Pages From the Past: Book of Love returns to Necto 30 years later
That concert was March 3, 1987.
Now, 30 years later, the melody-driven synth-pop group is returning as part of an ongoing tour that kicked off last year with the release of MMXVI – Book of Love – The 30th Anniversary Collection.
“We call them anniversary shows,” said primary songwriter Ted Ottaviano who tours with singer Susan Ottaviano (no relation). “We’ve had reunion shows where we’ve had the (founding) four members, but that’s not easy to pull off. We’ve only done three of them and we specifically did them in the three major cities throughout our career.”
The other original members, Lauren Roselli (keyboards, vocals) and Jade Lee (keyboards, vocals), are still a part of Book of Love officially, but with busy lives outside the band, they can’t hit the road with the other two. “It essentially works because you have the lead vocalist and I’ve been the main songwriter, so the essence of the group is intact,” Ottaviano said.
In 2017, it might seem strange that an electro-pop band would need four musicians -- after all, anything coming out of a synthesizer can be pre-programmed and triggered, with no need for live playing. But that wasn’t the case in 1983 when Book of Love first started putting together its bleeps and bloops.
“At the time, it was the opposite,” Ottaviano said. “Like, ‘Really, you’re making music as a duo? Don’t you need more people?’ Bands were still traditionally playing off that four-piece rock-band sensibility. But even for us, before we were working with programming, it was really three live keyboard players playing with a little beat box, so we needed as much manpower as possible. Then technology took hold. By the time we were on our second album tour, a lot of the music was sequenced and running live through samplers, so we evolved into the fact that it can work as a duo now.”
Plus, Book of Love performing its synth music live fit its attitude better because the group didn’t think of itself as dance-floor robots; the quartet's main inspirations were song-based art-punk bands.
“We consider ourselves a post-punk band. That was the stuff that inspired us -- and still inspires us,” Ottaviano said. “I was spinning some vinyl at a local bar over the last year and I bring all of my old post-punk singles: LiLiPUT, Delta 5, the Mo-dettes, you name it. The instinctual, real, organic feel of the music were the things that got us excited to start our own band. But our abilities steered us in the direction toward synthesizers. So, we ended up making our music with those instruments and, as a result, the songs have a different polish to them, but the mindset is the same.”
Book of Love even spelled out its post-punk influence by covering LiLiPUT/Kleenex’s “Die Matrosen,” a spiky guitar- and sax-based blast of dance punk, on its 1986 self-titled debut LP.
“I think it’s funny when people don’t know the original LiLiPUT version,” Ottaviano said. “They sometimes come back and say, ‘I heard the original version by LiLiPUT and I like your version better.’ And I’m like, ‘How could you possibly like our version better? It doesn’t even come close!’”
Book of Love shouted out LiLiPUT and other women punkers on “All Girl Band,” a new song for the MMXVI compilation. And the “Night-Club Remix” of “All Girl Band” samples the “uh-huh” hook from Book of Love’s classic “Boy” just to bring everything back to the beginning.
“Boy” is one of Book of Love’s defining songs, combining the group’s love of hammered-bell melodies, playfully provocative lyrics, and just enough BPMs to fill a dance floor -- though maybe not Ted Ottavino’s dance floor.
“I think ‘Boy’ is a masterpiece -- but having said that, I’ve tried to dance to ‘Boy’ on the dance floor and I can’t even dance to it!” he laughed.
But people who went to the Nectarine Ballroom way back when regularly danced to “Boy” and other Book of Love bangers like “I Touch Roses” and “You Make Me Feel So Good."
“Our singles were chosen, to a degree, as the ones that fit that [dance genre as best as possible,” Ottavino said. But Book of Love, like Depeche Mode -- who took Ottavino and Co. out on huge tours as openers in 1985 and 1986 -- had a different focus than nightclubs when composing its music.
“We’re totally a song-based band,” he said. “Book of Love always had downtempo tracks, we had midtempo tracks, we had uptempo tracks, but those dance songs were always chosen as singles. And in a weird way, it started labeling us as that’s the music we made, but it’s really not. If you listen to the albums, there’s a variety of things that we do. So, to label us as a dance band and then buy one of our albums, it’s a little bit of a misnomer. We always kind of fought it a little bit.”
While Book of Love was comfortable courting dance floors on its debut record and its follow-up, 1988’s Lullaby, the quartet really let its 1960s pop influences shine on 1991’s Candy Carol. That record came out after Depeche Mode’s 1990 mega-smash Violator and before St. Etienne’s first album, Foxbase Alpha (1991), both of which are song-based electro-pop LPs, with the latter drawing on many of the same girl-group influences as Book of Love. And while Candy Carol sits comfortably between Violator and Foxbase Alpha, it had a tough time finding an audience at the time.
“It’s funny you say that, and I appreciate that you say that,” Ottavino said. “Because I’ve always thought that when people don’t understand the Candy Carol record, it really fit into that (Depeche Mode/St. Etienne) realm as well. In a strange way, it was very '90s in its '60s influences (laughs). I always felt that we had a certain mindset for that record that really fit where we were at the time, and people who didn’t click with that record were expecting the music to have the same mindset as the first two albums.”
Even though Book of Love had its largest successes with club hits -- and will play Ann Arbor's main shimmy joint once again -- not being boxed in as a dance-music act has helped the group in the long run.
“Our catalog has really resonated for a very select and loyal group of fans that we have,” Ottavino said. “That’s probably the reason why we’re still plugging along all these years later.”
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.