Close To the Noise Floor: Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984
by Simon Reynolds
The evolutionary arc of the synthesizer has a completely different shape to the trajectory of the electric guitar. With a few exceptions, the guitar started out as a crude generator of exciting noise and dance energy: a fundamentally teenage sound. Then it gradually became an ever more subtle expressive implement, with a huge textural range. Synths, in contrast, started out prog: they cost a fortune and were challenging to operate, and this made them the preserve of established performers generally of virtuosic and artistically ambitious bent. Either that or synthesisers belonged to institutions like universities and were accessible only to composers with equally lofty purposes in mind.
The primitivist phase of the synthesizer came after the sophisticated start. In the late Seventies, cheaper machines like the Wasp became available; they were also compact, portable, and relatively user-friendly compared with their bulky predecessors. This democratization of electronics happened to coincide with rock’s own self-conscious return to juvenile basics in the form of punk. All of a sudden the synth was competing with the guitar to be the true instrument of do-it-yourself. For many the synth won that contest handily: you didn’t even need to learn two chords, you could riff out abstract blurts of nasty noise or play one-finger melodies. Furthermore synths and the rudimentary drum machines that were also newly available encouraged a “non-musical” (at least in rock terms) approach. Rather than jam your way to a song through the intuitive logic of groove and feel, tracks could be built up through addition and subtraction, using a hypnotic but uninflected machine-beat as a grid for the assembly process.
Compiled by Richard Anderson, Close To the Noise Floor is a four-disc survey of the excitingly messy birth of British electronica during the late Seventies and early Eighties. One of the maps Anderson used is “Wild Planet”, a celebrated three-part feature written by Dave Henderson for the music weekly Sounds. The 1983 article spawned a regular Sounds column dedicated to the cassette underground of tiny labels like Flowmotion and Third Mind. Henderson contributes a short but vivid memoir-style introduction to this box set and also features in his musical guise as a member of Worldbackwards, a group whose ambition was to sound like “Throbbing Gristle on Tamla Motown”.
“Minimal synth” works as a shorthand tag for Close To the Noise Floor’s remit, although the scope of the trawl is actually wider and more disparate than what that term tends to signify, taking in electro-punk, industrial, synthpop, dark ambient, and more. Rather than use generic focus as an organizing principle, the anthology achieves coherence through sticking with a single country – Britain – when it could have easily have swept across the equally active European scene or harvested the scattered but significant American exponents like John Bender and Nervous Gender.
The national focus makes sense historically, in so far as the UK scene was catalysed by half-a-dozen native outfits who released debut singles within a few months of each other in mid-1978: The Normal, Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Thomas Leer, and Robert Rental. The combined impact of these singles – respectively “T.V.O.D.”, “Being Boiled”, “United”, Extended Play EP, “Private Plane” and “Paralysis” - was as galvanizing as Buzzcocks’s “Spiral Scratch” had been for scrappy DIY guitar-groups a year earlier.
Noise Floor’s first disc concentrates on the children of Throbbing Gristle and “Warm Leatherette” (the more influential B-side to The Normal’s “T.V.O.D.”). No spacey ripples or groovy Moogy sensuality here: the synth is used aggressively and obnoxiously. One gem in this vein is Storm Bugs’s “Little Bob Minor”, with its ear-itching drones whose texture resembles a comb-and-paper kazoo. Vocals, when they appear, are usually screams or creepy spoken-word soundbites, as with the cut-up voices from a radio interview with prostitutes that appear on We Be Echo’s “Sexuality”.
The stand-out track on the first disc, though, is a bit of an anomaly: Thomas Leer’s “Tight as A Drum,” from his fabulous EP 4 Movements. By 1981 Leer had left behind the gratingly foreboding ambiences of The Bridge, his collaborative album with Robert Rental, and absorbed the mutant disco influence of New York’s ZE label. 4 Movements also sounds like he’s letting back in some of the banished musicality of pre-punk rock, figures like Island Records folk-blues minstrel John Martyn. “Tight As Drum” swings because although the percussion is electronic, Leer played it by hand on pads; the intricate weave of synth-melodies over the top sounds vaguely Middle Eastern in its ornamented filigree. The song seems to reach your ears through the heat-haze coming off a sun-baked road. A snapshot of a moment of tension so exquisitely taut it’s a kind of ecstasy, “Tight As A Drum” features the briefest of spoken-not-sung lyrics: a depiction of a young man stretching himself, silhouetted against the morning light streaming through a window.
Embracing mainstream ideas of melody and musicality doesn’t work so well on the second disc, which mostly features groups who reach towards pop but don’t get even as close as The Human League did on “Being Boiled” (included here). Performance art duo Schlelmer K’s “Broken Vein” suggests Soft Cell sans the soaring voice and heart-swelling tunes; Native Europe’s “The Distance from Köln” is a lo-fi cousin to Berlin’s Eighties radio staple “The Metro”; lyrically if not so much sonically, Cultural Amnesia’s 1981 anti-Thatcherism ditty “Materialistic Man” comes over like a dry run for Depeche Mode’s “Everything Counts”. The better tunes come from those who actually managed to make it as pop stars. “A New Kind of Man”, an unreleased solo single by ex-Ultravox singer John Foxx, features a vocal that – typical for the emerging synthpop genre – sounds glacial and torrid at the same time, plus lyrics like scraps from an abandoned and torn-up screenplay: “an underwater kind of silence/humming of electric pylons/”don’t forget me” fits of static/another scene began.” Heard in its superior 1980 album version rather than original incarnation as B-side to their debut single “Electricity,” Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark’s “Almost” sounds like a spindly North-of-England Kraftwerk: graph-paper rhythm, sobbing synth. Possibly the best thing OMD ever did, the song seems to express obliquely the hidden hot tears of a cold fish technocrat who’s outwardly all impassive Dr Spock logic: “always making statements and moving step by step/always acting theories/I will regret.”
