Wednesday, 2 December 2009

See the Broken Glass: Synthpop 1978-1983

The mysterious Gavin Wright has sent this in for us. Listen to the playlist and take in his wonderful track by track commentary.


BBC4’s (fairly) recent Synth Britannia documentary re-ignited my interest in synthpop music, so I’ve put together a playlist. Bearing in mind that there are already hundreds of compilations out there with ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and ‘Cars’ (great records all) on them, I’ve picked songs that are slightly leftfield; songs that didn’t make the charts. Enjoy!

1. Ultravox – Dislocation (1978)

With the release of Systems of Romance, Ultravox moved away from their spiky glam beginnings towards something more obviously indebted to the German komische bands of the early-to-mid ‘70s. In doing so they mapped out the direction that much of synthpop would subsequently take – Neu!’s gleaming, modernist trance-rock and Kraftwerk’s playfully utopian hymns to technology re-imagined as ominous, funereal anthems of alienation and future shock.

‘Dislocation’ is where it all first gelled perfectly and while it took a few years and a change of singer before Ultravox would reap the commercial benefits of their advances, this track remains their finest moment.

2. The Normal – Warm Leatherette (1978)

Two songs inspired by J.G. Ballard stories; that’s the sole 7” recorded by bedroom genius Daniel Miller under the guise of The Normal.

This single is noteworthy not only as the first release on Miller’s Mute record label (and as such a key record in the story of British independent music) but also for the genius simplicity of the music itself. A scouring one-note synth riff, a metronomic drum pattern, some bizarre whirring noises and Miller’s deadpan vocals, that’s all there is to it; it trumps even David Essex’s dubbed-out ‘Rock On’ in the 1970s minimalist pop stakes.

3. Donna Summer – Can’t Get to Sleep at Night (1979)

Talking in Synth Britannia, The Human League’s Phil Oakey stressed the huge influence Summer’s work with Giorgio Moroder had on him and his bandmates and certainly there’s a marked similarity between the electro strut of the verses here and those on ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Going further, though, the Moroder/Summer pairing acts as one of the links between Eurocentric synthpop – with its conscious eschewing of rock’s blues roots – and disco’s expansions on soul and funk; that is, something that hints at the later developments of hip-hop, italo disco, r’n’b, house, techno and beyond. See Kevin Wilson’s post on ‘80s electro soul for this story in more detail.

4. Throbbing Gristle – Hot on the Heels of Love (1979)

Throbbing Gristle are the one act on this playlist most far removed from pop – their confrontational, art-school, anti-musician approach saw them arrive at a sound roughly in line with the more avant-garde end of post-punk (Cabaret Voltaire, This Heat). ‘Hot on the Heels of Love’, though, is catchy as anything, bubbling along in an almost quaint fashion. However the breathy vocals – which would sound totally innocuous had any other group recorded this song – lead you to imagine something dreadful behind it all. “I’m hot… on the heels… of love…” Christ, run away!

5. Gary Numan – Films (1979)

With two number one hits in 1979, Gary Numan became synthpop’s first household name – a role he fully embraced, smart dress sense, ambitious stage shows and all.

The Pleasure Principle (the second of his two albums of that year) saw him drop both the Tubeway Army band name and, crucially, the electric guitars. The result was a sound that was both more streamlined and more powerful than before – the combination of menacing synth lines and live rhythm section packs a rock punch, most obviously on ‘Cars’ and this track. Numan’s lasting influence on (and own excursions into) industrial rock should really have come as no surprise.

6. Marianne Faithfull – Broken English (1979)

Probably Marianne Faithfull’s most famous album, Broken English apparently surprised listeners with a stark new-wave feel in vivid contrast to the folksy pop sound of the singer’s previous material. Much of it still sounds incredibly modern.

The title track, a lament on European terrorism, is a thing of glacial, motionless beauty – a steady drum machine pulse, a circular bassline, icy shards of guitar and Faithfull’s fractured voice.

I’ve often heard synthpop sceptics criticise the genre for lacking emotional depth or what could perhaps be described as soulfulness; then I listen to something like this and wonder, well, what more do you want?

7. John Foxx – 20th Century (1980)

In a move parallel with Numan’s solo venture, Ultravox vocalist John Foxx left his band behind and his debut album, Metamatic, is a similarly stark affair to The Pleasure Principle. Yet whereas Numan’s synthesisers sound dark and brooding, the ones Foxx employs here are often harsh and trebly, full of queasy glissando and distortion – it’s the sonic equivalent of that big block of electric white light out to on the album’s cover.

‘20th Century’ was a B-side of the same era and is positively nightmarish, ‘Warm Leatherette’ to the power of ten.

8. Paul McCartney – Darkroom (1980)

I’ve no idea what music Paul McCartney was listening to in summer 1979, whether any of the people here had even entered his sphere of consciousness. What is known is that he went into his home studio in between Wings tours to play around with some new equipment and ended up with a double-album’s worth of sparse, electronica-tinged pop, roughly half of which was released as McCartney II ten months later.

