, words like “geodesic,” a clumsy reference to capitalism, images of human-made environments failing, and a single description of a forlorn kiss that sounds deathly pathetic.

By the mid-'80s, Fad Gadget's sound seemed like it fit in somewhere, in part because a lot of musicians had followed Tovey's style, and because he gained confidence in his songwriting, worked with better musicians, and took over creative control in the studio. Polished, acoustic-driven pop tracks like “Stand Up” off 1984's Gag would not sound out of place on a later Modern English album, a small irony given that it was recorded while Einstürzende Neubauten was also at the studio.

Consider that Tovey's Mute labelmates Depeche Mode put out the naïvely crafted but more pop-friendly album Some Great Reward that same year with singles “People are People” and “Master and Servant.” In their hands, the dark humor behind the power games that the Normal and Fad Gadget described had become something of a cliché, but had also crossed over. Fad Gadget did not. After coming out of semiretirement, he opened for Depeche Mode on their 2001 Exiter tour.

In that way Frank Tovey is resembles the Cleveland-based musician Kevin McMahon, whose early-'80s band Lucky Pierre was a mix of Bowie-esque dance hall, Weimar Republic cabaret, industrial, and Rocket From the Tombs–level feral energy.

McMahon's idiosyncrasies and propensity to split town may have hurt his career, but his songwriting and professionalism inspired a whole generation of Cleveland musicians, including his sax player Trent Reznor. Reznor later signed McMahon to a record contract under the title Prick, and fans had the audacity to think Prick ripped off Nine Inch Nails.

Jimi Dams wants to set the record straight about Frank Tovey.

“He was an artist,” Dams stressed at the gallery last night. “And with the way music is today, how it moves so quickly, I am afraid people will forget.”

The show is made up not just of art by those who loved Tovey and his work, but by people Dams thought should love it, too. He is threading the present with Tovey's memory. For being one of the few works to use color and text, Casey Spooner's banner that read “Thank you my children of the night” stood out. It looked positively Gaga, and stirred up a reminder that Fad Gadget was an artist who, among other things, queered punk. But the quote was not a lyric, nor did it seem to have been put forth in Tovey's character. I looked it up later, and found that it was the greeting for the last message Tovey wrote to his fans before his own return to nature.

All installation photos Jamie Sterns/courtesy of envoy enterprises, New York