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Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Golden Age of Synthpop




I was moved to compile this set by my love for this music. For me, synthpop isn't just a thing - it's the thing. I was in high school in 1981 when this stuff hit, and was one of 3 or 4 out of 1200 at a suburban Atlanta high school that was into it. The intervening years have approved my choices, as synthpop continues to be a strong influence on chillwave and vaporwave, and even mainstream radio pop.

My selections have been guided by a desire to collect examples of the undiluted pure synthpop style, as it emerged in England from the post-punk new wave. Accordingly, 16 of 17 songs here are English, the sole exception being Book of Love, of NYC, who were following the style of the English artists. OMD may be over-represented a little, with three tracks, but they may be the artist most emblematic the style. Their first 4 albums are indispensable. Ultravox had been produced by Brian Eno, but the group represented here was a different one entirely, singer John Foxx having departed and been replaced by Midge Ure, who had been in the seminal synthpop group Visage. The writer of "Reap the Wild Wind" led the band through a series of substantial if imperfect albums.

Altered Images' incredible "See Those Eyes", produced and mixed by Martin Rushent leads of the set, sounding undiminished after 23 years. Engineer Rushent, who had started as the producer of the Manchester punk band The Buzzcocks,  was a key figure in the development of synthpop, and of remixing as a form-in-itself. He also produced groundbreaking Dare album by the Sheffield band The Human League.  The Buzzcocks' Howard Devoto and Pete Shelly both became important purveyors of synthpop after the breakup of that seminal band. Shelly's 1981  Rushent-produced  album Homosapien was another important guide-post of the style. After the Buzzcocks, Devoto formed Magazine, which produced at least one classic album, 1980's The Correct Use of Soap, produced by Martin Hannett. The producer of Joy Division had taught them how to use the studio, and although New Order's Power Corruption and Lies would be self-produced, the new sound of the record found the ever-evolving band squarely in the center of the emerging  style, represented here by the majestic "Your Silent Face". Members of Magazine combined with former members of Ultravox to create the super-influential group Visage, whose 1980 hit "Fade To Grey" first brought the emerging style into sharp focus. Interesting to note that Manchester and Sheffield were both declining centers of industry, analogous to Detroit in the U.S.

ABC was initially part of producer-engineer and former Yes member Trevor Horn's stable of talent, and his house band plays the track to "Tears Are Not Enough". This then-unnamed group of crack studio session musicians later became The Art of Noise. The classic "Moments in Love" is here as one of its' multitude of remixes, entitled "Moments in Bed". Sheffield group Heaven 17 was a split-off of the original line-up of The Human League, and "Penthouse and Pavement" makes a nice contrast to "Love Action", which came out around the same time. The singer for Spandau Ballet had one hell-of-a voice, as heard on "Gold", from their one masterpiece, the 1983 album True. Tears for Fears got better later on,  but "Pale Shelter", their first hit, fits pretty well here. 


Soft Cell is another major major act of the genre. Each of their three albums is a classic, and no one matches their song writing. And what a singer Marc Almond is! The other half of Soft Cell was Dave Ball, who, after the dissolution of Soft Cell became a member of Psychic TV during their early acid-house period, and contributed to the two most substantial PTV acid albums [Jack the Tab and Techno Acid Beat - both fake compilations]. The The was essentially a solo act - Matt Johnson being the sole writer-musician. The 1983 Soul Mining album is yet another must-have classic, here represented by the epic and energetic "Giant". The The worked with everyone from Marc Almond to J. G. Thirwell, as well as Lewis and Gilbert of the band Wire. The The and Soft Cell were label-mates on Some Bizarre, which promoted the outer-edge of underground new wave culture, and a licensing deal with Warner gave acts like Cabaret Voltaire, The The, Psychic TV and Coil their first taste of major-label distribution.

Daniel Miller and his Mute Records would turn out to be another important connection in this stream. He had produced for Soft Cell, and he discovered and signed Depeche Mode,and produced their debut album Speak and Spell, scoring commercially. Vince Clarke, who had written most of the songs, departed after the release of the album and formed Yazoo, leaving  Martin Gore to discover his own substantial songwriting abilities. Yazoo's debut album Upstairs At Erics is another of the few truly great albums to emerge from the genre, represented here by the sublime "Too Pieces". Clark stuck with synthpop, going on to form Erasure. The label was productive, releasing records by Adrian Sherwood, Boyd Rice, Cabaret Voltaire. Flood, who went on to fame as producer of Depeche Mode's mega-hit Violator, and Pretty Hate Machine, the debut by NIN,  started as Mute's in-house producer. The music the label released strengthened the connection between electronic dance music and industrial music.