The record is not without filler but a large portion of it stands up remarkably well, including ‘Darkroom’, which was supposedly written on the spot. It’s perhaps a testament to McCartney’s studio nous and experimental bent that it works at all; in a way it’s a huge shame he didn’t follow this path further.

9. The Human League – The Black Hit of Space (1980)

The League’s smash hit third album Dare! is quite rightly regarded as a high watermark of early-‘80s pop but the two albums recorded by the band’s original line-up are almost as good, albeit very different in tone. My favourite track from the pre-fame era is ‘The Black Hit Of Space’ – the lyrics tell a Twilight Zone-style story of a record turning into a black hole and swallowing earth narrated; the backing track sounds like a series of bombs going off in slow-motion.

There’s a lot of deadpan humour in these early League tracks. as well as a pop impulse barely concealed behind the surface austerity – indeed the group were apparently frustrated by their lack of chart success and this fuelled the tensions that would ultimately split them up in October 1980. The hits, of course, came for both factions before long.

10. Japan – My New Career (1980)

Japan seemed doomed by a number of factors to be New Pop’s terminal outsiders – unpromising origins as a sort of funky New York Dolls, having their thunder effectively stolen by Duran Duran, attempts at career progression undermined by their old record label reissuing early singles seemingly at random – yet their later records contain some of the most adventurous and rewarding music of the decade.

In contrast to the stripped-down, almost punkish approach of most of the other acts here, Japan’s songs featured lush and atmospheric production, ambitious arrangements and musicianship verging on virtuosity – plus of course David Sylvian’s distinctly musical croon. ‘My New Career’ comes from their penultimate studio album Gentlemen Take Polaroids – both that and 1981’s Tin Drum are up there with the finest music of the decade.

11. Kraftwerk – Computer Love (1981)

Kraftwerk really belong at the beginning of this story with ‘Trans-Europe Express’ but for me, 1981’s Computer World is their finest album – it’s the sound of the band taking note of where others had taken their innovations, nodding approvingly and then effortlessly going one better.

‘Computer Love’ is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard – there’s real poignancy in the pared-down lyrics and the music’s gentle electric glow. It also – sort of, in a way – made the top of the charts, as the original A-side of ‘The Model’ before everyone caught on to the latter track and the single got flipped over; it’s ironic – and a testament to the quirkiness of the UK singles chart – that one of pop’s most avowedly forward-looking bands scored their biggest hit with a three-year-old song.

12. ABBA – The Visitors (1981)

ABBA were always a fairly synth-friendly band – Moogs and Mellotrons had appeared on their songs almost right from the beginning – but the instruments were utilised most effectively on the band’s final album, the harrowing break-up record The Visitors. Benny and Bj√∂rn constructed a set of ominous minor-key soundscapes to match the record’s lyrical themes of regret, paranoia and isolation, the highlight being the slow-burning title track.

The 1982 single ‘The Day Before You Came’ was bleaker still – a fantastically modern record but not a hit (in fact none of ABBA’s releases that year made the UK top 20). By this point personal and working relationships had all but broken down completely and the group were on the verge of splitting – yet this later material remains as powerful and satisfying as anything they recorded.

13. Visage – Frequency 7 [Dance Mix] (1981)

Visage are perhaps the only band here who could be described as belonging to a readily identifiable scene – specifically the ridiculously elitist subculture centered around Covent Garden’s Blitz Club which came to be known as the New Romantics. Whereas Culture Club and Spandau Ballet – the other two big-name bands to spring from the Blitz – leant towards blue-eyed soul, Visage were a sort of synth supergroup, featuring moonlighting members of Ultravox and Magazine, as well as the club’s DJ (Rusty Egan) and doorman (Steve Strange).

Their big hit, ‘Fade To Grey’ is one of the definitive singles of the genre but there are other gems in their catalogue too. ‘Frequency 7’ is one of them, a zippy instrumental which hints at a future beyond synthpop – not for Visage themselves but for a handful of individuals living thousands and thousands of miles away from the Blitz Club who’d been listening closely... I’ll get back to that with #20…

14. Simple Minds – Seeing Out The Angel (1981)

Following three commercially unsuccessful and increasingly experimental albums, Simple Minds’ career arrived a turning point with the release of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call. Their first album for Virgin records and with Canterbury prog guitar god Steve Hillage replacing regular producer John Leckie, it saw the band finally make headway into the mainstream.

The best songs paired the Moroder-esque propulsion of 1980’s Empires And Dance with glistening, reverb-drenched synth patterns – the effect was both immediate and atmospheric.

