Music writing and eighties critiques tend to attribute that decade’s electronic music the status of mere bubblegum, a genre of little artistic value in which evocations of robots and outer-space exploration are shoehorned into lyrics and imagery as a gimmick to service cynical capitalism.
Ask a group of today’s thirty and forty-somethings to list the characteristics of new wave music and they’ll probably speak of cringeworthy dance moves, pretentious posturing, ludicrous fashion and futurist fantasies; indeed the mere mention of bands such as Culture Club, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet usually elicits snorts of derision.
However, whilst brushstroke accusations of intellectual vapidity are easily applied to this era of excess – and such a mythology, of course, has some validity in popular understanding – it was also a period of great sonic innovation thanks to new-found accessibility of drum machines and synthesisers. That the early eighties electro/synthpop movement, characterised by the likes of Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears, The Human League and Ultravox, was multi-faceted and politically engaged has therefore often been lost amidst the nostalgia for New Romantic acts, and the myriad entertainments of the loads-a-money years that followed.
Synthesisers may have come to the fore in feature film soundtracks like those for A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner, yet the contemporaneous electro/synthpop genre is often connoted with not only style-over-substance New Romanticism but so too a limited notion of science-fiction; that is, a distinctly kitsch, rather cumbersome, nonsense futurism a la the television series Lost in Space, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or even Star Trek.
In part this is due to the overt sci-fi stylings of smash-hit singles – Buggles’ 1979 MTV-opening Video Killed the Radio Star, for instance – which have lingered in the mainstream as historical artefacts. However, this surface-level interpretation of sci-fi expressed through sound has also been applied to, in particular, Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, not to mention David Bowie. Such a perspective overlooks or even trivialises the adoption of the modernist aesthetic that lay at the heart of, initially, industrial music and synthpop/rock towards the end of the seventies, and then the fully-fledged synthpop which dominated the music charts in the early eighties. For although the golden era of synthpop fell between 1978 and 1982, its purest protagonists formed part of wider new wave scene incorporating both rock and pop, experimental and commercial artists that each absorbed similar cultural influences and where integration of electronic sound extended further than the dedicated synthpop groups who thus should not be analysed in isolation.
Much like modernist architectural planners, musicians of the post-punk era plotted imagined futures inspired by the past and of the present (Michael Perlman calls it “remembering the future”). As such, imagined synthetic soundscapes, as with dystopian sci-fi, evoke a near rather than space-age future. Therefore, despite electronic music and sci-fi being linked in our consciousness, retrospective appraisal of synthpop is often reductive. What tends to go unrecognised is the context in which the suggested escapism of sixties and seventies sci-fi and new technology possibilities appealed to young musicians seeking alternatives to the limitations of punk rock and to their domestic maladies at a time of political hysteria relating to the Cold War.
Modular synths, albeit sparingly and at great expense, found their way into progressive rock during the sixties but by the mid seventies, a disparate set of inventive groups in West Germany had established a sonic identity to differentiate them from counterparts in the UK and the US through a variety of innovative recording techniques. Throwing convention out of the window, acts such as Can, Cluster, Faust, Harmonia, Kraftwerk, La Dűsseldorf, NEU! and Tangerine Dream ploughed a wilfully unorthodox furrow, shaped by recent social and political upheavals in their homeland. These musicians who reached maturity in the late sixties and early seventies tended to make music at odds with the Anglo-American perception of German national identity but nevertheless their respective acts were lazily lumped together and labelled as ‘krautrock’ by the British music press.
Most significantly, the sounds coming out of particularly, Cologne and Dűsseldorf but also Berlin and Munich, were characterised not only by experimentation with traditional instruments and production techniques but also by the substantial use of electronic instrumentation and noise samples. Such experimentation resonated with emerging British musicians who whilst retaining the do-it-yourself attitude of the punk movement, were less enthusiastic about the limitations imposed by the punk-rock aesthetic.
This re-interpretation of electronic sound can partly be traced to the early seventies introduction of the compact Minimoog. In 1974, Kraftwerk used this machine on Autobahn which reached No.11 in the UK album charts, providing impetus and legitimacy to synths and other electronic instruments as a path of expression on a student-size budget.
Spawned from the Germany’s industrial Ruhr region, Kraftwerk’s output had evolved from minimalist beginnings to ally synthetic swathes of sound to mechanical, programmed drum beats and detached vocals, applying, says Michael Bracewell in England is Mine, “the musical mathematics of Bach to their machine-generated music, and played with clichés of Teutonic efficiency”.
