“The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient – a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete – was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person.”
– George Orwell, 1984.
Together, advances in sound technology and the adoption of sci-fi themes served as an effective vehicle to express disaffection for Western democracy and to fetishise unknown socialist Eastern Europe or those places which sat on its frontier; namely Austria and Germany. Imbued with themes and imagery evoking Berlin and beyond synth-driven acts either tended to be immersed in the notion of an alternative to way of life or be grounded in actual, unromanticised existence, decrying the state of the nation.
Such an alternative existed in the Eastern Bloc where the ice of communism had frozen nationalism, and democracy along with it. From the twenties, the spread of a dominant European culture meant minor cities in the region began to rival major centres, at least culturally and socially. According to John Lampe, in South-Eastern Europe this challenged the national integration to which these inter-war states aspired, advancing “the liberal, modernist, and urban version of that integration familiar from the short, unhappy but still promising life of Weimar Germany”.
However, despite Kraftwerk’s promotion of a Trans-Europe Express and their proclamations of Europe Endless, the lyrical focus of their largely UK-based spawn usually lay on the frontier between East and West; hence there tends to be lyrical references to Leipzig and Prague on synthpop records, rather than mutterings of, say, further-afield cities like Belgrade or Plovdiv.
Up until Central and Eastern Europe’s Soviet-backed regimes fell like dominoes in 1989, these respective states’ affairs remained largely concealed from the West behind Churchill’s Iron Curtain. Hitherto, a lack of credible information coming out of the East and the resultant paucity of understanding of life under communism, prompted a range of responses including bemusement, indifference and standoffishness. Communism, while looming large, remained frustrating distanced intellectually.
However, in some respects the lives of those less advantaged in the cities and towns of Britain would come to resemble Western perceptions of life in the Eastern Bloc; features common to both dystopias included social division and unrest borne out of political austerity and a visual, post-conflict legacy of urban centres filled with tower blocks filled with low-income occupants. (As explained here, one city in particular became a hub for musical experimentation at the same time as cynical and sometimes violent State co-option of modernisation was gnawing away at the futures of its citizens.)
Trellick Tower, the notorious (now gentrified) 1972-built, west London housing block (featured, incidentally, in Depeche Mode’s Little 15 video), once stood as the embodiment of the administrative neglect of mass housing, as profiled in The Guardian:
“Within months tenants were begging the council for emergency measures to deal with the vandalism, burglaries, muggings, caretakers’ strikes, rubbish and ankle-deep floods. A pensioner collapsed and died after broken lifts forced him to climb six flights… The rush to escape turned into a stampede. The waiting list jumped to six months, then 12, then 18, then two years. Trellick was sinking into decay, neglect and crime. It was said to have inspired JG Ballard’s novel, High Rise, in which residents collapse into anarchy and wage war on each other’s floors. A destiny of desolation and demolition seemed inevitable.”
Thatcher’s eleven years in power saw the number of UK citizens living below the poverty line double to twelve million, the income gap between the top and bottom fifths of the population grow to sixty percent and employment peak at three million. No less than former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone observed in Utopia London that, “Really, Mrs Thatcher’s mindset would have been more at home in Eastern Germany, you know, or Poland – dissent not tolerated.”
‘Red Ken’ makes a pertinent observation. Living in a climate of rising unemployment and privitisation, it made sense for some Brits to feel an affinity with actual and mythical oppressed workers of totalitarian regimes in isolated lands, whilst at the same time sparking comparisons between experienced capitalism and perceived socialism.
Under Eastern European communism, the working class hero is culturally viable at the same time as manufacturing in the West is failing. This produces a simulacra of Eastern Europe in much of the electronic music being produced in the west – music that presents the possibility of manufacturing sound and image. By the mid 1970s when Western politics had long since become irrevocably cloaked in Cold War consciousness, the profound East-West divide was lending inspiration to UK music at a time when that country’s neoliberal rot had set in. Urban centres as rich and layered as Berlin and Warsaw provoked both awe and empathy from musicians who had grown up in UK cities.
