Still divided between East and West, socialism and democracy, Berlin retained great fascination throughout the late seventies and early eighties. In pop music terms the city was frequently name-dropped by groups as disparate as London’s Japan, Montreal’s Rational Youth, Műnster’s Alphaville and Glasgow’s Simple Minds.
The latter’s second album Real to Real Cacaphony (1979) heralded a shift from the Roxy Music-style band of debut Life in a Day (1979) to one with a broader musical palette, clearly influenced by NEU! and Kraftwerk; propulsive tracks like Changeling and Factory especially showcase Simple Minds’ fusing of rock and electronic sound. During a period in which they promoted themselves as a ‘European band’, the group made three more synth-heavy albums, starting with 1980’s Empires and Dance.
“In Central Europe men are marching…” proclaimed Jim Kerr on Empire and Dance‘s lead single I Travel, having just been inspired by touring said region. Hitherto, frontman Kerr had under-estimated the allure and power of the West-East divide, suspecting a visit to Berlin at this time would prove no more than a tacky letdown. Instead the ensuing tour into lost Mitteleuropa, embarked upon with some reluctance, was a watershed, shaping Simple Minds’ approach and output for several years.
“We were driving through East Germany, it was like going from a colour picture into black and white, no neon lights for 60 miles,” Kerr recounted to the NME in 1980. “Just before you go into the western sector of Berlin, there are these Russian tanks, troops and missiles everywhere. Now, how can you not be affected by something like that?”
How, indeed? But then Kerr’s hesitation and subsequent surprise serves to highlight the ignorance and confusion surrounding Central and Eastern Europe in the late seventies; this despite the by-then established cultural transfer between the West and West Berlin which Kerr and his band partook in.
Simple Minds baffled UK journalists who didn’t know what to make of the group’s overt, stated European-ness. Was immersion in all things continental a clichéd gimmick, naive fantasy or symptomatic of a superiority complex? For its part, the group, led by the eminently quotable Kerr, seemingly spent much of their time outside the studio justifying their lyrics to the media. In 1980 and ’81 alone, readers of the music press were treated to a succession of illuminating interviews discussing the rights and wrongs of the Cold War as influence.
However, the Record Mirror‘s Mark Cooper suggested, “The Minds are in danger of becoming travelling name-droppers who rely on a mystique borrowed from ‘abroad’ to manufacture a sense of mystery and power that has no depth.”
In the same article, Kerr defended such accusations with gusto:
“When you’re in a foreign country you have a lot of freedom because you can’t really understand how that country works from the inside. As a result you feel free enough to say and be what and whom you want; and because people don’t know who you are or where you’re coming from, they’ll believe you are who you say you are. Your cultural baggage is left behind, it’s almost as if you’ve been born again.”
Kerr also set out his case to Melody Maker:
“Last year we spent a full year in Europe and when we came back, we’d got a totally different picture of Britain; found the attitudes, in Glasgow especially, really kinda frightening. All these new-Nazi movements and things, not really with depth but people getting involved from some romantic point of view.”
Arguably, by focusing so sharply on Europe, Simple Minds had (and belying their name) were seeking something deeper, more universal, than mere futurism. In a Sounds interview, Kerr admitted that “singing songs about Europe can be so crass unless you do it right” but also that the group could’ve made their work a lot more direct by adopting a straight-out futurist approach.
“Look, with the electronic thing you can switch the synthesizer on and get really appealing tunes, to which you could sing typical science fiction lyrics and things like that,” Kerr said. “The record company would have loved it if we chose something so direct…”
Thus Kerr picked up a similar theme to that Simple Minds’ guitarist Charlie Burchill alluded to when speaking to the NME: “We could have all worn the same futuristic clothes, splashed wires and capacitors across the album cover and all that…”
Meanwhile, Sounds‘ writer John Gill seemed to be tuning into the group’s wavelength: “They saw Ulrike Meinhof getting a cop bullet in the back of the head while the rest could only see transvestite clubs and the too thrilling decadence of Berlin.”
In early 1981 Ultravox reached number two in the UK singles chart with Vienna, title track to the group’s first post-John Foxx album. New frontman Midge Ure, still riding high on the success of Visage’s equally Euro-paean Fade to Grey, brought to Ultravox an overtly commercial sensibility to its existing thematic fascinations.
Two years previous with Systems of Romance, Ultravox had released an amalgam of rock and electronic sound which would be furthered by Gary Numan and Simple Minds. Significantly, as noted by Simon Reynolds in Rip It Up and Start Again, the group was looking squarely and romantically towards Europe even prior to the release of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, as epitomised by tracks like The Wild, The Beautiful and the Damned:
“What made Ultravox crucial precursors of 1980’s synthpop explosion was their European aura and singer/lyricist John Foxx’s frigid imagery of dehumanisation and decadence.”
