Before Depeche Mode’s fruitful partnership with Dutch artist and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, the Mute Records band’s visual identity was partly shaped by photographer Brian Griffin who shot the series of high-concept images which adorn five album releases spanning 1981-1986. The influence Russian social realist art is strikingly seen in Griffin’s work for Depeche, though apparently the picture taken for A Broken Frame was inspired by German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. For 1983’s Construction Time Again the photographer again references the socialist figure of the worker; this time via the political statement of construction worker-wielding-sledgehammer in a otherwise pristine Alpine location. Some Great Reward’s industrial backdrop ties in nicely with the album’s love-hate themes and sonic embrace of harsh found-sound as showcased on tracks like People are People, Master and Servant and Blasphemous Rumours. 1986’s transitional Black Celebration followed in the wake of songwriter Martin L Gore’s relocation to Berlin. Depeche Mode’s darkest album to date drew heavily on the technological innovation of Alan Wilder, Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones, and was suitably cloaked inside shadowy Blade Runner-esque imagery.
“I would call what we’re into now a kind of experimental pop that reflects what goes on around us – industry, the electronic age, war – but we don’t want to lecture people about it, just tell them that it’s there.”
Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, Record Mirror, January 1980
The imagery employed to market post-punk and contemporaneous electronic records owes much to design and architectural philosophy, especially the distinct Supremacist and Constructivist art movements which sprung out of Russian Futurism during the 1910s. Most strikingly, the dominant aesthetic of synthpop fetishised a visual language with connotations of state control; under Bolshevism such art work was actually produced under repressive conditions, only permissible for its usefulness to propaganda.
The likes of El Lissitzky, a key influence on Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine (1978), and German typographer Jan Tschichold (denounced by National Socialists as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’) were key sources of inspiration for designers commissioned by British record labels in the post-punk era to produce their acts’ sleeves and often their broader visual identities.
As Simon Reynolds puts it, “The record cover artwork of the period matched the neo-modernist aspirations of the words and music, with such graphic designers as Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville, and labels like Factory and Fast Product, drawing from Constructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, John Heartfield and Die Neue Typographie.”
“Punk itself, as a look, was really only a moment’s aberration,” Saville told Eye Magazine, “For six months, Punk was like the parting of the Red Sea and anybody who was fit and ready enough could run through. By association with certain people in Manchester I got pulled through the gap. But the look of Punk didn’t offer much hope for a fresh graphic language.
“Malcolm [Garrett] had a copy of Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography. The one chapter that he hadn’t reinterpreted in his own work was the cool, disciplined “New Typography” of Tschichold and its subtlety appealed to me. I found a parallel in it for the New Wave that was evolving out of Punk. In this, as it seemed at the time, obscure byway of graphic design history, I saw a look for the new, cold mood of 1977-78.”
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2014.
Several years after the 1989 fall of communist regimes, Zagreb native Slavenka Drakulic observed that in Central and Eastern European cities the more things were supposedly changing the more they remained visibly the same. Here she describes her impressions having alighted a train in Budapest:
“I arrived at midnight. From the railway station, I walked down Rákóczi U’tza , then József Körút Boulevard toward Nemzeti Hotel. The boulevard, the shopping centre of the city, was not only empty but almost dark. Or so it seemed to me because I experienced the ‘light shock’ that usually happens when one enters any Eastern European city from the West. The contrast in such that for a moment it has to cross your mind that either the city has had a power failure or there is danger of an attack from the air. The street lamps in Budapest were casting a yellowish light, and besides, every second one didn’t work at all. The shop windows were not lit, most of the neon signs were off, no streetcars passed by at that time, only a car or two – a ghost city.
“Living in a country where life functions in pretty much the same way as in Prague (or Budapest), all I could see was the saving of expensive electric energy, bad bulbs that burn out too quickly, broken lamps that take years to replace. I admit this might give a romantic impression of the city…but it is surely unintentional – has anyone ever heard of a romantic communist regime?”
Drakulic argues Eastern European time “runs differently”.
“As layers and layers of illusions are peeled away – the illusion of beauty, the illusion of power, the illusion of importance, even the illusion of meaning – time profoundly changes our view of life itself. The Austro-Hungarian Empire built up its signs of wealth and power for four hundred years. They slowly decayed, fading away. Then for almost half a century the communists tried to destroy the past and replace it with their own symbols – they faded even more quickly. Now the new governments are again changing the names of streets and squares, destroying old monuments and replacing them quickly with new ones, taking history and memory as their own little playground. The nostalgia and hopelessness of the Central European soul, its sadness and cynicism – the inner sepia, if you wish – all stems from this. So, I guess, we are something else, after all, something visibly different. In our cities, ‘renewal’ does not renew, it only points out the passing of time, the fact that there is no progress, that history repeats itself endlessly.”
