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1981: Making noise with the art school boys
Pop muzik and computer love
Strange how potent cheap music can be. Like a whiff of Blue Stratos on the night air, all it takes is a few bars of a chirpy novelty hit and there we are, forty years ago, dripping extruded ice cream product on the vinyl seats of a Morris Marina while the rain falls on a pebbled beach. Year by year, these are the songs that have soundtracked our lives
His mother bought him a synthesiser
Got the Human League into advise her
Now he's making lots of noise
Playing along with the art school boys
‘My Perfect Cousin’
The pop music that comes out when you are twelve will always seem like the very best there ever could be. But I had the good luck to be 12 in 1981, when the charts were dominated by a genre that was not only great but also truly revolutionary: synth pop.
Synth pop is highly memorable and mythologised in pop culture, but it was also a weird little bubble that popped almost immediately. It was so very specific to its moment, and to its combination of Northern and Southern European musical cultures: cold and hot, fire and ice.
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The Undertones weren’t being entirely unfair about their cousin Kevin and his new friends. There was a strong overtone of the archly art school about synth music in that moment. None of the Human League actually went to art school, but in their early years they certainly sounded as though they had. One of the biggest singles in 1981 was performance artist Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, a record that was pretty much just a repeated sample of her singing ‘Ha!’, with vocodered vocals layered over the top. Less of a pop single, more of a happening.
It was intellectual - no, pseudo-intellectual, pretentious and ‘pompous’, as Andy McCluskey of OMD has put it. These were what Phil Oakey of The Human League has dubbed ‘the alienated synthesists’; they weren’t afraid of the kind of polysyllabic nomenclature that the punks did not grok. They name-dropped William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick: most of Tubeway Army’s first record is a precis of various Dick books (including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was the basis for Blade Runner (1982)), while The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ is a musical rendition of Ballard’s Crash.
Those are all sci-fi authors, which gives us our second commonality: as well as being performatively arty, synth music was specifically nerdy. This was, after all, a time when sci-fi was still seen as the province of awkward little boys who preferred robots to people. Even synth pop’s musical influences - the electronic score to Forbidden Planet (1956) by Bebe and Louis Barron, and Wendy Carlos’ music for Stanley Kubrick’s film of Clockwork Orange (1971) - came from sci-fi.
It is hard to explain, at this remove, just how extraordinarily futuristic synth pop seemed, in a contemporary pop world that was predominantly guitar, bass, drums and a preening ninny with a tambourine. It was other-worldly, a sound that had dropped through a wormhole to our time. It was like something out of a Philip K. Dick story in which someone accidentally tunes into an alien radio station and infects the Earth with a whole new kind of music.
All of this helps to explain why even clever, literate pop punks like The Undertones - never mind ordinary assembly-line punks - didn’t like it. Its arch pose, apparently cold technology and over-intellectualism made it an obvious antagonist to underdog anti-heroes, true and earthy and honest. It seemed lost in the future, rather than battling in the present.
Still, it wasn’t only punks who hated it: everyone did, from rockers and easy listeners to jazz nerds and classical virtuosos. This wasn’t, they said, ‘proper’ rock n’ roll with a five-minute guitar solo; it didn’t have real musicians with actual talent. These were simply the distortions of sound waves made by tweaked circuits, not the warm sound of a wooden guitar resonator and the squeak of the fingertip on the fretboard. It was just apparently button-pushing; surely the machines did all the work. Gary Numan always claimed the Musicians’ Union tried to get him banned.
It says a lot about Britain in 1981 that Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ was kept off the #1 slot by Joe Dolce’s offensively stereotypical comedy single ‘Shaddap You Face’. ‘Vienna’ is splendidly ludicrous, sparse and lush by turns, romantically doomladen and cringingly arch. It is the mystique of the dark and ruined city, the vaulting futuristic ambition of the crumbling concrete estate. More importantly it was mostly electronic, apart from the bit where it goes into waltz time for a viola break.
Unlike punk, which had quickly reduced itself to its ‘50s rock n’ roll roots - even The Sex Pistols recorded Eddie Cochran covers - this was a wholly new kind of music: the music of tomorrow. But not the kind of sci-fi that entranced prog rock and metal, all gleaming spaceships and babes in tin-foil bikinis. It was the sci-fi of the near future, a psychologically queasy vision of what the world will be like in five minutes’ time. Dick and Ballard and Burroughs consciously used sci-fi as a way to talk about the present, and to show, as cyberpunk author William Gibson said, that ‘the future is already here – it's just not very evenly distributed.’