Bernard Sumner, who grew up in Salford on the outskirts of Manchester during the seventies, experienced the life of the poor both in back-to-back houses and in the high-rises that replaced them, and attributes some of the darkness to Joy Division’s music his childhood environment.
“When I was very young I was living in Lower Broughton, Salford. We were right near the River Irwell which was disgusting, and there was a chemical factory at the end of the street with oil drums lying around all over the place. So it was pretty grim but there was always a strong sense of community… When it all came down we were shifted across the river to a tower block. In my young state I thought the new home was brilliant, but the loss would hit me later on. All my childhood memories were wiped away when they cleared out the old Salford.” (from Mick Middles, Joy Division to New Order)
Connecting the psychogeography of British cities with their Eastern Bloc counterparts were those concrete streets-in-the-sky. For Owen Hatherley, this sometimes, “led to a curious kind of bad faith, where, on the one hand, the dehumanising effect of these places was lamented, but, on the other, the vertiginous new landscape was fetishised and aestheticised. Although post-punk was always a great deal more aesthetically sophisticated, not bound by nostalgia for the old streets, this bad faith features here, too. Post-punk is usually represented in terms of concrete and piss, grim towers and blasted wastelands.”
According to Hatherley, “Council flats were always one of the emblems of punk, at least in its more socialist – realist variants. There was a sort of delayed cultural reaction to the cities of tower blocks and motorways built in the ’60s, to the point where their effect only really registered around ten years later, when a cultural movement defined itself as having come from those towers and walkways.”
Affordable synthesisers and drum machines became available in the late seventies. With the depths of Thatcherism still to look forward to, emerging musicians in London, as well as those based in the northern industrial cities Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, looked to non-traditional instrumentation as a means to link music with the impending political doom and industrial decay.
Throbbing Gristle, a transgressive collective formed in Hull in 1975, used synth textures to push the boundaries of taste with twisted psycho-sexual tales. Subversion was important, and Throbbing Gristle certainly did not create an idealised version of the world around them, but beyond the shock value the group’s musical influence was profound. To quote an issue of Fetish magazine in 1980, the group’s “popularity through their adventurous elitism of electronic violence and bleakness has permitted other artists of similar focus to organise a new order of music”.
Sourcing their name from the famous Zurich nightclub – itself named after a centre for the early Dadaist movement post-World War I – the ‘Cabs’ as they became colloquially known were heavily inspired by Williams S Burroughs’ cut-up literature, and drew on the decaying and failing social and physical environments around them to create paranoid sound textures from instrumental and non-instrumental sources.
“If punk has any roots, Dada is part of it,” the Cabs’ Stephen Mallinder explains. “And we saw ourselves as part of a kind of Dada tradition. This was in the sense that if Dada was reacting to the morality and aesthetics of pre-WWI, then we were very much a reaction to the pomposity of rock that existed within music at that time. I think we saw our reaction coming from Dada, but at the same time, it formed into punk, which was very much a reaction to the social conditions.”
Hatherley takes up this theme in more detail:
“The bastard technologies and deadpan dystopianism of Cabaret Voltaire and the early Human League (declaring ‘high rise living’s not so bad’ in 1979, the year that the Tories declared an intention to ‘tear down the tower blocks’) are New Brutalism in Pop, much as the latter was Pop in architecture: the rough synth textures, the bastardised technologies and outlook caught between technological optimism and urban paranoia. Japan, straight out of Catford, sang of the romance of ‘concrete squares’ and ‘east Berlin’, John Foxx’s Ultravox declared that ‘my sex is invested in suburban photographs/skyscraper shadows on a car crash overpass…my sex is an image lost in faded films/a neon outline on a car crash overspill.’ For many post-punk currents, Brutalist imagery was not so much source for socialist realist critique as a spur to new conceptions of surface and space.”
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.