Livening up the second disc – otherwise a bit of slog – are specimens from the post-punk mini-genre of parody. The late Seventies erupted with cover versions that swapped reverent reinterpretation for willfully goofy travesty – think Flying Lizards’s deadpan take on “Money”, or The Dickies’s punked-up “Nights in White Satin”. The idea, I think, was to show just how much distance there was now between Old Wave and New Wave – or, if the cover was of a contemporary hit, how far from chartpop convention you could push the song. That’s the nature of the game with British Standard Unit’s deconstructive molesting of Rod Stewart’s “D’Ya Think I’m Sexy,” which became a John Peel radio show fave in 1979 with its grotesquely sped-up voices and anti-disco jerkiness. B.S.U. was just one of numerous guises worn by ex-Mott the Hoople keyboard player Morgan Fisher for a covers album project called Hybrid Kids. “Gerry and the Holograms” by the group of the same name isn’t a cover but a lampoon of the emergent synthpop genre itself, wreaked by two members of the cult band Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias (whose output consisted almost entirely of parodies such as their punk-mocking Snuff Rock EP). “Gerry and the Holograms” has been identified as the melodic source for New Order’s “Blue Monday,” but to these ears sounds more like The Stooges’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” covered by BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In a word, awesome.
That pair of whimsies could equally have been squeezed onto the last disc of Close To the Noise Floor, which corrals an array of unclassifiable oddities. Although electronic in feel, more often than not the sounds here are achieved via conventional instruments subjected to heavy treatments. Here the forebears, if any exist, are The Residents and Cabaret Voltaire (who in their early days used effects-processed flute and guitar more than synths). Renaldo and the Loaf’s “Dying Inside” sounds ripe for sampling by Kanye West on Pablo II. Unable to afford synths, the duo used effects pedals to render their instruments and voices as inorganic and alien-sounding as possible. Alien Brains’s “Menial Disorders” has a great back story (the project started in the physics lab at the group’s high school and mainly deployed a “Loopotron,” a self-cobbled tape-echo machine that used the erase head to alter the sound) which is matched by the sound itself : a cloud of mechanical gnats circling around your head, fizzing zig-zags of hi-hat, corrugated crumples of texture, rhythm like bed springs pinging inside a giant reverberant cistern.
Most of Noise Floor’s contents are shaped by twin prohibitions. First and foremost, the goal was to sound as un-rock’n’roll and un-American as possible (which is why the vocals, when they appear, are usually absurdly English – stiff-backed, groomed-sounding, somehow short-haired). But there was a secondary impulse at work too: to break with the conventions of synth-based music established in the first half of the Seventies by groups like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, who favored long-form compositions (often taking up an entire album side) and an atmosphere of celestial serenity.
Now you might have noticed that I jumped right past this box’s third disc. That’s because in some ways it’s the most intriguing of the four, precisely because it’s full of postpunk DIY that still took its bearings from the pre-punk electronic cosmonauts. Maximal Synth, you could call this stuff: operators like Sea of Wires, MFH, and Mark Shreeve, who, rather than ape “Warm Leatherette” or Cabaret Voltaire’s “Silent Command”, parallel the billowing pulse-scapes being made at that same time by Manuel Gottsching on albums like 1978’s Blackouts. This sound – late period kosmische drifting towards New Age or proto-techno – has in recent years enjoyed a measure of renewed currency thanks to Emeralds and their ilk, but generally it’s been written right out of history.
One of the groups included on Disc 3 are actually a totally pre-punk proposition. Zorch took their battery of EMS Synthi As and lightshow to free festivals all across England, including the very first Stonehenge Festival in 1974. Hearing their “Adrenalin” made me wish for a time machine so I could experiences its spaceship-landing whooshes panning around the megalithic columns and frazzling the minds of the gathered long-hairs. In a similar amorphous vein, Ron Berry’s “Sea of Tranquility” is an elegaic homage to the Moon Landing. But “Triptych” by EG Oblique Graph (Bryn Jones, later better known as Muslimgauze) is less beatific, recalling the sensory-deprivation aesthetic of Conrad Schnitzler: insidiously hissing percussion and color-leached tones, like a wintry after-dark walk through a Berlin pedestrian underpass.
Despite the omission of obvious classics like “Warm Leatherette” or Fad Gadget’s “Ricky’s Hand” (presumably because the Mute label archive was off-limits to the compiler) Close To the Noise Floor provides a fascinating overview of the formative years of British home-studio electronica: groups who were precursors in spirit, if not direct lineage, to the techno and IDM artists of the Nineties. Still, with the cult for “minimal wave” now a decade old, it almost feels like another task has become urgent: the rediscovery of the groups that did the groundwork for the outfits on Disc 3 of Noise Floor. Time, perhaps, for a box set that does justice to major label synth-rock of the Seventies: figures like Tomita, pre-Chariots of Fire Vangelis, Michael Hoenig, Ralph Lundsten, even Jean Michel-Jarre. Rather than the underground, which enjoys a healthy complement of dedicated curators and salvage operators, it’s the mainstream of that era that is truly lost, that in a stragne way seems even more exotic and remote in time.