Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Adult Net - The Honey Tangle

Thirty years ago today, on September 21st, 1983, Brix Smith made her live debut with The Fall at the Hellfire Club, Wakefield, England.  What a long, strange trip it's been for her since that day . . .

Brix (born Laura Elise Salenger) was born in Los Angeles and raised during her early years by a single mother, who worked as a TV reporter and producer for CBS.  When Brix was in her teens, her mother remarried a university professor and moved to Chicago, where she became director of the Illinois Film Commission.  Brix took up guitar while in high school there; she got the name "Brix" due to her obsession with The Clash and their song "The Guns of Brixton".  After graduation, she went to Bennington College, a highly regarded (and insanely expensive) liberal arts college in Vermont; fellow members of her freshman class included writers Jonathan Lethem and Brett Easton Ellis.  While at Bennington, she started a punk band, Banda Dratsing, with her roommate Lisa Feder.  But Brix was only in school for less than a year; in the spring of 1983, she and Feder decided to leave college for a semester or two to pursue a music career, and ended up back in Chicago.

While there, Brix met Mark E. Smith on the evening of Saturday, April 23rd, 1983, at the Smart Bar, downstairs from The Metro, where his band The Fall played their latest gig in their North American tour earlier that night.  Stories about their 'mutual attraction' notwithstanding, Brix later admitted that one of the first things she did was have Smith listen to her band's demo tape while they were riding in his car on the way to a band after-party.  According to her, he was instantly impressed with the music, calling it 'genius' (now, I could be really snarky here, and offer the view that, in an effort to get into the pants of an attractive young blonde American girl, any other guy in Smith's place would have said pretty much the same thing . . . but why state the obvious?).  She remained with Smith for the rest of their American tour, then moved back to Manchester with him, where they married that summer.  By the end of that season, she was up on stage playing guitar as a member of her husband's band.

In 1985, during her second year in The Fall, Brix began a psychedelic side project called The Adult Net with then-Fall bassist Simon Rogers.  I always found it more than a bit odd that her husband Mark, a legendary band autocrat who ordinarily would brook no dissent from his group (he's been known for firing Fall members on the spot for lesser transgressions), not only allowed her the freedom to concentrate on musical activities outside of The Fall, but also had no problems with the participation of his bandmates in her project.  Must be nice to be the boss's wife, I guess . . .

The Adult Net (featuring Brix on vocals, Rogers on bass, Craig Scanlon on guitar and Karl Burns on drums (the latter three working under aliases) - essentially The Fall without Mark E. Smith) - released their first single, a cover of the Strawberry Alarm Clock's 1967 classic "Incense and Peppermints" backed with "Searching For The Now" and "Fat Hell", on Beggars Banquet in April 1985 - it did not chart, nor did the other Adult Net single released later that year, "Edie".  During 1986, Smith began taking a more active role in his wife's group, writing songs and contributing vocals under his own alias, 'Count Gunther Hoalingen'.  The results of his participation were marginal; The Adult Net released two more singles in 1986: "White Night (Stars Say Go)" early that year, and "Waking Up In The Sun" in September.  Only the latter release met with even the most middling chart success, spending a week at #95 on the British charts.   Over the course of that year, the band also recorded enough material for an album - the disc, titled Spin This Web, remains unreleased to this day.

[Keep in mind that all of this extracurricular activity was occurring at the same time The Fall recorded and released some of their most critically-acclaimed material (This Nation's Saving Grace was released in 1985, and Bend Sinister in 1986) - I find it remarkable that these musicians were so prolific and yet so versatile during this period.]

By 1987, it seemed that most of the energy regarding The Adult Net had been expended.  The singles that had been released were flops, the album project was dead in the water, and both Rogers and Burns had left The Fall for other pursuits (while no longer a musician in the band, Rogers continued to hold producing duties for another year), with Burns leaving The Adult Net as well.  Brix placed her band on indefinite hiatus, and her attention was once again focused full-time on The Fall.

The early part of 1988 was a busy time for The Fall, with the release of The Frenz Experiment in February and I Am Kurious Oranj (the soundtrack for the ballet collaboration between Smith and choreographer Michael Clarke) that April.  However, as the year wore on, serious personal tensions began to grow between Smith and Brix.  It was obvious to both parties that their marriage was rapidly coming to a close, and Brix was smart enough to know that the end of her relationship with Smith would in all likelihood also be the end of her tenure in The Fall.   Rogers was having his own professional difficulties with Smith; although his work as producer on The Frenz Experiment was acclaimed, he was passed over to helm the IAKO sessions - Smith selected Ian Broudie instead.  So both Brix and Rogers had more than a little incentive to begin planning out their post-Fall lives.  And this led to their revival of The Adult Net later that year.

The Adult Net twosome reached out to Geffen Records regarding a possible recording deal, but Geffen showed little inclination to sign them.  In an attempt to pique the label's interest, Brix and Rogers went out and recruited what appeared to be a formidable lineup - namely, members of the recently disbanded Smiths, including the rhythm section of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, and second guitarist Craig Gannon.  But it soon became clear that these former Smiths weren't all that committed to Brix's pop thing.  After a few gigs together, Rourke and Joyce drifted away to other projects, with artists including Sinead O'Connor (I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got) and former Smiths frontman Morrissey ("Interesting Drug"; "Last of the Famous International Playboys").  Gannon remained with The Adult Net, but split his time doing guest and session work with other bands as well.  Observing this band instability, Geffen once again declined.