- Slavenka Drakulic, ‘On the Quality of Wall Pain in Eastern Europe’, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed
See also Thomas Dolby’s Budapest by Blimp:
“Walking, they were walking / Through the rainy days, looking at all the faces / But no-one ever noticed them”
Ultravox!, Quiet Men, 1978
Late seventies’ television series like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Logan’s Run, as well as films such as Star Wars, Alien and The Black Hole, variously embedded robots, androids and cyborgs within public consciousness.
But whilst Kraftwerk’s influential The Man-Machine (1978) came off the production line during a period when screen content was dominated by commercial fantasies set in outer space, it’s an LP which owes its inspiration to earlier sci-fi works. Shiny and accessible – and arguably presenting a less cohesive concept than its predecessor Trans-Europe Express – the ideas behind The Man-Machine were heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 film Metropolis (featuring the gynoid Maria) as well as the four band members’ own mannequin-esque on-stage personas.
David Buckley writes that, “Against the backdrop of technology advancement, US-Soviet space-race rivalry, and the liberation of popular culture by countercultural progressives, Kraftwerk began making music during a time when the future of mankind seemed to be being radically re-directed.”
“Expressionless and statuesque, Kraftwerk initiated a completely new performance idiom, and building on ‘Showroom Dummies’ from the previous album, their reinvention as robots was logical,” he adds. “It paved the way for a new wave of pop performers who would affect an air of emotional dislocation, staring blankly out on an audience to be neither greeted nor even acknowledged.”
Already David Bowie had rejuvenated experimental rock and pop by making synths, together with recognisable sci-fi themes and characterisations, intrinsic to his creative process (for instance, 1974’s Diamond Dogs included the Orwell-inspired tracks Big Brother and 1984, while three years later Low‘s cover art was sourced straight from the artist’s turn as an alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth). Now the Dűsseldorfers’ measured stillness, perfected for The Man-Machine, became a blueprint for UK synthpop acts seeking to distinguish themselves from the conventions of guitar rock.
With the release of The Man-Machine Kraftwerk drew sci-fi and technology in close to our world as they set out to create the sound of past and imagined global cities; in so doing they helped establish a sonic and aesthetic language for a sci-fi fetish of communist states.
In England is Mine Michael Bracewell traces the key precursors of a robot aesthetic which “provided metaphors for individualism within a bland society”, emphasising the historical position of the robot as both a physical and political threat:
“Imported from Germany and Eastern Europe, there was a mythology of robots both as sinister (in the Gothic, Frankensteinian sense of the self-awakening monster) and political, in terms of allegories of Fordism, Communism and Bolshevism. The female robot in Metropolis had raised new notions of sexuality, combining eroticism with political allegory to make a Goth-Futurist morality tale that was equally concerned with emotional and sexual relationships. There was also Karel Ĉapek’s ‘Robot Play’ of 1920, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which not only provided the word ‘robot’ but told the story of an army of robots who unite to destroy mankind, thus becoming a critique of totalitarian communism. Peter Wollen, in his essay on ‘Robot Kultur’, has linked the robot eroticism in the latter half of Metropolis with Gramsci’s notion of industrialization prompting a sexual crisis: the libido is placed at odds with the need for efficiency in the factory.”
The term ‘robota’ (meaning ‘serf labour’) was coined by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Josef, as detailed in the memoir of author and architect Ivan Margolius: ‘“Apparently, [Josef] Čapek had the idea for the artificial beings not through the famous Prague automaton, the Golem, supposedly created by Rabbi Yehuda Löw ben Becalel at the end of the 16th century, but while riding on an overcrowded Prague tram. Suddenly it struck him how modern conditions made people uncaring about the usual comforts of life. They stood squashed in the tram, not like sheep but like machines. He started to think of people not as individuals but as machines, and during the journey he reflected on an expression which would indicate a being able to work but not think.’” (Vítězslav Margolius in Ivan Margolius, Reflections of Prague)
A 1921 review of R.U.R. from The Observer.
Though subsequent usage of the term ‘robot’ suggests otherwise, in Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) the artificial beings are actually biological entities assembled by humans, as serf labour, from a variety of components, rather than actual mechanical devices. Karel Čapek’s play, which was successfully exported to the UK and US during the twenties, centres on non-human factory workers who, fed up with their lot, turn the tables on their bosses through drastic industrial action which ultimately leads to the extinction of the human race.
