The Complete Fun Boy Three reviewed

Alexis Petridis on the new 6-disc deluxe

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The Complete Fun Boy Three box set 5CD+DVD

The Complete Fun Boy Three / Fun Boy Three 5CD+DVD deluxe set

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The Complete Fun Boy Three box set 5CD+DVD

It’s tempting to wonder what executives at their record company might have made of the recently-formed Fun Boy Three. On the one hand, they should have been as close to a guaranteed success as pop music got in late 1981: after all, they were comprised of Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, three most immediately recognisable members from one of the biggest British bands of their era, a band that had ended their career a few months previously with one of the most celebrated number ones in UK chart history. On the other… well, just listen to their idea for a debut single. A stew of lumbering percussion, needling organ and doomy backing vocals, topped off with impossibly pessimistic lyrics about famine, nuclear war and global conspiracy, ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ was certainly original, a decisive musical shift that underlined the Two Tone era had drawn to a close, but it sounded like it was aimed specifically at anyone who thought the one problem with The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ was that it was insufficiently gloomy.

As it turned out, ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ was a Top 20 hit, which probably tells you more about residual affection for their former band than its radio-friendliness. It kicked off a brief, intriguing career that feels rather forgotten in 2023, inevitably overshadowed by The Specials’ legacy. The Fun Boy Three may have had huge hits and gold-selling albums, they might have helped launch the career of Bananarama, but they didn’t have the same kind of impact The Specials did: no youth subculture was spawned in their wake, no legion of bands were inspired by them, they never released anything with the eerie presence of ‘Ghost Town’, a song that literally appeared to be commenting on current events while it sat at number one.

Fun Boy Three didn’t have the same impact The Specials did

Alexis Petridis

None of which reflects on the Fun Boy Three’s actual music, which deserves better than its current status as an addendum to The Specials’ career, a situation The Complete Fun Boy Three’s four CDs and a DVD – the latter collecting promo videos, Top of the Pops appearances and a live show from the Old Grey Whistle Test – attempts to rectify. If anyone else had come up with an album as experimental, dense and strange as their eponymous debut, you suspect it would be hailed as a masterpiece of boundary-free post-punk thinking: as it is, they warrant literally one sentence at the end of a chapter about Two Tone in Simon Reynolds’ otherwise exemplary post-punk history Rip It Up And Start Again.

Interviewed around the time The Specials reformed, Terry Hall described The Fun Boy Three’s eponymous debut as “the sound of three people sent mental by being in The Specials”. It was a flippant remark, with a grain of truth at its centre. A dark, oppressive mood hangs over its contents – even the Bananarama collaboration It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It), a Top 5 hit in early 1982, would sound pretty ominous stripped of their vocals – that was presumably a response to the pressurised world the trio had inhabited in the last 18 months of The Specials’ career: ”everything was a trauma,” recalled Hall, “you didn’t get any kind of space, which is what I started to want: just an hour or two… you didn’t get a minute off”. It’s an effect the album achieves via a remarkable cocktail of influences.

Over the course of its 11 tracks, you can hear traces of reggae, Afrobeat, the spooked, clattering instrumentals found on Dr John’s debut album Gris Gris, the percussion-heavy, paranoid atmospherics of Public Image Limited’s Flowers Of Romance (a regular, if controversial, choice of soundtrack on The Specials’ tourbus), spy film soundtracks, and the post-disco electronic dance music bubbling up from New York, given a distinctly Fun Boy Three-esque spin on Faith Hope And Charity. The rhythms variously seem rooted in West Africa, Brazil and in the Nyabinghi drumming of Count Ossie – although ironically, one of the signature percussive sounds turns out to be a child’s xylophone, sourced from the distinctly non-exotic environs of a Habitat store – the backing vocals touch on African choral singing and, on opener ‘Sanctuary’, Gregorian chant. Stirred with a selection of simple but hooky tunes, the album is minimal but heady: it sounds both humid and overcast. It’s also so far removed from whatever else was happening in 1981-2 that it hasn’t dated at all: it still sounds remarkably fresh and unique 40 years on.

It wasn’t a sound the Fun Boy Three pursued further: the following year’s Waiting was produced by David Byrne – they originally wanted Brian Eno – and offered the first obvious flowering of Terry Hall’s hitherto-secret passion for lushly melodic classic pop. Later in his career, he would cover Bacharach and David’s ‘Close To You’, Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw The Light’ and even The Captain And Tennielle’s ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’, but you can hear the early stirrings on Waiting: the tango-fuelled ‘Tunnel Of Love’ and waltz-time ‘Well Fancy That!’ offered richly satisfying melodies, ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’, co-written with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos, is an authentic pop classic and – with the greatest respect to The Go-Gos, who recorded it first – The Fun Boy Three’s version is definitive.  