Scrambling now, Brix scared up some quick replacements for Rourke and Joyce - former Blondie drummer Clem Burke and The The bassist Jim Eller - and went out on the hustings again, trying to drum up some label buzz.  She finally generated some interest from Fontana Records, a subsidiary of Phonogram Records; they joined the label in early 1989 (The Fall had also changed over to Phonogram from Beggars Banquet at around the same time - I'm curious to know how much that influenced the label's decision to sign them).  The Adult Net's lone Fontana LP, The Honey Tangle, was released later that fall.

The Honey Tangle was greeted by critics and the public with a collective yawn.  The songs, all written by Brix (except for a cover the The Grass Roots' "Where Were You (When I Needed You)"), are mostly bland, frothy, way overproduced jangle-pop confections containing a smattering of light psychedelic and Phil Spector-ish inferences.  To me, most of the music on this disc sounds like a watered-down combination of ABBA and early Belinda Carlisle.  The album isn't terrible by any means; but it isn't exactly engaging either - it's just 'blah'.  Three singles came off of this album, and all of them stalled on the lower regions of the British charts - the aforementioned Grass Roots cover at #66; "Take Me", which reached #78; and a rerecording of the band's 1986 single, "Waking Up in the Sun", which only made it to #99 (even worse than its performance three years earlier). 

The album itself failed to chart, and Fontana lost no time in releasing The Adult Net from the label soon after.

Finding herself without a band, a label or a husband, Brix quickly began a new relationship with flamboyant 'alternative' classical British violinist Nigel Kennedy.  She spent three years with Kennedy, releasing one collaboration with him, a cover of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man", which was unsuccessful.  After their breakup, Brix moved back to America in 1993 to start over.  She moved into the garage of her old friend Susanna Hoffs (of The Bangles) and began night classes in acting while waitressing during the day.  When this didn't work out, she ended up as a touring member of The Bangles for a few months.  After Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff ODed in the summer of 1994, Brix auditioned to be her replacement and won the job.  But she was only in Hole for one week; bizarrely, ex-husband Mark E. Smith contacted her to rejoin The Fall, and even more bizarrely, she agreed and immediately went running back to England (Melissa Auf der Maur took her place in Hole).

Brix's second stint in The Fall lasted less than two years, during which she participated in two albums, 1994's Cerebral Caustic and 1995's The Light User Syndrome.  After leaving The Fall in 1996, Brix once again attempted to parley that association into a solo career.  She was signed to indie Strangelove Records and recorded an EP, Happy Unbirthday, which once again went nowhere.

However, one night during the recording sessions in London, she decided to crash a hoity-toity fashion party held at the elegant Harvey Nichols store in Knightsbridge.  On the elevator, she met Philip Start, a fashion designer made recently wealthy through the sale of his menswear chain, Woodhouse.  They immediately hit it off and eventually married.  In 2002, the couple combined their ideas regarding fashion and opened a London boutique store, Start, which has since expanded into a small retail chain.  Brix Smith-Start is now an in-demand TV fashion expert and commentator.  So, good on her.

I've always had mixed feelings about Brix.  Her addition to The Fall marked a major change in that band's musical direction, adding a more mainstream 'pop' dimension into the band's arsenal of audio weapons.  That can be viewed as either a negative (for Fall purists who came up with the band from their punky, abrasive beginning) or a positive (in that it brought new fans to the group, and began a brief period where the band saw some chart success).  For a short spell, she brought an unlikely bit of style and glamour to the unlikeliest of bands (although personally, I always thought that keyboardist
 Marcia Schofield (shown at left), in her heyday, was WAY hotter . . . ).  In some ways, Brix was a 'fame whore', seemingly always glomming on to the next guy (Smith, violinist Kennedy, designer Start) who would take her to the next stage or level of whatever career she was pursuing.  However, even if that characterization of her is somewhat true, she isn't a suckfish or a trophy wife/girlfriend - in all of her relationships, Brix brought her own innovative, exciting ideas into the mix, and arguably made the art/business pursuits of her paramours that much more successful (and frankly, if she was trolling for stardom and success, she could have done a lot better than to latch on to the guys that she did).

I suppose the most accurate characterization of Brix is that she's a relentless opportunist, with a knack for finding/falling into the next situation that works best for her.  Brix is no dummy - she definitely has some brains, and has thoughts and plans of her own.  But it can best be said that Brix's talents and vision are complementary, rather than singular or individual - she needs a partner with an equally strong parallel vision in order to bring her own plans to fruition.  The few times she struck out on her own without an artistic partner - such as her experience with fronting and managing the musical direction of her own band and solo career - were, frankly, abject failures, even with the top-notch musical talent that she drew into her orbit.

But hell - at least she tried.  And all in all, I guess you really can't dislike her for that.  Like the rest of us, she is a complex personality, someone who can't be narrowed down into completely "good" or "bad" categories.  Kudos to her on her current success.

And with all of that, here you are - The Adult Net's The Honey Tangle, Brix Smith's sole LP release, released on Fontana Records on September 19th, 1989.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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