(article to accompany Synth Britannia BBC 4 documentary)
director's cut, The Guardian, October 9th 2009
by Simon Reynolds
The synthpop era really kicked off in June 1979 when Tubeway Army's "Are Friends Electric" hit Number One. Soon the charts were teeming with thin white dudes caked in Max Factor 28 panstick and playing one-finger melodies on Korg keyboards. The sound and visuals owed a substantial debt to David Bowie's Berlin trilogy and his stranded alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Chuck in some Europe Between the Wars atmospherics and you had the recipe for Visage's "Fade To Grey" and "The Damned Don't Cry", Japan's "Nightporter" and "Ghosts," Ultravox's "Vienna", and the rest of the scene known (confusingly) as both Futurists and New Romantics. Bowie himself resurfaced with the synth sadness of "Ashes To Ashes". And bringing up the rear were the pioneers , the chaps who'd coined the whole Mittel Europa/ Mensch Maschine shtick in the first place: Kraftwerk, #1 in February 1982 with their 1978 tune "The Model".
Synthesizers in popular music actually go back much further than the mandroid melancholy of Gary Numan. All the way back to the psychedelic Sixties, when American groups like Silver Apples and The United States of America ditched guitars for oscillators. In 1969 George Harrison put out a whole album of Moog doodles called Electronic Sound. German cosmic rockers Tangerine Dream gradually streamlined their Pink Floyd-wannabe grandeur into a minimal, darkly pulsing, all-electronic sound. Floyd themselves forayed into full-blown synth-rock with Dark Side of the Moon's "On The Run", whose brain-searing wibbles anticipating acid house, while other proggers like ELP's Keith Emerson and Yes's Rick Wakeman performed behind massive banks of electronic keyboards but tended to use their synths as glorified organs, hamming it up with Bach-style variations and arpeggiated folderol.
Far more unearthly electro-tones could be heard on the telly via s.f. series like Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People or at the cinema courtesy of dystopian movies like A Clockwork Orange, The Andromeda Strain, and Logan's Run. Black music too had its complement of visionaries besotted with the synth's cornucopia of otherworldly tone-colours, from fusioneers Weather Report and Herbie Hancock to funkateers Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic.
Black or white, these precocious knob-twiddlers all had a freakadelic, proggy mindset: they dug synths for the "far out, man" noises they generated, so they let rip long noodling solos or oozed out abstract dronescapes. None stood a chance of troubling the hit parade.
In some ways the crucial word in synthpop isn't "synth" but "pop". The British groups who took over the charts at the dawn of the Eighties were catchy and concise. Here they followed the lead of Kraftwerk, who were not only the first group to make a whole conceptual package/weltanschauung out of the Electronic Age, but were sublime tunesmiths. It's righteous that Kraftwerk's long-awaited remastered catalogue is getting reissued at almost the exact same time as the long-awaited remastered catalogue of the Beatles, because Hutter & Co rival the Fab Four for both their transformative impact on pop and their melodic genius.
Equally inspiring to the synthpop artists was Kraftwerk's
formality: their grey suits and short hair stood out at a time of jeans and beards and straggly locks, heralding an European future for pop, a decisive break with America and rock'n'roll.
Perhaps even more of a portent here was Giorgio Moroder's Eurodisco, whose clockwork-precise sequencers and icily erotic electronics forged the connection between synthesisers and the dancefloor, as opposed to the early association of Tangerine Dream/Klaus Schulze type music with getting stoned and supine on your sofa. Released in 1977, Donna Summer's Moroder-produced "I Feel Love" and Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" divided pop time in two as profoundly as "Anarchy in the UK". The Eighties begin there.
Conveniently, these singles arrived at a time when synths got vastly more affordable, portable, and user-friendly. As Synth Britannia reveals, what once cost as much as a small house (and therefore stayed the preserve of prog superstars) became something you could buy for a few hundred quid, or cheaper still if you mail-ordered a build-your-own-synth kit and were prepared to spend weeks assembling the bugger. Groups who'd been inspired by punk's confrontational rhetoric and sartorial provocations but who found the actual sonic substance of punk rock to be too ye olde rock'n'roll seized on the cheapo synth as the real coming of do-it-yourself.