By the time Vienna came around Foxx’s unbridled artiness had been swapped for a more direct approach but still in keeping with the influences of the time. As such Ure’s economical vocals for Vienna mention the Austrian capital just once but memorably in the climactic proclamation, “This means nothing to me / Oh, Vienna”. In England is Mine, Michael Bracewell dismisses this attempt to sonically capture Weimar-era decadence as the epitome of mood over content, marking a nadir when “English popular culture… synthesised itself into a moodily lit corner”.
Meanwhile Simple Minds’ Kerr was unsurprisingly not backward in coming forward to both dismiss the melodrama of Ultravox and emphasise the integrity of his own group.
“We’ve always been very open in our use of images in songs so we do run a giant risk of getting labelled as pretentious, being Glasgow boys and singing about Europe and things like that,” Kerr explained to the NME. “But you can’t just blind yourself and pretend that nothing exists outside your home town… At least we did spend most of the last year in Europe ourselves, so we do feel it is legal to sing about it.
“But that whole European thing has been used very wrongly just lately by people like Ultravox in ‘Vienna’, the new Europeans and all that. Sometimes you can sit down and write about something like that and it just looks really tacky. It seems pointless just using the names of foreign people to impress people, coming up with something like ‘Vienna’. You just have to know where to draw the line.”
Vienna’s sentiment as fetish is more or less confirmed by Ure himself in the BBC’s Synth Brittania: “The movies we were watching and the music we were listening at the time, all coming out of Europe, and the history that Europe has; Vienna being this awfully romantic city, this beautiful place; you put all that together and you’ve got this fantastic image… I’d never been to Vienna when we wrote the song; I didn’t know anything about Vienna… You try putting that down on a piece of paper – that you’re going to write a song that’s a four-and-a-half minute-long electronic ballad that speeds up in the middle with a viola solo thrown in; it doesn’t equate, it doesn’t work but at the time when you’re young and naive, naivety’s a wonderful thing.”
Vienna is joined on the (again Conny Plank-guided album) by such archetypal synthpop tracks as New Europeans, Western Promise and Mr X but especially stands out for its high-reaching sense of grandeur, such that Reynolds describes it as “that total fetishism of mittel Europa”. “Wreathed in the sonic equivalent of dry ice,” Reynolds says, “this ludicrously portentous ballad, [is] inspired by a vague notion of a past-its-prime Hapsburg Empire sliding into decadence…”
Although the fetish exemplified here is on the surface purely a longing for a romanticised pre-war Europe, it can also be seen as the culmination of a broader desire for a contemporary alternative to the rabid neoliberalism of Thatcher’s Britain. The fetish of restoring the lost world of Mitteleuropa bought into an imagined future way of life as much as a notion of something lost, destroyed.
In highlighting Bowie and Eno’s role in heightening interest in all things Germanic, Bracewell categorises synth-driven acts as ‘New Romantics’ whom he suggests “were empathizing with the New Right and honing an agenda of elitism and exclusivity; or, equally, the movement was a direct reaction against the consequences of Thatcherism – a kind of Tory-baiting by way of autistic obsession with unadulterated style.”
Regardless, before long a range of nascent British acts were adopting an increasingly modernist, systematic approach to their work, hiding themselves away to feverishly explore the untapped potential of tape loops, sequencers and drum machines. Inspired especially by Kraftwerk’s immersion in the aesthetics of the 1920s, urban musicians lifted the modernist template from mainland Europe and repurposed it as a projection of, or informed by, the fantasies and ideals of Mitteleuropa and the Eastern Bloc. In effect a perceived pre and post-World War II Central and Eastern Europe was transposed onto cities and towns in Britain where electronic music had started to proliferate.
One suspects that in some instances artists felt compelled to live up to the aesthetic conventions being set within a developing genre, but either directly through lyrics or via sonic means, most synthpop acts seemed to at some point embrace militaristic or political themes. Certainly, in searching for a sense of meaning beyond their own depressed circumstances, post-punk musicians increasingly looked and thought, ‘international‘. This essentially meant a choice of gazing either over the Atlantic towards bold, glossy, America (the home of rock’n’roll) or across to the continent where the cold, mysterious Eastern Bloc loomed large.
Arguably what began as a Germanic fetish was naturally extended south and east of Berlin to regions in Central and Eastern Europe, along and behind the Iron Curtain to evoke a Europe lost or distant.
In this way by the onset of the 1980s socialism drew empathy from UK artists despite the well-entrenched distrust for all things red in right-dominated domestic politics; Japan even crafted an album around the concept of communist China for their stellar final effort Tin Drum (1981) featuring tracks like Visions of China, Canton and Cantonese Boy.
Such comparisons, flattering communism or otherwise, paved the way for musical artists to focus on the East through the dual lens of sci-fi and electronic music.
By the time Thatcher took power electronic artists had sprung up in various pockets of Britain, dreaming of the sound of the future against the backdrop of bleak, high-rise existence.
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.