The term 'New Wave' came to encompass the whole of the post-punk scene, but it's  rather vague.     It fails to delineate much beyond the post-punk context. The rock influence was still strong; punk rock was, after all, another type of rock, and connected to the stream of musical development that begins with American blues music. The distance between The Beatles and The Sex Pistols is not that great; largely one of attitude and style rather than structure. Soon after the liberating punk explosion, some began to imagine a truly new kind of music - one not rooted in the agricultural past, as was blues and rhythm and blues and even punk, one that would look to the future. The new wave music that matters most, is that which has the greatest distance from rock, ie synthpop. Synthpop was the progressive side of new wave. Bands like The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, both of whom I love, and were among the real new wave groups, were actually making music that was, structurally, old-time-rock-and-roll.

The new stream would have its' roots in Germany. Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder both combined the new technology with existing forms - Kraftwerk with rock, and Moroder with disco - to create a prototype of all the succeeding synthpop. The true computer music would have to wait, but the revisions would at least update from the days of slavery into the mechanical age of the industrial revolution. Psychedelic rock reached Germany in the late '60s and that country's lack of a shared heritage with American popular music forms caused German rock to mutate into something far more progressive and detached from blues, and rhythm and blues, than anything produced in the English speaking world.  These German artists Moroder and Kraftwerk, as well as Can, Amon Düül II, Faust, Tangerine Dream, Cluster, Neu!, Klaus Schulze, etc., liberated rock from its' past, and envisioning new type of music rooted in technology. All electronic music ultimately derives from this source.
 
Englishmen like Brian Eno and Chris Carter absorbed and assimilated these new European impulses, and incorporated them into their work. It began to be dispersed across the broader culture outside of Germany - this vision of a technologically rooted, mechanical music. American artists like Devo (produced by Eno) and Suicide demonstrated assimilation of these new ideas. Carter was telling anyone who would listen that he wanted to make music like ABBA, and some took it as deliberate irony, but it was'nt. Throbbing Gristle was a prime progenitor of synthpop, among many other things, and "United", their very first release, is the very first English synthpop record. Artists like Phil Oakley of The Human League and Matt Johnson of The The have publicly acknowledged the influence of this record, with its' grimey synth and mechanical, repetitive rhythm that sounds like a factory assembly line. Tracks like "AB7A", "Walkabout" and "Distant Dreams Part 2" demonstrate that T.G. is far more than a footnote in the history of synthpop.  Post-T.G., Carter and his partner and fellow T.G. member Cosey Fanni Tutti went on to make a series of albums, such as Heartbeat (1981), Trance (1982), Love and Lust (1983) and Techno Primitive (1985) that deserve a central place in the history of the genre. Brian Eno, of course, is  the Johnny Appleseed of electronic music, and like T.G. his influence exceeds the narrow limits of synthpop, but his work with Devo and Ultravox alone make him noteworthy here.


May of the artists associated with synthpop - Visage, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, ABC - were initially grouped into the so-called New Romantic movement (today it would be called a subgenre). New Romantic was essentially a reaction to punk and its' anti-fashion stance. The hyper-trendy U.K. music press touted it as 'the next big thing' in 1980. The music relied heavily on the use of synthesizers, but the defining characteristic of New Romantic was a preoccupation with style and fashion - the most superficial aspects of the 'new wave', and some of the groups like Adam and the Ants shared little or nothing with the synthpop style. From today's vantage point, the haircuts, lipstick and elaborate Elizabethan costumes seem ridiculous. Synthpop survives, and New Romantic barely merits a mention. The importance of synthpop was the music, not the fashions.


Stripped of all the fashion, ideology, and transitional forms, the essence of new wave was synthpop. All forms outlive their vital, developmental phase, and synthpop was no different. The mid-'80s saw its' decay. The last significant artist to emerge from the scene was Pet Shop Boys, in 1985. Perpetrators and fakes began to proliferate. The genre reached its' absolute nadir in 1988 with American imitators Information Society haveing club and radio hits, but the likes of Howard Jones, A Flock of Seagulls and Kajagoogoo had already polluted the waters. But for a brief moment in time, 1980-1985,  the movement shot up a flower, a pure and new musical style that would become absorbed and assimilated into the larger body of popular music.

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