The band followed Sons… with New Gold Dream, an even more immaculate album in a similar vein with the songwriting more finely-honed. Sadly, the mid-‘80s saw them pursue hugeness for its own sake at the expense of all subtlety or imagination. By the end of the decade, the heart of their music was lost completely beneath the hollow bombast.

15. Associates – White Car In Germany (1981)

As with Japan and Simple Minds, the music of the Associates is not what you might think of as synthpop in that it is far from being stripped down, simplistic or stark – yet the world of possibilities laid open by the same emerging technology undoubtedly played a vital part in their giddily adventurous approach to making music.

I imagine many instrumentalists would struggle with a vocal talent as mercurial as Billy MacKenzie’s but on those early ‘80s records Alan Rankine matched the singer again and again with some of the most strange and beautiful music in pop. ‘White Car In Germany’ is just one example – a slow march with MacKenzie’s glorious vocals gradually becoming enveloped by a mesh of otherworldly sounds. Listening to it is like watching exotic plantlife come alive after a freak winter freeze. If there’s anyone reading who still has reservations about the worth of the music I’m writing about, start here.

16. Depeche Mode – Get The Balance Right! (1983)

Listening to Depeche Mode’s chronologically-ordered Singles ‘81-’85 compilation, you get the impression that the band stumbled following the departure of main songwriter Vince Clarke – ‘See You’ and ‘The Meaning of Love’ come across as slight and clunky compared to the likes of the peppy ‘New Life’ (in fact listening in 2009 they strongly resemble the output of the useless LaRoux).

Yet Martin Gore (aided by new band member Alan Wilder) had clearly found his feet by the time of stopgap single ‘Get The Balance Right!’ – the song hits hard with juddering robotic bass, muscular beats and panicky, urgent synths. Admittedly the lyrics are pretty embarrassing (“You think you’ve got a hold on it all/you haven’t got a hold at all/When you reach the top, get ready to drop”) but let’s be honest, that’s a general problem Depeche Mode never seem to have managed to address.

In this tough, moody piece of music you can glimpse a vision of the band’s future as stadium goth heroes – that they are one of the few bands here who even had a future says a lot about the general direction taken by pop in the mid-1980s.

17. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Telegraph (1983)

Like The Human League, OMD had an undeniable knack for catchy pop – even Dazzle Ships, their famously experimental (and excellent) 1983 album, featured accessible, uptempo songs like ‘Telegraph’ and ‘Radio Waves’.

I really think that the point where the avant-garde and the populist meet is often the most interesting place in music and a lot of synthpop backs this up. I mean there’s no real reason why pop songs shouldn’t be about telephone boxes or power stations or Joan of Arc – I like that bands like OMD just wrote about the things they found interesting and trusted the record-buying public enough to go along with it. Sadly, after Dazzle Ships the group took a far less interesting path, courting success in the US along the way… There’s a pattern emerging here isn’t there?

18. Scott Walker – Track Three (1983)

The music of Scott Walker was a huge influence on several of the acts already mentioned – particularly the four tracks he contributed to The Walker Brothers’ 1978 Nite Flights album, which utilised synthesizers to startling effect.

Climate of Hunter, his sole release of the ‘80s, picked up from where those songs left off but it also points towards his future work; strip away the (very 1983) rhythm section and ‘Track Three’ could almost fit onto Tilt with its eerie, droning intro, hair-raising minor chords and fascinatingly oblique lyrics. Climate may be a transitional record but as part of the history of one of pop’s most compelling figures, it deserves not to be overlooked.

19. New Order – Your Silent Face (1983)

New Order’s earliest records very much took up where Joy Division left off but a 1981 trip to New York and a sampling of the city’s club culture soon led the band in another direction. Drum machine-driven disco rhythms found their way into their music, and by the time of 1983’s Power, Corruption and Lies, the signature New Order sound had been forged, with danceable tracks like ‘586’ (pretty much a dry run for ‘Blue Monday’) and ‘Age of Consent’.

However, the album’s highlight was a track that bridged old and new: the serene, magisterial ‘Your Silent Face’. The song is something of a companion piece to ‘Atmosphere’, similar both musically and thematically (“No hearing or breathing/No movement, no colours/Just silence”) and I’d say it’s even more powerful – there’s such life-affirming beauty in the way those glorious string sounds sweep across the gentle bounce of the rhythm section. Plus, of course, there’s that double-take prompting final line.

20. Cybotron – Clear (1983)

The future (sort of)! While the futurist impulses of synthpop in the UK mainstream were largely overtaken or assimilated by other styles as the 1980s went on, the music’s role in the development of Detroit techno proved to be another, more satisfying development in this story.

The tracks Juan Atkins, Jon-5 and 3070 recorded as Cybotron still very much resemble much of the music here albeit even bolder, even more streamlined – in a way their album, Enter, is the spiritual heir to Computer World. The sound within this music is the sound of people excited by the possibilities of music and technology and other people; it’s also the sound of totally flawless pop.

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