But the strangest thing about The Complete Fun Boy Three might be the correspondence between the music here and the music Jerry Dammers went on to make with The Special AKA. Dammers’ increasing interest in easy listening and jazz finds a match in the Fun Boy Three’s covers of Ron Godwin’s ‘Murder She Said’ – the theme tune from Margaret Rutherford’s early 60s Miss Marple movies – Gershwin’s jazz standard ‘Summertime’, released as a standalone single in 1982, and indeed ‘It Ain’t What You Do…’, a swing-era hit that had previously been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. The claustrophobia of In The Studio’s Housebound and The Lonely Crowd is mirrored by that of ‘The Telephone Always Rings’ and ‘Alone’, while the political despair of War Crimes reflected in ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ and ‘The More I See (The Less I Believe)’, the latter Waiting’s bleak meditation on The Troubles which ends with Hall repeating the line “does anybody know any jokes?”, as if desperate to escape his own sense of hopelessness. For people who couldn’t get on with each other, they still seemed to have a lot in common: if you squint, you can just about envisage an alternative history, where The Specials hold together for a couple more albums, release a Dammers-arranged version of ‘The Telephone Always Rings’ as a single and Terry Hall sings ‘What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend’ and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.

‘Well Fancy That!’ from Waiting

But of course, The Specials couldn’t hold together, and neither could the Fun Boy Three: Hall suddenly bailed after a US tour in support of Waiting, apparently without telling his bandmates. Beyond “not wanting to restrict myself”, his reasons are shrouded in mystery. Certainly, Waiting didn’t sound like a band running out of steam. Quite the opposite: on ‘We’re Having All The Fun’, ‘The Tunnel Of Love’ or ‘Well Fancy That!’, it sounded like a band finding a new niche, as purveyors of vignettes of everyday life – sometimes funny, sometimes pointed, sometimes harrowing (‘Well Fancy That!’ starkly details the sexual abuse to which Hall was subjected as a school kid) – not a million miles removed from Madness in what you might call their post-nutty era. That the opening brace of singles by Hall’s next venture, The Colourfield, could have slotted onto Waiting without jolting the listener only seemed to underline the point.

But short-lived or not, what the trio left behind was far from shabby, as The Complete Fun Boy Three proves. You could query whether it was entirely necessary to put their two albums on separate CDs (both barely half-an-hour-long, you could fit them onto one, although the marked difference in sound arguably warrants separating them) and not everything on the two CDs of singles, b-sides, remixes and outtakes counts as essential, but there’s some fascinating stuff inbetween the completist-only US single versions and monitor mixes: the Fun Boy Three’s first demos – recorded while they were still in The Specials, and featuring the first version of Ghost Town’s b-side ‘Why?’ – an outtake from Waiting called ‘If Dogs Run Free’, which features a guide vocal by David Byrne. Frequently informed by dub reggae, the 12” versions of their hits tended to be more creative than the extend-it-by-any-means-necessary approach that bedevilled pop bands grappling with the format in the early 80s: the version of ‘Our Lips Were Sealed’ with Indian strings and vocals in Urdu is a low-key delight; the extended version of ‘It Ain’t What You Do…’ unravels in a mass of echo and backwards tapes.

It’s nicely rather than lavishly packaged (the box is an A5-sized hardback book) but in a market cluttered with reissues of questionable worth, The Complete Fun Boy Three feels strangely necessary. More than a definitive last word, it’s an opportunity to re-evaluate an unfairly overlooked oeuvre. “Not enough people talk about the Fun Boy Three,” laments Neville Staple in the sleeve notes: they should, and the reasons why are here.

The Complete Fun Boy Three is released on Friday 4 August 2023.