Prior to Kraftwerk’s re-released single The Model surging to the top of the UK charts in February 1981, the door to the mainstream for synthpop was emphatically kicked in by Gary Numan when, firstly as the frontman of Tubeway Army and then flying solo, he scored No.1 hits in both June and September 1979. A mixture of sinister androgyny and fragile otherness Numan seemingly appeared out of nowhere to perform live on the BBC’s Top of the Pops program, posing his grammatically specific question.
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? was the lead single from Tubeway Army’s second LP Replicas, a concept record which uses the written and visual language of sci-fi to communicate a human race alienated in their own near-future world.
These days a trained pilot, Numan (nee Webb) grew up near London’s Heathrow, not far from long-time Shepparton resident JG Ballard. It was whilst working on the self-titled debut of his then-punk/glam band when, so the story goes, he experienced an epiphany of sorts after stumbling across a Minimoog in the recording studio. Attracted to the possibilities of electronic sound Numan began to introduce such elements into his milieu, complementing existing other-wordly influences (for instance, Philip K Dick is quoted in Tubeway Army’s opening track Listen to the Sirens).
Inspired by an unfinished Numan sci-fi novel, Replicas is his masterpiece. Whereas Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire applied sci-fi themes and electronic sound to post-industrial Manchester and Sheffield respectively, and John Foxx to a past-its-prime London metropolis, the less-political Numan reinterpreted such reference points to create a futuristic fantasy world. Alongside ‘Friends’ sit concept-laden gems like Praying to the Aliens, The Machman, Me! I Disconnect From You and Down in the Park, alongside the straighter glam rock of You Are in My Vision and It Must Have Been Years.
Like Foxx, Numan shed his band in 1980 and embarked on a solo career, soon returning to No.1 with Cars; easily dismissed as a parody of Kraftwerk’s man-machine aesthetic, Numan became synthpop’s first bona fide pop star. Subsequently, Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes topped the charts in August 1980, followed by Soft Cell’s Tainted Love (September 1981) and The Human League’s Dont’ You Want Me? (December 1981).
By 1980, having released two solo albums, The Pleasure Principal and Telekon, Numan had retired from playing live and took an 18-month hiatus from music, after which his popularity waned. Having since made a resurgence with Nine Inch Nails-style industrial rock, the artist has sought to downplay the influence of sci-fi on his early career:
“To be honest I only ever wrote a handful of songs that were remotely connected to Science Fiction and they were all nearly 20 years ago,” he tells Electronicmusic.com. “The ‘Replicas’ album, or bits of it, one or two things on ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and one or two things on ‘Telekon’. I would say about 15 songs, maybe 20, out of a total of well over 300 to date have anything to do with Sci Fi. I think because I became successful with electronic music, a newish thing 20 years ago, and a song called ‘Are Friends Electric’ (it was that song that launched me in the UK anyway) I was given a Sci Fi label that stuck long after I’d moved on to other things. I do love technology though. I’m fascinated by all things techy. I do enjoy science fiction movies and TV shows as well but it honestly doesn’t cross over into my music or the way I see the world.”
Reflective, synth-driven music exploring concepts of identity proliferated in the early eighties, and an inordinate amount of tracks delve into the inner psyche of the troubled, dislocated or manipulated individual; for example, Visage’s Fade to Grey, Blancmange’s Running Thin, OMD’s The New Stone Age, Talk Talk’s Mirror Man, Depeche Mode’s Puppets, Yazoo’s Happy People, Tears for Fears’ Start of the Breakdown, Soft Cell’s Metro MRX and Japan’s Ghosts.
After the glam guitar pop of two 1978 albums (containing tracks titled European Son, Communist China and Suburban Berlin), south Londoners Japan moved in a more electronic direction for Quiet Life (1979), Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and, finally, Tin Drum (1981). The memorable single Ghosts featured on this latter communist China-themed album across which David Sylvian’s vocals delicately complement intricate programming and voice samples, fetishising all things red; “We’re young and strong in this Party / We’re building our visions of China,” Sylvian proudly asserts on fellow single Visions of China.
Meanwhile, Leeds duo Soft Cell’s early recordings, later compiled as The Bedsit Tapes, are heightened, modernist fantasies which stack up squarely in the kitchen sink of Thatcher’s Britain. Soft Cell’s Metro MRX “favourite mutant” is variously described by singer Marc Almond as “a cog in the machinery”, “impersonal and straight-faced”, “not a clone but a look-alike” and more worryingly “the city’s full of him”.
Cold War themes were by now de rigueur within the synthpop strain of post-punk, and increasingly the protagonist tended to be the grey suited-man of communism – Party and secret police operatives, cunning and dangerous – alien to the West but a fact of everyday life elsewhere.
