Soul Rebel Sold Out To Disco: A Billie Ray Martin ICA

There were two recent indirect nudges that finally got me to revisit and complete this ICA, one that I’ve been living with and playing around with in ridiculously expanded form for many, many months now:

1) The Vinyl Villain, April 20th – My Go-To Album When Out On Longer Walks: JC’s spotlight on HiFi Sean’s Ft. didn’t include the ’Ft. Billie Ray Martin’ song, but prompted me to get the album and discover it for myself;

2) Bagging Area, May 15th – Holding On: Swiss Adam’s feature on Circle Sky, one half of which is Richard Norris, that got a few of us commenting on his rich musical history and specifically the wonder that is Billie Ray Martin’s 4 Ambient Tales EP.

On her website, Billie Ray Martin describes herself as “a kid from Hamburg’s red-light district, who wanted to be a soul singer, but ended up playing repetitive machine music, while still trying to be a soul singer”, which is as good an introduction as any.

Born Birgit Dieckmann, Billie Ray Martin moved to Berlin then London in the 1980s, where her advert in Melody Maker – “Soul rebel searching for a genius” – led to the formation of Electribe 101. Managed by Tom Watkins, then riding high with Pet Shop Boys & Bros, Electribe 101 released their first single, Talking With Myself, in 1988. Re-released in 1990, it reached 23 in the UK charts, with the album Electribal Memories achieving a peak of 26 in the same year. By 1992, Electribe 101 split, without releasing their completed second album. Whilst the rest of the band formed Groove Corporation, Billie Ray Martin embarked on a solo career. Kind of.

In fact, her first two singles in 1993 were collaborations: a cover of Throbbing Gristle’s Persuasion with Spooky and the 4 Ambient Tales EP, produced by The Grid aka Dave Ball and Richard Norris. This was no surprise: Billie was also a memorable guest artist with S’Express, notably their Top 5 UK hit Superfly Guy. But it was these two records that left an indelible mark on me and embedded an enduring love of Billie Ray Martin’s voice, songwriting and music. Part of the challenge with this ICA is that I could have easily filled one side with these 5 songs alone.

Technically speaking, Billie Ray Martin has only released 3 solo albums so far – Deadline For My Memories (1996), 18 Carat Garbage (2001), The Soul Tapes (2016) – and is currently fundraising for the next three, with Gezeitenraum (translating as Tidal Space) hopefully due in 2021. However, add in demo and remix albums, singles, one-offs and collaborations, and Billie Ray Martin’s body of work is huge. This is possibly the most difficult of all the ICAs I’ve put together so far. Until the “nudge” in April/May, I’d only been able to get to a shortlist of 20 songs, never managing to settle on the final 10.

Billie Ray Martin only really had one “monster hit” – the re-release of Your Loving Arms in 1995, not included here – and I’ve largely bypassed her other arguably well-known singles such as Running Around Town (also 1995) and Honey (1999). The ICA starts and ends in 1993 with tracks from the aforementioned debut EPs and along the way takes in over two decades of collaborations, heartfelt lyrics and dancefloor cuts. And always the voice. Always the voice.

Side One

1) (I Spent Hours Again) Wishing You Well (Single Version): Billie Ray Martin (4 Ambient Tales EP, 1993)

I got the original CD single at the time of release, along with Persuasion, from a record shop in Derby and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve played this EP since. My mixtapes for friends from this period inevitably featured one or more of the four songs, and it’s difficult to choose a favourite. Produced by The Grid and featuring beautiful slide guitar from BJ Cole, 4 Ambient Tales hasn’t dated at all. I finally settled on this as the opener, which was originally a contender for the second Electribe 101 album. I think The Grid’s production elevates the song to a level that the original is unlikely to have achieved.

2) Bright Lights Fading (Original Edit): Slam ft. Billie Ray Martin (promo single, 2004)

I’m a massive fan of Slam; Orde Meikle & Stuart McMillan continue to surprise and delight, three decades on. This is a promo edit from their 2004 album Year Zero, with Billie Ray Martin recounting a tale of an out of work performer desperate for another gig, money for food and rent and “the bright spot lights”. The opening lines are superb:

Gimme gimme gimme one more chance
I spent my royalties on call boys
Just a temporary slip of fate
On a moonlit street

and the song is laden with other great lines:

There’s no guilt about the things I do
You’ve got to take it where you find it
And I’ve starved enough and worked hard enough

Hows a girl out of luck gonna find herself?
Call me a tramp and a drunk
Its just packaging
Just a part of fame

whilst Slam’s music is more than a match for the lyrical weight.

3) Heavy Game: Hifi Sean ft. Billie Ray Martin (Ft., 2016)

Hifi Sean’s debut album had completely slipped under my radar, until JC’s post earlier this year (and, I’m embarrassed to say, in spite of his TnVV previous post in 2018). I wonder how I ever missed the album, not least because it features so many brilliant guests, from Norman Blake to Fred Schneider to Paris Grey to Little Annie and Alan Vega. Billie Ray Martin’s appearance is a highlight on an all-round excellent album.

4) Talking With Myself (Live On Manchester Radio, 2002): Billie Ray Martin (Unplugged Live Radio Performance promo EP, 2002)

This is a vocal and piano cover of Electribe 101’s big hit, featured on Simon Forestiero’s “Got 2 Be Funky” show on Manchester’s Piccadilly Key 103 FM on 25 May 2002. Although the piano struggles to keep up with the repetition at times, it’s a great performance of a classic club song, and Billie’s vocals are on top form.