The biggest influence on British synth music was undoubtedly Kraftwerk, who finally had a UK #1 in 1981 with a re-release of ‘The Model’. Kraftwerk’s real genius had always been their ability to make the music of now, the sound of driving on the Autobahn to your factory or your office; the sound of Germany in the 1970s.
Early British synth music caught this impetus, creating a soundtrack to the grey, rundown cities of ‘70s Britain, the sound of ageing industrial plants. But the ‘70s were over.
In the ‘30s and ‘40s Raymond Scott was one of the most successful band leaders in American popular music. He presented national radio and TV shows, recorded pop records with singer Dorothy Collins and even contributed to Looney Tunes soundtracks. He specialised in tight, hummable arrangements that the public loved but jazz purists hated, because they left no room for improvisation.
He was also fascinated by electronic music. He built his own electronic instruments, obsessed by the possibility of reproducing the big band sound without an orchestra. He released the extraordinary Soothing Sounds for Baby (1964), a collection of weird little synthesised sketches allegedly scientifically designed to calm infants, and made jingles for advertising. He ended up building a massive, computerised song-writing machine called ‘The Electronium’. In the ‘70s Berry Gordy employed him as Director of Motown’s Research Department, in the hopes of automating his hit-making machine even further.
It’s interesting that it was Berry Gordy who saw the potential of what Scott was doing, because as well as Kraftwerk’s Teutonic input, the other influence on ‘80s synth pop was the party music of the ‘70s: disco and glam.
One man summed up both those genres in one career: the Italian-born Giorgio Moroder; he wrote the music for ‘Son of My Father’, which was covered by Chicory Tip in an early glam style. More importantly and obviously, he gave us, with Donna Summer, ‘I Feel Love’.
‘I Feel Love’ could feel cold and sparse, with its throbbing synths, robotic ticking beat and the high keen of Donna Summer’s voice. But deep in it you can feel the heat. The oppressive dark of the club, the flash of the lights, the thrilling foetid sweat of the dancefloor. It is the pressure of delight, the promise of sex, the sheer release of instinctive physical movement.
In 1980 Daniel Miller, who had been a pioneering electronic artist as The Normal and founded the record label Mute to distribute his own music when no one else would, went to see a new band called Depeche Mode playing live in Canning Town. What struck him, he said, is that the fans weren’t watching the band; they were ‘just dancing’. This was synthetic music that was full of human life.
Also in 1980, the keyboard players Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left The Human League and were replaced by singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley (girls!) just as the band went into the studio to begin recording the record that would become Dare. Meanwhile, Marsh and Ware took their experimental electronic sound to their new band, Heaven 17, who were recording in the same studios. Phil Oakey, the lead singer of The Human League, has always said that they were just as inspired by Moroder as they were by Kraftwerk and by 1981 both had seized those lessons, as synth music blossomed from arty experimentation into pop.
But glam rock gave something to ‘80s synth pop too. What Oakey called the ‘alienated synthesists’ are also ‘synthetic aliens’. They have made themselves into otherworldly beings: white-faced jump-suited androids like Gary Numan, pod people businessmen like Heaven 17. They were strange, unknowable icons in the tradition of Marc Bolan and David Bowie. They didn’t want to be unvarnished working musicians; they wanted to be fully fledged pop stars.
They had, in fact, taken the punk rock DIY ethos and used it to reinvent old fashioned light entertainment. New cheap synthesisers meant you no longer needed to learn three chords to start a band. You didn’t even need a band. If you were a pop genius like Depeche Mode founder member Vince Clarke, as long as you had a synthesiser and a friend with a good voice you could have a Top Ten hit. They were recreating, in other words, the model devised by Raymond Scott and Berry Gordy: put together a dependable musical sound, find a good singer, and start banging out the hits.
This is how you end up with Soft Cell’s cover of the ‘60s Northern Soul stomper ‘Tainted Love’. David Ball turns the chugging, propulsive horns of the original into a metallic, fizzling machine, with the insistent stabs of synth nailing the song down. But the real genius is Marc Almond’s voice, throbbing with all the emotion and desperation of Gloria Jones’s original. More, if anything.
Soon enough the synthesiser revolution evolved into a whole new musical culture with the late-’80s rave explosion and the Second Summer of Love. But the wonder of synth music in the first few years of the ‘80s, suspended in amber, is in this combination of fire and ice: spare electronic arrangement behind a rich, emotional voice, a driving beat and soaring vocals, a moment of unequalled pop brilliance.
Here’s our top 10 of synth pop from 1981 (warning, contains ‘Einstein A-Go-Go’)
For more electronic music, try our piece on another of the great pioneers: Jean-Michel Jarre.