As Bracewell notes, “Grey was also the shade of film noir and pre-War Europe (on the style index) as well as the eerie hue of half-life, after-life and indecision”.
“The ghostly non-colour of urban mist, had popped up in Gary Numan’s founding vocabulary in reference to the ‘friend’ of ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’, who was ‘dressed in a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette’.”
Drawing on the political legacy of the robot as dissenting figure, the pervading electro-pop aesthetic plugged into a fetishised, unknown, communist East. Inevitably artists of this era coveted new meaning or identity, their own seemingly blunted amidst the dehumanisation of right-wing politics. The banality of daily existence was salved with creative imaginings of mythical characters inhabiting an idealised urban environment.
Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic has first-hand experience of living in an individual-less society, which she describes in Cafe Europa: Life After Communism:
“I grew up with ‘we’ and ‘us’ in kindergarten, at school, in the pioneer and youth organisations, in the community, at work,” she writes. “I grew up listening to the speeches of the politicians saying, ‘Comrades, we must…’ and with these comrades, we did what we were told, because we did not exist in any other grammatical form.
“As a consequence of this ‘us’, no civic society developed. The little there was, in the form of small, isolated and marginalised groups, was soon swallowed up by the national homogenisation that did not permit any differences, any individualism.”
New Life indeed.
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.
“I was in a car crash / Or was it the war? / But I’ve never been quite the same”
- Down in the Park, Tubeway Army 1978
Several decades prior to JG Ballard’s Crash (1973) detailed the erotic union between flesh and desires and the components of motor vehicles – as explored sonically in Warm Leatherette and Cars) – the realities of uber-mechanised violence chillingly focused attention onto what technological ‘advancement’ could mean (and still means) for humanity. The swift and cynical development of new-age aircraft fighters and bombers and their resultant, horrific application from the late thirties until the mid forties left lasting legacies of disgust or admiration; the mythologic status and power of the fighter pilot evoking responses from future generations (see Thomas Leer’s Private Plane, Tubeway Army’s Bombers, Depeche Mode’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, OMD’s Enola Gay and Fad Gadget’s debut single Back to Nature which features the memorable line, “Capitalist aircraft fill the air”).
Meanwhile, as bloody conflict, destruction and mass displacement were wrought upon Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, medical progress in the form of prostheses enabled select war-wounded to be partly healed through the insertion of metal plates, screws and such like ( real-life precursors to the mid-eighties protagonists of The Terminator and RoboCop.)
The spectre of WWII loomed large over late-seventies’ musicians who, according to Simon Reynolds, “all grappled with both the problems and the possibilities of human existence in an increasingly technological world”.
“Growing up in cities physically and mentally scarred by the violent nineteenth-century transition from rural folkways to the unnatural rhythms of industrial life, these groups had a privileged vantage point from which to ponder the dilemma of alienation versus adaptation in a machine age.”
The 1976 self-titled debut from Ultravox!, although relatively light on electronics, was very influential in the development of synthpop; I Want To Be Machine (predating Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine) proposed the merger of flesh and metal in call to arms for a technology-laden future, while My Sex takes a glimpse into the alienation faced by humans in such a world. On subsequent albums Ha! Ha! Ha! and Systems of Romance the group would further refine such themes.
“I had these ideas about ruined half electronic people and it was sort of like ruined cyber hippies – ripped and torn, people who’ve come unplugged,” John Foxx told Mojo.
What could be interpreted as artistic appreciation of the smooth efficiency of technology might simultaneously be seen as the grim evocation of totalitarian brutality and everyday suffering; by design or otherwise electronic experimentalists (unaware that under Thatcher, British troops would again soon be at war) delved into the psychology of reconfigured cities, scarred landscapes, shifted borders, mass killing and the forced transfer of human capital.
Samplers and sequencers were used to evoke the shock and awe created by Allied and German aerial bombardment of urban centres. London (home to a host of electronic innovators including Foxx, Throbbing Gristle, Tubeway Army, Fad Gadget, The Normal, Japan, The Eurythmics, Neu Electrikk, Naked Lunch, Portion Control, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental) remained physically and socially worse for wear after baring the brunt of the Blitz. In the East End, which was also the epicentre of the city’s 17th-century plague, locals made clear connections between their environment and the burning fury that enemy machines had cast down from the skies. For those with access to the right equipment, technology now offered a means to describe the psychogeography of an abandoned part of town.
Having ridden the “InterCity trains, dressed in European grey” on Ha! Ha! Ha!‘s groundbreaking Hiroshima Mon Amour, and later become disillusioned with the lack of success of the underrated Systems of Romance, Foxx sought to move away from a band format and instead use solely electronic sounds to create a soundscape for London, the ‘lost’ city in which he lived; an urban fantasy world perhaps.
