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Our Friends Electric: My Love Affair with Synthpop

written by Glyn Davies September 13, 2016

The roots of the likes LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Metronomy can be found in the electro post-punk buzz of the 1980’s Synthpop explosion. Glyn Davies takes a look at the key influencers.

It’s one of those random formative memories that for some reason has stuck with me. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable day in my young life, just another of many, many days in which absolutely nothing of interest happened. And yet, I’ve always remembered this. It’s the summer of 1977. I’ve just turned five years old and I’m in the living room of our house. My mum is pottering about doing the housework, which, having lumbered herself with three sons, is a fairly futile undertaking. But she does it anyway, despite the certain knowledge that her nice clean house will be totally obliterated within half-an-hour. While my mum scrubs some unspeakable, unidentifiable stain from the wall, I’m generally getting in her way, rolling toy cars around the floor while the radio babbles away in the background.

A song comes on the radio, and my ears prick up slightly. I’ve barely been paying attention to the radio, and most of the songs have blended with one another in a bland mousse of sameness. This song sounds a bit different. In fact, it sounds a lot different. A continuous, relentless electronic backbeat with a female voice moaning unintelligibly over it. The song is, of course, “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, although as I’m only five years old, I don’t know that. I don’t know that it’s one of the most significant, seminal songs of the 1970s, one that would contribute greatly to the emergence of possibly the defining musical trend in late 20th century popular music. I don’t know that. All I do know, as I remember that moment, is that when the song finished, the DJ on the radio proceeded to take the piss out of it. Which merely demonstrates the universal truth that if you want an educated, informed, knowledgeable opinion on the subject of music, you’re very unlikely to get it from those strange, egotistical creatures whose job is to play music on the radio. They seem to know curiously little about it.

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While I don’t think my 1977 Donna Summer moment was a musical awakening as such (I was still far too young to really comprehend the song’s significance), it’s certainly true that, nearly 40 years later, I’m still very much in thrall to the pulsating charms of electronic music. From those pop pioneers of the old school like Gary Numan or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, right through to the more contemporary likes of deadmau5 or Caribou, there’s something about repetitive, melodic synthesizer hooks and relentless, thudding drum machines that really appeals to me. And it really is quite astonishing to think that nearly 40 years have passed since I first heard “I Feel Love”. 40 years is a bloody long time. To put that into some sort of context, 40 years before Donna Summer’s infectious warbling emanated from my mum’s radio, World War II hadn’t even started. A lot can happen in 40 years. And in the fast-moving world of pop music, a lot can happen in just five years.

By the early 1980s, electronic music was in no uncertain terms “a thing”, dominating the airwaves and the pop charts with a relentlessness that bordered on the irritating. Throughout the first half of the decade, there was a preponderance of bands and singers whose defining characteristic was their use of synthesizers, either augmenting traditional instruments or doing away with them altogether, creating a seemingly endless procession of stark-sounding but very catchy pop anthems that endure to this day. Some of these artists also had a very fluid attitude to gender identity, sporting flamboyantly androgynous looks, expressed through their clothes, hairstyles and make-up. It seemed at the time like a wholesale rejection of the hyper-masculine guitar-based bands who had dominated rock and pop for the preceding thirty years. For me, as somebody who was only just getting into music at that time, it was quite possibly the coolest thing ever. I found it all – the look, the sound, the whole package – utterly exhilarating.

The early 1980s was pretty much the perfect time to be a young pop fan. Not only was there a very vibrant and diverse music scene that seemed to be moving in hundreds of directions at once, but it also marked the triumphant return of the flamboyant pop star, after half a decade of the anti-establishment, anti-fashion, anti-star rhetoric of the punk and post-punk years. By 1980, pop fans had seemingly tired of musicians who looked like their mates on the street corner and were once again gravitating towards artists who stood out and had a “look”. My younger self became increasingly fascinated by these bizarre, but very cool-looking creatures who pranced about on Top of the Pops or stared impassively from magazine covers. And, of course, there was the music. In the space of a couple of years, synth-orientated artists such as Gary Numan, The Human League, Heaven 17, OMD, Japan, Visage, Ultravox, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, New Order and dozens of others had all exploded onto the music scene and into the charts. The microchip revolution had reached the Top 40.

I think one of the main reasons those early 80s synthpop bands struck such a chord with me was that they represented a type of in-your-face modernity that embraced the march of technology, and if there was one thing I loved as much as music when I was young, it was new technology: home computers, videogames, or indeed electronic gadgets of any kind. To this day, if you give me a little black box that goes “beep”, I’ll happily tinker with it for hours on end. My love of synthpop was an extension of this love of technology. Electronic music was nothing particularly new, of course. Synthesizers had existed in one form or another since at least the 1960s. Indeed, 1970s prog rock bands, as well as the German “Krautrock” bands – a huge influence on the 1980s generation of synth bands thanks largely to Kraftwerk – used synths extensively in their sound. The synthesizers these bands used in the 70s were huge, almost comical devices, bleeding wires with dimly glowing valves, creating all manner of weird, sci-fi sounds. Kraftwerk, famously, designed and built their own instruments which to this day still sound quite unlike any synths that came before or after. As microchips became ever cheaper, this kind of effort to create electronic sounds became less necessary, as in less than a decade, solid state synthesizers that could do all of this and more would be available and very much affordable.

