Sunday, September 20, 2020
Arts + Culture Music Pretty boy and pretty girls

Pretty boy and pretty girls

Ted Ottaviano of synth-pop legends Book of Love dishes on melting drag, "Boy Pop," and the band's reunion show, Sun/19.

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The excited crowd sweltered in its leathers as Ted Ottaviano and Susan Ottaviano (no relation), two members of revered 1980s-early ’90s act Book of Love, climbed to the sun-bathed stage during last year’s Folsom Street Fair — he in a dapper tailored suit and she in the kind of voluminous, Gothic dress she’s known for.

“We love San Francisco, and every time we go there it’s like 60 degrees,” keyboardist and composer Ted told me over the phone this week from his home in New York. “People told us that in September it can get quite hot, but if you know Book of Love, we’ll always appear in our drag. And last year it was like 95 degrees. I think we both kind of melted!”

Nothing, however, could wilt glorious synth-pop classics like “Boy,” “I Touch Roses,” “Modigliani (Lost In Your Eyes),” and “You Make Me Feel So Good” — or the crowd’s bopping enthusiasm — and the pair commanded the stage with total charm. “It’s so great to be in SF,” singer Susan said, then mischievously hinted, “I think we just might have to return with the rest of the band.”

So when Book of Love announced a date with the full band Sun/19 at DNA Lounge including other founding members Lauren Roselli and Jade Lee, it was a witchy date foretold. The band has been on hiatus for almost 15 years (last year marked the 30th anniversary of the release of their seminal Book of Love album), but the rapturous reception of a live reunion last year at NYC’s Highline Ballroom convinced them to come together for this year’s mini-tour. 

Book of Love’s music — occult-friendly, plain-spoken lyrics combined with dance-ready beats and effervescent synths and chimes — has been enjoying a revival, and a shot of relevance. 1987’s “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls,” with its evocation of a “city full of fear” and advocation of safe sex, was one of the first pop songs to address AIDS outright. And “Boy” is an anthem about the frustration of an imposed binary system of gender identity. Or else it’s just a fun tune about wishing you had a penis so you can get into gay bars, why not.

It was surprisingly easy to get the band back together, despite the members moving on to various projects. (A compilation Book of Love – MMXVI The 30th Anniversary Collection came out last year, and included new single “All Girl Band,” which name-checks women from the post-punk milieu Book of Love came out of.)

And while the music sounds as fresh as ever, some things have changed. Ted told me, laughing, that when the band first got together in 1983 in Philadelphia and hit the clubs of New York, “I was such a night owl — and now I can’t help but get up early, being way more productive than I ever would have when we were a young band just starting out. I guess that’s growing up?”

Another shift a 34-year-old synth pop band must deal with is that of technology: Book of Love steps from an analog age into a definitely digital one. Ted told me, “What was interesting about Book of Love was we were one of the first bands to start using a lot of different technology onstage” — they famously opened for Depeche Mode’s ’85 and ’86 tours — “and it was really pre-computer. It was sequencers, samplers, emulators… all the technology was running live, but with a lot of preprogrammed parts that were fraught with their own live dangers.

“What’s different now is that we’re using the same versions of things, but through software versions. Initially when we started re-touring, we learned the hard way about the different kind of glitches we have to deal with — computers don’t travel as well as the older equipment did, so we had to get the bugs out.

“We enlisted a lot of help from people in the beginning. Actually, Vince Clarke from Erasure was super-helpful in giving advice on how to run some of the software. He really helped.”  

Yet some things have stayed relatively the same. “The four of us make up this crazy puzzle, and with the directions everyone’s gone in we haven’t been able to be a functioning live band the way we used to. But when you put all four of us together, that magic is really still there for us. And because we’ve been together so long, coming together again as a foursome gives us some flexibility to pull from our catalog and do songs we love to do together.

“For instance, on our second album there’s that song ‘Witchcraft‘ which has Jade, Lauren, and Susan at the helm naming various potion ingredients and names — and when they can perform that together, people just go wild. People love that song.” 

During the reunion show at DNA Lounge, the band is going to be recording live for an upcoming concert release. “Our live shows really take the tracks to another level, and Susan is fantastic when it comes to interacting with audiences. We want to capture that. So we’re going to need everyone to be very loud and sing along as much as they can,” Ted cajoled. Judging from the phalanx of Folsom Street Fair voices drowning out Susan during every chorus, this won’t be a problem. 

I couldn’t let an interview with Ted go by without asking about one of the delightful anomalies of the Book of Love catalogue, the remix of “Boy Pop” that swept gay dance floors in 1993. The video is a camp masterpiece, with buff and puffy-haired go-go boys eyeing Ted in a bar, while the rest of the band sips cocktails and looks distinctly out of place. 

Ted laughed when I brought it up. “When we’re in the studio, we sometimes come up with these tracks that don’t quite fit in with what we’re doing in a larger sense. ‘Boy Pop’ was definitely one of those tracks. So when it became clear that it was becoming a single, we were like, ‘What do we do with this?’ So I almost feel like we’re just along for the ride on that one. But having written it I have no excuse. Still, it ended up being a really successful track for us, even though I ask myself sometimes, ‘Did we really do that?'”  

BOOK OF LOVE
Sun/19, doors 7pm, show 8pm,
$25 GA, $50 meet and greet 
DNA Lounge, SF
Tickets and more info here.  

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.

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