Synthpop went through two distinct phases. The first was all about dehumanisation chic. That didn't mean the music was emotionless (the standard accusation of the synthphobic rocker) but that the emotions were bleak: isolation, urban anomie, feeling cold and hollow inside, paranoia. On the postpunk underground that meant Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, both of whom ironically used a fair bit of guitar but heavily treated it with electronic effects. On the pop overground it meant John Foxx and Gary Numan. Gaz also used guitar prominently on his early hits under the name Tubeway Army. The secret of his success was that his music, for all its majestic canopies of glacial synth, rocked. Even when he dropped the guitar along with the name Tubeway Army and went fully electronic on "Cars", he kept his flesh-and-blood drummer.
The second phase of synthpop reacted against the first. Electronic sounds now suggested jaunty optimism and the gregariousness of the dancefloor, they evoked a bright, clean future just round the corner rather than J.G. Ballard's desolate Seventies cityscapes. And the subject matter for songs mostly reverted to traditional pop territory: love and romance, escapism and aspiration. The prime movers behind synthpop's rehumanisation were appropriately enough The Human League (just check their song titles: "Open Your Heart", "Love Action", "These Are The Things That Dreams Are Made Of").
Soft Cell were also crucial with their songs of torrid passion and seedy glamour. Their line-up--male-diva Mark Almond, keyboard wiz David Ball--set the template for the first half of the Eighties. The new compact synths resembled an orchestra in a box; you didn't need to have a whole band of instrumentalists. Suddenly pop was packed with duos who divided labor neatly between the composer/technology-operator and the singer/lyricist: Eurythmics, Yazoo, Tears For Fears, Blancmange, Pet Shop Boys. The shape of a synthpop outfit was subversive, or at least enough to make rockists uneasy: the rock band's gang-like structure replaced by same-sex "couples" plus the occasional female diva/male boffin partnership.
Yazoo were a classic example of this fire-and-ice combo: Alison Moyet's proto-Josh Stone soulfulness matched with Vince Clarke's pristine perkiness. Clarke had been the brains behind Depeche Mode, or so everybody thought. Yet while he went on to commit a spree of cultural crimes under aliases like The Assembly and Erasure, it was Depeche who unexpectedly grew into Major Artists, leaving behind dinky ditties like "Just Can't Get Enough" for the musically sophisticated, politically engaged/enraged Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward. The anti-monetarist smash " Everything Counts" caught the melancholy of that moment after the re-election of Thatcher, while "Master and Servant" combined an S/M-inspired personal-is-political allegory about power (“it’s a lot like life,” so “forget all about equality”) with a pop translation of Einsturzende Neubauten/Test Dept-style metal-bashing. Best of all was the haunting “Blasphemous Rumours,” a jibe at the Almighty which suggested “God’s got a sick sense of humor.”
One running theme in Synth Britannia, voiced repeatedly by Daniel Miller, the founder of Depeche's record label Mute, is the notion of electronic music being essentially un-British. But that would seem to beg the question of why the UK became the world's leading nation for synthpop, and later the major force in electronic dance music all through the Nineties. The truth is that the real kingdom of synthphobia was the United States. But this also meant that American misfits could express their deviance by spurning standard high school fare like Motley Crue for "faggy" English electropop. Depeche's cult following in the States expanded as they turned out to be surprisingly kick-ass live performers on the arena circuit, peaking with a 1988 show at the Pasadena Rose Bowl that drew seventy thousand. They were bigger still in Europe, almost Beatles-level in Germany where to this day there are Depeche raves that play Mode music all night long.
A curious thing that comes through watching Synth Britannia is how the futuristic-ness of this music is largely irrecoverable to us, precisely because we live in the future that the synthpop era helped to bring about. Electronic tonalties are omnipresent to the point of banality, thanks to Nineties techno-rave and Noughties R&B, videogames and ring-tones. "Electro" in the early Eighties meant cutting-edge, the future-now; nowadays "electro" refers to the kind of sounds that lit up hipster bars in Hoxton all through this past decade and then unexpectedly went mainstream this year with La Roux and Lady GaGa, which is to say synthetic pop that isn't state-of-art, doesn't use the full capacity of the latest digital technology, and is therefore almost as quaint as if it were made using a harpsichord.
With the future-shock aspect depleted, what comes through now is the pop in synthpop: OMD's pretty tunes, the aching plaintiveness of Numan and Human League. Oddly, what's made this music last are the same things that made The Beatles and Motown immortal: melody and emotion.