Sigue Sigue Sputnik may look like a band and, to a few tin-eared fans, it may even sound like one. In fact, it’s an over-hyped clique of no-talents who care more about the color of their lip gloss than about their music. Thanks to their skillful media manipulation, they were famous before they’d ever played a note, and they have never failed to put commerce above art, going so far as to run advertisements between the eight songs on their debut album, Sigue Sigue Sputnik Flaunt It, which was released in the U.S. this month.
The most likable thing about Sigue Sigue (pronounced zig zig) is that they admit to all of the above. The group’s founder and bassist, Tony James, 30, says he chose his bandmates for their looks. And though he picked Love Missile F1-11 to be their first single, he says, “It didn’t matter which one we released, because all our songs sound the same.” As for the charge of commercialism, James brags that his band’s slogan is Fleece the World.
They may succeed. Released in England, Missile shot up the charts, and Sputnik concerts quickly became media events. But the group’s second single, 21st Century Boy, failed to crack the Top 10, and a summer tour of England has been drastically scaled down. Nonetheless the group plans to challenge the U.S. this fall, and James has reason to be optimistic. After all, he says, “Americans appreciate commercialism more than anyone.”
James came by his cynicism the hard way. A member of Generation X, the punk band he started in 1976 with Billy Idol, James suddenly found himself unemployed four years later when Idol split for America. “One day he was there; the next day he was gone,” says James. Desperate, he decided to pull together the components of his dream band, which to James meant stocking up on candy-hued fright wigs, stiletto heels and fishnet face masks.
Through a friend, James met Neal Whitmore, 24, now the group’s peroxided guitarist, Neal X. Figuring that “the great groups were always formed in coffee bars,” James and Neal spent the next 18 months checking out drips all over London. In Kensington Market, Neal X recalls, “This sort of vision—we weren’t sure if it was of loveliness or ugliness—came sauntering up, dressed completely in white, with this mass of black-and-white waist-length hair.” That sauntering vision, Martin Degville, 29, has since become the group’s lead singer.
It took two years for the group to find its drummers—puppy-eyed heartthrob Chris Kavanagh, 22, and Billy Idol look-alike Ray Mayhew, 21. James, unconcerned about his crew’s complete lack of musicianship, remembers locking Mayhew in a room with a drum kit and the instruction, “Work it out.”
While all five band members lived on welfare, James, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, came up with a sufficiently enigmatic name (from a news story about a Moscow street gang called Burn Burn Satellite). The group began crashing music-industry parties. “We’d get dressed to kill,” says Neal X, “arrive in a fleet of cabs and just swan in.” Says Sex Pistols creator Malcolm McLaren: “They looked great; they were wonderful in print. Their mistake was making a record.”
Perhaps, but how could they resist? By the time they played their first date in London in April 1985, “every record company in the world was after us,” claims James. Last October they signed with EMI in a deal said to be worth $6 million. The rumor was undoubtedly fueled by James, despite his claim that he won’t talk about money. The actual figure is probably much less.
In any case it wasn’t poverty but perversity that led the band to intersperse ads between the tracks on their album. SSS sold the spots, hawking hair-care products and electronics, for up to $3,000 each. “Commercialism is rampant in society,” reasons James. “Maybe we’re a little more honest than some groups I could mention.”
Last month James tested the Yankee appetite for self-promotion with a two-week stint as an MTV guest deejay. Now the only impediments to U.S. success are Mayhew’s two scheduled court dates on charges of injuring three fans with a beer bottle during a concert and brawling outside a London bar. Mayhew claims the charges are trumped up, and James isn’t apologetic: “If a band causes a reaction—love or hate—you know you have something.” In that case, Sigue Sigue Sputnik is covered.