According to Bracewell, “Kraftwerk suggested a science fiction fable of survival through transcendental dehumanization in an apocalyptic culture; like Bowie being the ghost of a dead future, haunting a dying present, Kraftwerk were emotionless machines for whom the desire, fragmentation and paranoia of an insane consumer culture were just blips to be programmed out. It was a hugely romantic premise, and young, fashionable people all over England began to look like depressed Europeans…”
In the UK observers were by equal measure intrigued and confounded by what they heard for although the creators of these unique sounds leaped beyond the established boundaries of rock music, they did so with apparently stereotypical German precision and without distinguishable human emotion.
“When I heard Autobahn, I thought ‘I want that sound’,” recalls Soft Cell’s Dave Ball, explaining that the Leeds electro-group’s aesthetic derived directly from punk rather than any notion of stocking the commercial pop charts with anodyne pop music. “Our initial songs, we were writing in them in this crummy little studio in art college about tupperware parties and just rubbish, and about shit biscuits, and just basically about the state of society… That was like electronic punk – I think that’s what we were doing. We weren’t trying to be pop stars. We weren’t trying to be Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran. We were punks basically. We were just punks with synths.”
Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark (OMD)’s Andy McClusky describes the scene as “little cultural islands” and was later surprised to here “people in Sheffield and London had been going to import stores and listening to electronic and German music”.
Liverpool’s OMD (label-mates of Joy Division on Factory Records which released Electricity) initially appeared truest to Kraftwerk’s past-future manifesto which McClusky relates directly to the architecture of the Germans’ home city:
“We were in this dystopian dirty mess, and actually Kraftwerk were growing up in, of all places, Düsseldorf. You find me an original building in Düsseldorf of pre-1945! There aren’t many of them. I think that is where their music reflected that wonderful utopian vision of the future which is now of course a vision of modernity.” (in David Buckley, Kraftwerk: Publikation).
Kraftwerk followed up the breakout success of Autobahn by releasing the momentous, travel-themed Trans-Europe Express in 1977. By this time, electronic composers like Jean-Michel André Jarre and Vangelis were pushing the electronic boundaries and Berlin-based producer Giorgio Moroder had taken synthpop to the masses with Donna Summer’s influential disco hit I Feel Love while groups like New York’s Suicide, Parisian’s Space and Yellow Magic Orchestra from Japan had each found commercial success via synth-driven music. Most significant though was David Bowie’s release of Low and Heroes.
Rusty Egan was a DJ at London’s influential ‘New Romantic’ Blitz club and a member of new wavers The Rich Kids and synthpop act Visage. In the documentary Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution he describes the profound effect of hearing a missive from Berlin in the form of Bowie’s hit single Heroes.
“I think just for one day, I mean, in that song, that song became now for me exactly what we were. ie. We could be heroes for one night, could dress up, get out of our grey, horrible ‘No future’, Thatcherite Britain and we could be somebody… we could forget that really we gotta sign on tomorrow. We got no job, we got no future, Bowie’s gone, Roxy have split up, we got no heroes, the Sex Pistols have just said ‘pffft’ to everything – let’s do it ourselves, let’s make our own music.”
Once the music being produced in Germany demonstrated a path to follow the thirst to create something new out of electronic music drove the synthpop phenomenon. However, the shifting political and social landscape in Britain by the late seventies, namely the rise of the right, surveillance culture and growing inequality, betray broader cultural inspirations and influences on the genre’s development.
Disgruntled by society’s descent to Thatcherism, compounded by IRA bombings and the increased popularity of the National Front, musicians in late seventies and early eighties Britain fetishised and soundtracked a grey and isolated Eastern Europe through a sci-fi lens as they explored comparisons between the social and political environment at home and abroad. In connecting Thatcher-era, modernist music with the communist Eastern Bloc as a cultural influence, Western musicians identified with a fetishised, partly anti-capitalist alternative in creating their aesthetic.
With dreams of utopia wilting fast, I’d like to propose that a disparate cross-section of urban youth coming of age in the late seventies fetishised in the little-known metropolis’s of the East, the cities of the future they’d been expecting to blossom at home, and so presented Central Europe and the Eastern Bloc as sci-fi. Coupled with an embrace of sixties and seventies sci-fi grounded in real-world issues, this fetish provided an aesthetic and conceptual framework for the use of electronic sound which may otherwise have been delivered solely as a series of blips and bleeps, technology for technology’s sake.
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2012.