The Garden studio, located in Shoreditch, was built in 1978 by Foxx and the well-renowned studio designer Andy Munro; it became a regular recording place for the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure and Depeche Mode, as well as Matt Johnson (The The) who ended up buying the space for himself.
During the making of his solo debut Metamatic Foxx adhered to a set of strict rules, one relating subject matter which was to be restricted to: a man, a woman and a city. Outside of Warm Leatherette, the album contains the ultimate Ballardian synthpop tune in Underpass, though tracks such as He’s a Liquid, No-One Driving, A New Kind of Man and Burning Car suffer little by way of comparison.
“Suddenly we had a new electromechanical ecology of synths and drum machines which allowed us to address new themes – the unrecognised present, Europe, motorways, the romance of urban environments and the devising of a mythical sexuality that was unspecific and more concerned with shifting identity, elusiveness, transformation and merging, “ Foxx told The Quietus. “Everything became timeless, stylised and extended, instead of that quick little ball of flame that characterised rock.”
In the late seventies industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle broke new musical ground in creating urban soundscapes characterised by discomforting sonic rhythms and political messages open to various interpretations. By contrast synthpop acts emerged with not only clean melodies but also less-ambiguous lyrics, nevertheless establishing a genre littered with themes of urban geography and conflict (exemplified by OMD’s Bunker Soldiers, The Human League’s Blind Youth, The Associates’ White Car in Germany, most of Simple Minds’ 1979-81 output), sci-fi and technology (The Normal’s T.V.O.D., Fad Gadget’s Ricky’s Hand, Composition of Sound’s Television Set and the various contributors to 1981’s Some Bizarre Album).
Bear in mind these (mostly though not-exclusively male) artists perceived themselves to be shunted to the periphery of their surroundings and mainstream culture in the UK. As such, the impersonal came to the fore across subjects such as architecture, cities and motion; surveillance, state violence and conformity; consumption, dislocation and machines.
Informed by social and cultural politics, visual art movements and tropes from sci-fi literature, the intellectual underpinning of synthpop relates to individuals’ identity struggles contained within alienating, degraded (usually) urban settings. Turning the gaze inward early electronic artists variously infused their material with lyrical and conceptual narratives of race, gender, sexuality, nationality and religion, drawing on a rich tradition of heightened, artificial humanity to express experienced or impending societal breakdown.
Taking cues from the eroticised glam rock era, sex – or at least the threat of it – tends to occupy a shadowy presence in this unsympathetic world; at times providing relief, if not necessarily pleasure, for central characters who are otherwise psychologically and/or physically broken. With some exceptions, (tainted) love is to be rued and feared while sex is present in a warped, predatory sense (observed in the work of Tubeway Army, Japan, The Eurythmics, Flowers, Oppenheimer Analysis and Soft Cell).
In synthpop explorations of emotional and spiritual connection are largely transposed onto cities, failed states and the products of technology.
“In mitternacht, die mensch-maschine kissed me on my eyes,” as Foxx would say.
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.
“The wrecking balls and bulldozers began to systematically destroy the homes of 10,000 Bunker Hill residents. After a generation of corporate machination, including a successful 1953 campaign (directed by the Los Angeles Times) to prevent the construction of public housing on the Hill, there was finally a green light for ‘urban renewal’. A few Victorian landmarks, like Angel’s Flight, were carted away as architectural nostalgia, but otherwise an extraordinary history was promptly razed to the dirt, and the shell-shocked inhabitants, mostly old and indigent, pushed across the moat of the Harbor Freeway to die in the tenements of Crown Hill, Bunker Hill’s threadbare twin sister. Irrigated by almost a billion dollars of diverted public taxes, bank towers, law offices, museums, and hotels eventually sprouted from its naked scars, and Bunker Hill was reincarnated as a glitzy command center of the booming Pacific Rim economy. Where hard men and their molls once plotted to rob banks, banks now plotted to rob the world.”
- Mike Davis, ‘Hollywood’s Dark Shadow’, Dead Cities
“I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country.”
The The, The Sinking Feeling, 1983.
“Catch a train into the dark depths of the North again. Flee the wonderland. A million miles away from London town, the conditioning centre where all is lost, into the hills and the drizzle and the places where ‘rock’n’roll’ doesn’t have quite such a death grip… As the train rolls into ghostly Sheffield, a profound greyness descends. Grey – the colour of The City, the colour of depression.”