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The link between my love of synthpop and my love of videogames is certainly no coincidence. Both emerged and ensnared my attention at more or less the same time in my life and, if you listen to early videogames, the sounds they make are very much like the sounds that early synthpop bands were making. The doom-laden bassy rumble in Space Invaders, which gets faster and more urgent as the invading aliens get nearer the surface; the discordant, tinny fanfare that starts every game of Defender; the perky jingle and constant “wacka-wacka” in Pac-Man; you can find musical counterparts to all of these in early synthpop. It’s the sound of two new, distinct and exciting cultural phenomena finding their way. Likewise, the see-sawing, monophonic honk of Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”, the hypnotically repetitive hook of Visage’s “Fade to Grey” or the cold, ironic exuberance of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” are all equally iconic to me and, like those early videogames, will immediately take me back to the time and place that I first encountered them. One of the benefits of hindsight is that, years after the fact, you get to see these kinds of connections. Also, synthesizers in music were very much dismissed at the time as little more than a gimmick or a passing fad, as were videogames, and yet both would become increasingly sophisticated and dominant as the 1980s wore on.

While the initial wave of synthpop bands had mostly petered out before the middle of the decade, more would come along to replace them: out went Gary Numan, Visage and Soft Cell, in came Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys, bringing with them an overtly political outlook very much in tune with the times, along with a more technical approach to production and a bigger, more sophisticated sound; and so the irrepressible pop circus rolled on. Indeed by 1985, you could say that we had reached peak synth. Synthesizers were being used everywhere, in every musical genre, no longer just in pop. While synthpop had firmly positioned itself as the accessible face of electronic music, electronic music as a whole was rapidly evolving into numerous sub-genres that would continue to innovate and irritate in equal measure. By the mid-80s, hip-hop and rap had made their way across the Atlantic and were already firmly established, while house music, relying largely on looped samples and hooks from old songs fused with a modern electronic backbeat, was very much the coming thing.

Given the dominance of the synthesizer by the late 1980s, it was probably inevitable that an increasingly homogenised, formulaic sound would begin to creep into mainstream pop, as demonstrated by the extraordinary success of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s relentless pop production-line. This was made possible not only by the ubiquity and low cost of synthesizers, but also by tools like MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which enabled a synthesizer to be connected to even a cheap home computer running sequencing software, meaning that complex compositions could be created quickly and simply even by a relative novice. The Atari ST computer, which had a built-in MIDI port, was especially popular with musicians in the late 1980s for this very reason. But there was an upside: inexpensive tools such as these also helped the underground dance music scene to thrive, allowing musicians to assemble a professional-sounding setup in their garages or bedrooms for very little outlay, forming the basis of the rave and techno scenes that would define the sound of dance music well into the 1990s and beyond. Like the bedroom coders who created those early, pioneering videogames at the dawn of home computing, by the late 1980s, bedroom composers were filling nightclub dancefloors.

But for me, it’s still those trailblazing early-to-mid 80s synthpop hits that continue to resonate. Some of this is purely down to nostalgia, of course. When we’re young, and our music taste is still in its formative stage, we naturally latch onto whatever the prevailing pop music trend is at that time. For me, that happened to be synthpop. However, it’s also true that synthpop was the first thing musically that was actually mine. A lot of my early music taste was informed by that of my brothers and my auntie, all of whom were teenagers in the late 70s and early 80s. So early in my life, I largely listened to what they listened to. Fortunately, they were generally into pretty good stuff: punk, post-punk bands like The Police and Joy Division, and early synth artists like Gary Numan and OMD. Consequently, even before I started buying records for myself, I’d already inherited a lot of the records they had become bored with. When I began adding to these hand-me-downs with purchases of my own, it was the dominant synthpop bands of that time that I was buying: Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, etc. At that time it really didn’t matter to me what it was, as long as it had a synthesizer and an electronic beat.

My tastes evolved and expanded, of course, and by the late 1980s, I was gravitating more towards the indie and alternative end of the spectrum: black clothes, glum faces, bleak lyrics and jangly guitars with lots of reverb became the order of the day which, like synthpop, remains something to which I can listen endlessly without getting bored. And yet despite that, even while I was queueing up to buy the latest release by The Cure or The Sisters of Mercy with the rest of the black-clad poseurs, it wasn’t unusual for me to slip in a sneaky Erasure or Pet Shop Boys single along with it. Even then, I could never quite let synthpop go, and I still can’t. Those early synthpop hits might sound very dated now – although both “Fade to Grey” and “I Feel Love” still both stand up remarkably well – and are very much products of a specific time and place, but they also celebrate a creative desire to try something a bit different and utilise new tools and technology, culminating in what became a signature sound for a very unique era.

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