The Complete Fun Boy Three box set 5CD+DVD

The Complete Fun Boy Three Fun Boy Three /

    • CD 1: The Fun Boy Three (album)
      1. Sanctuary
      2. Way On Down
      3. The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)
      4. Life In General (Lewe In Algemeen)
      5. Faith, Hope And Charity
      6. Funrama 2
      7. Best of Luck Mate
      8. T’Aint What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)
      9. The Telephone Always Rings
      10. I Don’t Believe
      11. Alone
    • CD 2: Waiting (album)
      1. Murder She Said
      2. The More I See (The Less I Believe)
      3. Going Home
      4. We’re Having All The Fun
      5. The Farmyard Connection
      6. The Tunnel of Love
      7. Our Lips Are Sealed
      8. The Pressure of Life (Takes Weight off The Body)
      9. Things We Do
      10. Well Fancy That!
    • CD 3: Singles, B-sides & Outtakes
      1. T’Aint What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) [Single Version]
      2. The Funrama Theme [B-side Version]
      3. Really Saying Something
      4. The Telephone Always Rings [Single Version]
      5. The Alibi (The Station’s Full of Pipes)
      6. Summertime
      7. Summer of ’82
      8. The Alibi (The Station’s Full of Pipes) [NME Version]
      9. The Lunacy Legacy
      10. Our Lips Are Sealed [Single Version]
      11. Our Lips Are Sealed [Urdu Version]
      12. Tell Me Why [Outtake] [Previously Unreleased]
      13. 96 Tears [Outtake] [Previously Unreleased]
      14. Tunnel of Love [rough Mix [Previously Unreleased]
      15. Our Lips Are Sealed [Rough Mix] [Previously Unreleased]
      16. The Things We Do [Rough Mix] [Previously Unreleased]
      17. If Dogs Run Free [Outtake] [Previously Unreleased]
      18. The Pressure of Life (Take Weight off The Body) [U.S. Single Version] [Previously Unreleased]
    • CD 4: Versions
      1. Tell Me Why [Dub Mix [Previously Unreleased]
      2. T’Aint What You Do…/Just Do It [Extended Version]
      3. The Funrama Theme [Extended Version]
      4. Really Saying Something [Extended Version]
      5. The Telephone Always Rings [Extended Version]
      6. The Alibi (The Station’s Full of Pipes) [Extended Version]
      7. Summertime [Extended Version]
      8. The More I See (The Less I Believe) [Parts 1 & 2]
      9. Our Lips Are Sealed [Special Remix Version]
      10. The Pressure of Life (Takes Weight off The Body) [US Club Remix] [Previously Unreleased]
      11. The Pressure of Life (Takes Weight off The Body) [David Jensen Session 16/1/83]
      12. The Tunnel of Love [David Jensen Session 16/1/83]
      13. Going Home [David Jensen Session 16/1/83]
      14. Well Fancy That! [David Jensen Session 16/1/83]
    • CD 5: Live at the Regal Theatre, Hitchin (6 April 1983)
      1. The More I See (The Less I Believe)
      2. The Pressure of Life (Takes Weight off The Body)
      3. The Farm Yard Connection [Previously Unreleased]
      4. Going Home
      5. Things We Do
      6. Well Fancy That! [Previously Unreleased]
      7. Summertime
      8. The Alibi
      9. Our Lips Are Sealed
      10. The Tunnel of Love
      11. We’re Having All The Fun
      12. Gangsters
      13. T’Aint What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)
      14. The Telephone Always Rings [Previously Unreleased]
      15. The Tunnel of Love [Previously Unreleased]
    • DVD: Promo Videos and At The BBC
      1. The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum [Promo Clip]
      2. T’Aint What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) [Single Version] [Promo Clip]
      3. The Telephone Always Rings [Single Version] [Promo Clip]
      4. Really Saying Something [Promo Clip]
      5. Summertime [Promo Clip]
      6. The More I See (The Less I Believe) [Promo Clip]
      7. The Tunnel of Love [Promo Clip]
      8. Our Lips Are Sealed [Promo Clip]
      9. The Lunatics Have (Taken Over The Asylum) [BBC Top of The Pops]
      10. T’Aint What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) [BBC Top of The Pops]
      11. The Telephone Always Rings [BBC Top of The Pops]
      12. Summertime [BBC Top of The Pops]
      13. The Tunnel of Love [BBC Top of The Pops]
      14. Our Lips Are Sealed [BBC Top of The Pops]
      15. The Telephone Always Rings [Something Else]
      16. The Alibi [Something Else]
      17. Intro/Murder She Said/Interview
      18. The More I See (The Less I Believe) [Live]
      19. The Pressure of Life (Takes Weight off The Body) [Live]
      20. Going Home [Live]
      21. Things We Do [Live]
      22. Summertime [Live]
      23. The Alibi [Live]
      24. Our Lips Are Sealed [Live]
      25. The Tunnel of Love [Live]
      26. We’re Having All The Fun [Live]
      27. Gangsters [Live]
      28. T’Aint What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It) [Live].

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