Thus begins Paul Morley and Penni Smith’s November 1980 NME profile on Cabaret Voltaire, a band who derived sonic inspiration from the physical and political environments of a Sheffield which by the early eighties was being proclaimed ‘The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ by supporters of the city council’s left wing policies.
Sadly, in a town which played a central role in the steel production that fuelled Europe’s post-war reconstruction, industry was decimated and an estimated 40,000 jobs were to be lost between 1979 and 1989.
“Imagine a musical soundtrack for a November Sheffield, for a decaying symbol of crumbling capitalism, for the lonely hearts and lost hopes of the city dwellers, for reason …imagine the turbulent, tense, obsessive Cabaret Voltaire sound,” the NME piece continues. “An integration and aggregation of stern rhythm, rigid sound, unexpected noises, ghostly bumps, news reels, snatches of conversation, screams, wails, unspecified signals … a sound of our times. The sound for our times.”
Three albums of post-industrial dance-funk – The Crackdown (1983), followed by Micro-Phonies (1984) and The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (1985) – accounted for the Cabs’ most successful period, one in which they explored the music video art form to its fullest in collaboration with filmmaker Peter Care. His clip for the 1983 single Crackdown features footage depicting the martial law enforced by Poland’s authoritarian government from December 1981 to July 1983 but the sentiment could be a critique of Thatcher’s Britain of strikes, riots, rising unemployment, social division etc. Band member Stephen Mallinder says the video, “interpreted and reflected a sense of authority and austerity and a sense of slight, impending doom”.
“In the 80s, we were still living in a kind of Cold War environment,” Mallinder recalls. “In that period, we had the Cold War mentality imbued through us – the Post-war [environment] and the Cold War. I think we were reflecting some of that.
“We’ve always been journalists – and have seen ourselves in that way. But we sort of recontextualized it through music. We’ve always been observant of things, and I think Crackdown was very much like that and the film interpretation was that journalistic view of that situation.”
Wire journalist Ken Hollings recognised that expressions of negative authority soon became a Cabaret Voltaire trademark, suggesting that 1986 single Sensoria “locked step with the state of the nation and reflected the group’s experiences while touring the UK during the 1984 miners’ strike”.
“Riot police and official checkpoints were the frontline of a regime that no longer believed in society and had no further use for surplus flesh or the dignity of labour.”
The sleeve for Cabaret Voltaire’s 1984 Micro-Phonies album was designed by Neville Brody and Phil Barnes. The latter’s Sheffield-based Naked Art created the cover image for a competition, run by a local workers’ education association, aimed at producing an image to sum up the Orwellian year.
The Cabs’ Richard H Kirk explained its resonance in a 2001 special edition of Q magazine: “Virgin did a massive poster campaign which meant that the image was all over England in 1984. There was a certain irony that such a degraded image fitted in with the time. The miners’ strike was brewing and all amount of chaos was going around.”
Mallinder and Tara Brabazon state here that “local factors of physical environment, economic practices and social interactions and infrastructures” served to frame the creative processes behind the Sheffield sound.
“As a city, it has defined itself aurally as much as visually, characterised both to itself and to the rest of the world via sonic parameters. The city has become a paradoxical fusion of the sounds of metal and soul, steel and electronica, industrial bleeps and lyrical mockery, it is popular culture wrapped in the tarnished glamour of self-deprecation.
“The dismantling of the steel industry and subsequent miners’ strike of 1984-85 provided daily reminders of the impact of government policy, punctuated by didactic speeches from politicians that warned of ‘the enemy within’.
“The Sheffield soundscape is as much defined through its work environment and historical narrative as its patterns of social interaction and consumption. The ‘sound’ of the city is framed by its industrial corporeality, by its rolling mills and blast furnaces which are Sheffield’s elemental essence forged in fire and steam.”
Pulp‘s Russell Senior takes up a similar theme in Eve Wood’s documentary film The Beat is The Law: “To come to Sheffield – as you arrive to it – this dark place with these sort of belching factory chimneys, it was a very vivid, exciting, powerful-feeling place and gave you a buzz just to walk around town, for me, to just discover this city. And all these, you know, dark, intense people in nightclubs who were making very interesting music. I mean, Cabaret Voltaire’s performances were magnetic, you’d be drawn into it.”
A 2009 Guardian review of David Peace’s work, which encompasses the novel GB84, highlights the way in which Sheffield and its surrounds had the unfortunate tendency to assume centre stage in the conflicts of Thatcher’s Britain:
“Yorkshire has failed to produce the same mythologising self-portraits as, say, Liverpool or Manchester. Which is strange considering that over the last 35 years Yorkshire has been a place where many of Britain’s wider public problems have been played out in extremis: labour disputes, the ravaging effects of unemployment and industrial collapse, police corruption, football stadium disasters, rioting, racial and religious conflicts and the growth of the BNP in local politics.”
