Synthesisers in pop go back much further than you might think. Prog rockers loved ‘em: ELP’s Keith Emerson let rip many a Moog solo, Rick Wakeman from Yes performed behind a vast bank of keyboards, and German bands such as Tangerine Dream sketched the face of the cosmos with Mellotrons and Arps. At the other end of the spectrum, Stevie Wonder pioneered the use of electronics in R&B (with tech guidance from two white geeks who went by the name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band). And the blurts of abstract noise from Brian Eno’s EMS VCS3 on those first two Roxy Music albums turned a generation onto the avant-pop potential of synths.
For many young musicians who’d been mobilized by punk’s do-it-yourself rallying cry, the near-simultaneous impact of these two singles was revolutionary: suddenly the trad-rock format of guitars, bass, and drums seemed archaic, exhausted. By happy coincidence, just at this moment, synths--hitherto the preserve of wealthy prog-rockers--got an awful lot more affordable, portable, and user-friendly. The new breed of synths like the Wasp resembled an orchestra in a box. Which is one reason synthpop was full of duos, partnerships that split the roles neatly between singer/lyricist and composer/machine-operator: Soft Cell, Eurythmics, DAF, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, et al. Synths meant you simply didn’t need a whole band of instrumentalists. This became even more the case when programmable drum machines like the Linn started to come online at the end of the Seventies. That said, two notable exceptions to the duo norm also happen to be probably the most famous synthpop outfits of all time: The Human League and Depeche Mode.
Full of metal-on-metal percussion and sampled noises, Depeche’s next hit singles “People Are People” and “Master and Servant” took Neubauten and Test Dept’s ideas into the pop mainstream. Lyrically informed by Gore’s forays through Berlin’s S&M underworld, “Master and Servant” connected bedroom and boardroom to make a witty personal-is-political allegory about power games:“it’s a lot like life,” so “forget all about equality.” Proceeding through a check-list of Weighty Subjects with an almost methodical determination, Depeche then tackled religion on 1984’s “Blasphemous Rumours,” which impudently suggested that “God’s got a sick sense of humor.”
By this point, Depeche Mode were virtually rock stars, second only to U2 as a big-in-America band from the British Isles. Depeche’s music got rockier too. As with other synth-pioneers such as Human League, Soft Cell, and Eurythmics (all of whom they’d outlasted commercially), at a certain point the only way forward for Depeche was to incorporate non-synthetic instrumental textures. All this culminated in the bluesy grind of 1993’s “I Feel You.”
Soon scenes blossomed in the hipsterlands of Brooklyn, Berlin, and other major cities across America and Europe. Clubbers dressed in a mish-mash of recycled Eighties New Wave style signifiers--asymetrical haircuts, ruffs, skinny ties worn over collar-less T-shirts, punky-looking studded belts and wristbands, little cloth caps. The soundtrack mixed classics and obscurities from the original era with new tracks by modern artists like Miss Kittin and Vitalic, who studiously deployed vintage analog synth sounds, vocoderized cyborg-vocals, 16th-note basslines, and archly inflexible drum machine beats. Known as “electroclash” or “nu-wave”, the revival was the big hype of 2002, but neither of the scene’s most touted bands, Fischerspooner and The Faint, managed to penetrate the mainstream, and soon hipsters moved on to pillaging another seam of retro (late Seventies postpunk). What few noticed was that Eighties synthpop had already resurfaced on the charts, in a seemingly most unlikely location--nu-metal. Multi-platinum selling Linkin Park roar at the choruses, sure, but their verses drip with the wan and slightly wussy melancholy of prime-era Depeche Mode, suggesting that the band was born at precisely that moment in the early Nineties when MTV would play “Enjoy the Silence” back with ballads by Queensryche and Metallica.