5) Hyper Lust (Album Version): MOTOR ft. Billie Ray Martin (Man Made Machine/single, 2012)

Similar to Slam’s Year Zero and Hifi Sean’s Ft., USA-based electro/industrial duo MOTOR’s album is laden with like-minded guest vocalists such as Gary Numan, Martin Gore and Douglas McCarthy. Again, Billie’s performance is a standout.

Side Two

6) I’ve Never Been To Memphis (Radio Edit): Billie Ray Martin (single, 2001)

From Billie’s 2001 album, 18 Carat Garbage, this is another classic hit-that-never-was. A lyrical companion to Slam’s Bright Lights Fading, it’s another fascinating take on the vagaries of fame, with some beautiful lines:

I saw my face in the paper today
[…] I read a tale of a girl with my name
It was not the one that I know

I want to see my name in neon lights
Cause the words that you write they don’t last, my friends
They only shine a day at a time
And leave stains on my hands

Billie’s vocals are perfectly complemented by the music, which I keep expecting to segue into The Hustle by Van McCoy at some point, which is no bad thing.

7) The Crackdown (Radio Edit By Märtini Brös.): Billie Ray Martin ft. Stephen Mallinder (The Crackdown Project EP, 2010)

In which Billie covers Cabaret Voltaire’s 1983 double A-side single, Crackdown / Just Fascination, in suitably dark electro style. Over two volumes (“Sold Out To Disco” and “Darkness Restored”), there are a heck of lot of versions (14 of Crackdown, 17 of Just Fascination). As with most of the selections here, for ICA timing reasons I’ve gone for the radio edit, which features new vocals from Stephen Mallinder himself, transforming the song into a suitably dark duet.

8) No Brakes On My Rollerskates (Mark Moore & Mr. Motion Mix): Hot Skates 3000 (single, 2003)

An obscure BRM one-off side project. As described by Billie on her Bandcamp page:

“A girl has to have fun. It was the time of Electroclash and i was on a rebellious trip. What can i say: Some may like this, some may not. I had fun, working in Berlin at the time with producer Robert Schirner. The Mark Moore mix and Futon Mixes both to me are just fabulous.”

She’s not wrong, this is a fun trip and a counterpoint to the deeper lyrics of her solo material. And Mark “S’Express” Moore & Mr. Motion’s remix is, well, fabulous.

9) Undisco Me (Original Radio Edit): Billie Ray Martin (single, 2007)

This single was born from a collaboration with Norwegian DJ & producer Lil’Wolf aka Vegard Wolf Dyvik. The previous song on this ICA was described as “somewhat resembling Donna Summer on acid”, but I think the comment is far more apt for this track. A disco belter, as they used to say.

10) Persuasion (SpookyBillie’s Ventriloquist Mix): Billie Ray Martin & Spooky (single, 1993)

Proposing a cover of Throbbing Gristle’s unsettling song from 1979’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats, you can maybe understand why the wheels may have started to come off the bus for Electribe 101’s second major label album. Launching your solo career with the same song may have seemed equally ill advised, but by then Billie had teamed up with superlative electronic duo Spooky aka Charlie May and Duncan Forbes and the single was released on the mighty Guerilla label, run by William Orbit and Dick O’Dell. There are a plethora of remixes, all brilliant, but I have opted to go with the closing track of the CD single, which goes for the minimalist approach, brings Billie’s vocals to the fore and cranks the creepiness up to 11.

Bonus 12” EP

In good conscience, I couldn’t help trying to sneak in a few extra songs…

A1) Captain Drag (Album Version): Billie Ray Martin ft. Ann Peebles & Carla Thomas (18 Carat Garbage, 2001)

Back during last year’s run of “opening tracks” ICAs, I played around with a few variations but never settled on one that I was happy to submit. This song was a constant though, and one of my favourites of Billie Ray Martin’s career. Less obvious here, but the album features backing vocals throughout from soul legends Ann Peebles & Carla Thomas.

A2) Candy Coated Crime (Disco Bloodbath Remix): The Opiates (Hollywood Cuts (The Remixes), 2012)

Another BRM side project, this time a collaboration with Norwegian DJ & producer Robert Solheim. They released a couple of EPs, an album and a remix companion. I discovered the album, Hollywood Under The Knife, by accident when browsing the bargain bin at Blackcat Records in Taunton during a business trip. It’s a great album, but I’ve opted here for the remix by Disco Bloodbath aka Ben Rymer & Dan Beaumont, which gives the song that little push over the cliff.

B1) You And I (Keep Holding On) (Album Version): Billie Ray Martin (Deadline For My Memories/single, 1996)

A straight soul song, which despite being co-produced by Brian Transeau aka BT, dodges the dancefloor and goes straight for the heart. I was surprised to find that this was related as the fifth and final single from her Top 10 album. It reached the dizzy lows of 76 in the UK chart, at a time when the Lighthouse Family were a regular feature of the Top 20. Go figure.

B2) The Long And Lonely Fall (Album Version): Billie Ray Martin (The Soul Tapes, 2016)

This was originally premiered back in 2003 as part of a “New Demos” promo, though songs were originally recorded in the mid-90s, prior to 18 Carat Garbage. The album never came to be and The Soul Tapes, following a mere 13 years later, features reworked versions of the original songs. Described as a “soul album country with a country twist”, it’s a natural progression from – and threaded throughout – her previous work, right back to Electribe 101 and 4 Ambient Tales. Interviewed by Songwriting Magazine in 2016, Billie was asked if this was the album that she always wanted to make, to which she replied, “No, it’s just one album that I made. And it’s great.”

And that just about sums up Billie’s questing nature: always moving on, always creating, always seeking new ways of expression. I’ve not heard any of the demos or songs from forthcoming Gezeitenraum, which was due in 2020 but (hopefully) coming soon, but I do know that it’ll be worth the wait