A soon-to-be-flying-picket during the miner’s strike, Senior recalls sensing an edginess in Sheffield during the lead up to the industrial action which saw the authorities violently oppose workers from the local mining and steel industries.
“I came back to Sheffield in ’83 and found it to be a city in some turmoil and decay ’cause there were lots of steel factories being shut down, a lot steel workers being made redundant, including my father, and so there were strikes going on, and it was sort of building up to the miners’ strike. And you kind of knew it was building up to that because Thatcher had this kind of idea to sort of pick off the unions one by one.”
“As a kid who had been brought up in the sixties, I was far from feeling buoyant in this accelerating tide,” Sheffield music scene chronicler Mick Fish writes. “In fact, I was slowly watching all the foundations of my life crumbling about me. Thatcherism was rampaging seemingly unstoppably over what I saw as the mainstays of my outlook on life… The Tories’ general manifesto was ‘We don’t like it, so we’ll scrap it’.”
As well as causing much trauma and hardship this difficult period perversely also gave rise to local post-punk, synthpop and dance music scenes, its protagonists aided by access to venues like The Limit and The Leadmill, and later through events such as Dolebusters music festivals put on by the council.
The Leadmill itself was a non-profit performing arts venue targeted towards those artists struggling for exposure elsewhere. Located in unoccupied, derelict industrial buildings, the venue hosted a range of activities including live music, performance art and film screenings. Notably, it held benefit gigs for those in mining and steel-related professions.
As such, as Pulp’s Nick Banks puts it in The Beat is The Law, “The dole culture of Thatcher’s Britain of the eighties was perhaps a great supporter of the arts”.
In his Depeche Mode biography Stephen Malins writes that, “In reality Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power had polarised political opinion in the 1980s, stigmatising pop groups who revelled in glamour, fame and money as ‘right-wing reactionaries’, and making pseudo-communists of anyone who expressed a ‘caring’ social perspective.”
As Cabaret Voltaire, Kirk, Mallinder and Chris Watson duly established their Western Works studio in the former headquarters of the Socialist Workers’ Party, having produced numerous homemade cassettes prior to their studio debut, the 1978 EP Extended Play. The Cabs’ early work could be described as post-punk electronic music with an industrial bent, and growing up in a staunchly blue-collar town Kirk, for instance, was treated nightly to the sounds from the nearby forges where his father worked. Yet in an interview with The Quietus he seeks to downplay the influence of the decaying steel city on the nature of the group’s sound:
“It wasn’t a case of ‘Oh yeah, I can hear all these weird noises in the night coming from the forges…’ I don’t think it was then a case of ‘Well, I’d better go off and do some music that sounds like that.’ I don’t think we thought about it. The whole thing with industrial was that wasn’t a term that Cabaret Voltaire invented, the first people I heard of using that term were Throbbing Gristle and they called their label Industrial and their slogan was ‘Industrial Music For Industrial People’. And I think that kind of got stuck onto Cabaret Voltaire as well because we all came out at the same time. And it did become a bit of a cliché, you know.
“But you can’t deny the fact that back then Sheffield was kind of like the big steel, industrial city. Sadly a lot of it went. It was something that was always there and I was in very close proximity to it. A few minutes from where I lived. We used to go down there to play when we were kids and fantasise about what all these different buildings were. It was the end result of watching too much sci-fi, your imagination running riot, you like to think about what things could be… not what they were.”
Having signed to Rough Trade, Cabaret Voltaire released three independent albums of tape loop, drum machine and guitar-driven paranoia – Mix Up (1979), Voice of America (1980) and Red Mecca (1981) – before decamping to Virgin Records in 1982.
Of course, the Cabs weren’t the only act in the late seventies forming electronic realisations of a city that on the brochure was forward-thinking and futuristic but in reality was regressive and depressing; during this period Sheffield also spawned post-punk acts like Artery, Clock DVA, I’m So Hollow and The Comsat Angels in addition to electronic groups like Vice Versa and The Future who would morph into ABC and The Human League respectively.
Vice Versa emerged briefly with material sounding not dissimilar to The Normal’s lone single before ultimately morphing into chart-topping purveyors of ‘New Pop’ ABC. “Here is my gas mask / and here is baton / I carry my shield / made out of Perspex,” stated a monotone frontman Mark White on Vice Versa’s prescient Riot Squad in 1980.
Meanwhile, during 1977 The Future’s Martyn Ware bought his first synth (a Korg 770S, for £800) and together with fellow computer programmer, Ian Craig Marsh, he even developed a machine to generate lyrics for some of their early tracks. After vocalist Adi Newton departed to form Clock DVA (name inspired by A Clockwork Orange) the duo concentrated on instrumentals until the arrival of Newton’s replacement, and synthpop-star-in-waiting, Phil Oakey. They called one of their instrumental tracks 4JG – that is, ‘for JG Ballard’.
The group soon changed its name to The Human League (taken from a sci fi-themed computer game), releasing two EPs, 1978’s Electronically Yours (featuring Being Boiled) and a year later The Dignity of Labour. The latter, a concept record of sorts inspired by the Soviet space program, was named after a mural in a high-rise block featured in A Clockwork Orange and featured on its cover an image of Yuri Gagarin striding across a Moscow square to be honoured for his efforts.
Unlike the industrial triumvirate of Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle, The Human League espoused optimistic humanism in both their lyrics and visuals, however alike their source material. The Face‘s Heather Hart found the group’s approach distinctive at the time.
“The Human League play their synthesisers and don’t let their synthesisers play them,” she said. “And whereas most electronic music writers seem to have some kind of fixation for being European and/or a machine, or with oldfashioned science fiction “futuristic” films, the songs the League write are much closer to home, at once imaginative and powerful.”
The debut album Reproduction (1979) featured sonic identity crisis Empire State Human and the Philip K Dick-inspired Almost Medieval and Circus of Death. Follow-up album Travelogue (1980) continued in a similar sonic and thematic vein before an acrimonious split saw Ware and Marsh depart and form Heaven 17, leaving Oakey to drive the group in a more commercial direction. This was in part as a result of an appreciation for the work of Donna Summer I Feel Love-producer Giorgio Moroder with whom Oakey would later collaborate on the 1982 hit single Together in Electric Dreams.
By 1981 The Human League mark two were starting to distance themselves from the cold, dehumanised embrace of electronics which had its roots in Düsseldorf, moving beyond experimentalism towards releasing material with more of a pop music structure, more ‘human’ some might say.
“I Feel Love just didn’t sound like any record that had been before,” Oakey gushes in the BBC’s Synth Britannia. “It came on the radio and you couldn’t quite believe what you were hearing – it was hypnotic but it was driving. We were in fact much more influenced by Moroder than we were by Kraftwerk… We never really wanted to be Kraftwerk – we wanted to be a pop band.”
Having released an array of cover versions on their earlier work The Human League’s critical and commercial breakthrough came with Dare!, a Martin Rushent-produced album driven by hit singles like The Sound of the Crowd and, especially, the boy/girl call-and-response of Don’t You Want Me? which was the UK #1 for five weeks from December 1981.
Recorded and released simultaneously to Dare! was the debut album of Marsh and Ware’s new act Heaven 17. Shiny and propulsive Penthouse and Pavement was nonetheless a left wing critique of the nation’s excesses under Thatcher; the cover art features striking sketches of the band as professional yuppies going about their upwardly mobile business. Heaven 17’s 1983 follow-up was titled The Luxury Gap.
After the muted response to 1985’s The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, Cabaret Voltaire themselves moved in the direction of house music and experienced a turbulent period with Parlophone before launching their own label and, freed up creatively, released three more records. Kirk views the Cabs legacy as entwined with other important late-seventies British bands: “On one extreme you had Throbbing Gristle who were not musical and on the other side you had Joy Division… who were experimental but they were also rock and had recognisable song structures. And somewhere in the middle you had Cabaret Voltaire who were, in some ways, a bit of both.”
Sheffield was later blessed with a state-of-the-art recording facility. FON Studios, which would later be made famous by the mega-success of the Warp label, was built by local industrial funk band Chakk who used their advance from London-based record company MCA to build the facility in the Wicker, a semi-industrial area of Sheffield. Apparently drop forges and other light industry nearby caused the building to shake and came through in studio recordings. (Chakk’s biggest hit was 1984’s Out of the Flesh which reached #3 on the UK independent charts and was actually recorded at Western Works, Cabaret Voltaire’s studio.)
Mick Fish sees the origins of industrial music as essentially a British phenomenon: “There wasn’t a hint of anything American about it. No recycling of blues of R&B riffs. It saw the world as a mess of sound; a harsh, bleak landscape. In effect the reality that many people had to live with every day, particularly through the eighties. It wasn’t escapist of full of the frills or trappings of rock ‘n’ roll. Bands like the Cabs, Clock DVA and TG held a mirror up to British life, and a lot of what was reflected wasn’t very pretty… With their noises, cut-ups, walls of sound, ethnic strains and synthesised bleeps, the early industrial groups were awash with the flotsam and jetsam of modern life.”
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.