“Science fiction has been hijacked by people who aren’t really interested in the subject. Most SF writers are writing fantasy – all these future-earth sagas and planet eons, these tales of galactic empires, this sort of medieval futurism. It’s the world of Robin Hood dressed up in space suits. It has nothing to do with science as we see it emerging around us today, infiltrating our lives, changing the psychology of the world in which we live…”
– JG Ballard
Motivated by Kraftwerk’s past-futurist lyrical themes and imagery, early purveyors of synthpop duly saw fit to take their creative cues from sci-fi literature and cinema as much as from any established approach to musicianship, relishing the opportunity to apply an art school aesthetic to their respective acts’ visual identities. The influence of sci-fi extended beyond lyric-writing and programming of not-of-this-world sounds to encompass art work and on-stage personas; one suspects more than one bulky VCR over-heated from viewings of Metropolis and, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
It’s equally likely second-hand copies of Orwell, Wells and other literary sci-fi works increasingly became hot property in the late seventies. Indeed, a brand of sci-fi which struck closer to home also made its mark, following on from the impact made by the near-contemporary novels and subsequent adaptations of Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange.
As with Delia Derbyshire‘s 1963 electronic Doctor Who theme for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the synthesised orchestral score composed for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film by Wendy Carlos was hugely influential in the spheres of both music and film/television production alike. (And by the eighties filmmakers working across many genres were regularly enlisting electronic musicians and composers to bring a touch of synth to their creations*.) As for the images, well, they showcased a psycho-physical milieu similar to that which would soon be most consistently inhabited by JG Ballard.
Meanwhile, Simon Reynolds notes that both the Anthony Burgess novel and Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange each “capture the desolate psychogeography of the new Britain created by the ‘visionary’ town planners and fashionably Brutalist architects of the 1960s – all high-rise blocks, shadowy underpasses, concrete pedestrian bridges and walkways.”
John Foxx sees Ballard as “the first radical and relevant novelist of this technological age in Britain”.
“You had Burroughs and Philip K Dick in America but they were connected to the beat movement, using drugs as a lens, reflecting an American landscape. I always enjoyed JGB’s Englishness, living in a middle-class suburb writing about a new landscape we’d only just come to live in…”
In 1989 Ballard told Spin magazine his seventies novels were about “the effects on human psychology of the changes brought about by science and technology, the modern urban landscape, the freeways and motorways, the peculiar psychology of life in vast high-rise condominiums.”
As such, his work differed from the mainstream presentation of sci-fi, as seen in Silent Running, Logan’s Run, The Black Hole, Moonraker and Flash Gordon, as well as Star Wars and its myriad of rip-offs and parodies. Though much of Ballard’s writing is sci-fi in tone his dystopias are grounded in contemporary or near-future living. His three seventies novels, Crash, High Rise and Concrete Island, suitably reflect the grim reality of that decade, featuring characters who are variously alienated, disorientated, enslaved or stimulated by all-dominating concrete and steel.
Reynolds notes that: “This same traumatised urban landscape served as the backdrop – but also, the main character – in JG Ballard’s classic seventies trilogy of Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise. Likewise, Ballard’s earlier short stories and cataclysm novels obsessively conjure an eerie, inhuman beauty from vistas of dereliction – abandoned airfields, disused weapons ranges, drained reservoirs, deserted cities.”
In 1978 The Normal (ostensibly synth experimentalist Daniel Miller, the founder of Mute Records) recorded and self-released the single T.V.O.D., a self-narrative of a man who plugs a television antenna directly into his body. The B-side was Crash-inspired Warm Leatherette, which picked up from where Ballard’s novel left off with lyrics like “The handbrake breaks your thigh / Quick, let’s make love before you die”.
The literary representation of a near-future sixties and seventies inspired post-punk music sonically and thematically. At times Ballard’s stories resonate with an innate Englishness; at others they evoke an international spirit of adventure (though he probably should not be blamed for this).
Ballard proposed often-bleak repercussions of an urban existence where technology comes to the fore and citizens psychically re-wire to this altered course, and the term ‘Ballardian’ was subsequently coined to describe work exploring similar tropes and motifs of a post-industrial world that shapes human identities. Ben Whalley, director of the BBC documentary Synth Brittania, uses it as he notes a distinction between the German and UK music scenes:
“Whilst the Germans used electronics to articulate a sonic utopia, many of the Brits saw electronic music as a way to interrogate reality. Arguably their music soundtracked great industrial cities in economic decline, rent asunder by brutal, Ballardian skyscapes.”
While influenced by Kraftwerk, Joy Division’s music is probably most comparable to the work of Liverpool’s Echo & The Bunnymen, Sheffield’s The Comsat Angels and Artery, Glaswegians Josef K or, at a pinch, Leeds groups like Delta 5 and The Au Pairs. However, back in the late seventies, in realising their interpretation of their home city’s post-industrial decline (with the help of maverick producer Martin Hannett), the influence of electronic rhythms and the prose of JG Ballard were clear. Most obviously he was appropriated for Closer‘s eerie opening track The Atrocity Exhibition but for Reynolds, guitarist Bernard Sumner’s axe-wielding also “evokes the wounded, penetrable metal of Crash – twisted, buckled, splayed, torn”.
Reynolds, who calls Ballard (as well as Brian Eno) a patron saint of post-punk, actually describes Manchester in Ballardian terms: “Venture outside the town centre and the city’s past as the world capital of cotton manufacture becomes more evident: railway viaducts, canals the colour of lead, converted warehouses and factories, and cleared lots littered with masonry shards and refuse.”
On Joy Division, he adds that, “The band’s debut album, “Unknown Pleasures,” pulled a Ballardian maneuver by aestheticizing the postindustrial desolation of late ’70s Manchester, finding a somber glamour in its derelict factories and baleful motorways.”
Appearing in Grant Gee’s 2007 documentary Joy Division, Paul Morley describes the music as “almost like a science-fiction interpretation of Manchester”.
“You could recognize the landscape and the mindscape and the soundscape as being Manchester. It was extraordinary that they managed to make Manchester international, if you like – make Manchester cosmic.”
In her early eighties book The Scientific World View in Dystopia, Alexandra Aldridge discusses a distinction between ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’. Whereas utopia represents a scientifically restructured society, dystopia is rather a critique of said utopia for its emphasis on collective as opposed to individual values.
As such it would be easy to position an Eastern Bloc fetish as one framed by utopian thought, creating a vision of a rigid communist framework where all citizens are equals, at least on paper. On the other hand it could be argued a sci-fi inspired fetish also carries dystopian weight in that the sidelined individual often comes to the fore.
“In outlook, the dystopian novel also dramatises individualist, modernist themes – isolation, spiritual and emotional emptiness, alienation,” Aldridge says. “What distinguishes it from the mainstream is its specific concentration on the alienating effects of science and technology.”
To illustrate this distinction further Aldridge uses the example of Orwell’s 1984, which is not utopian for it cannot hold up any scientific drivers in the construction – only a state lust for control and power.
“The essential point about 1984 is it makes no pretence of being a utopian conception and therefore cannot be precisely defined as a dystopia. We cannot talk, for example, about a scientific or scientistic ethos forming the (corrupted) motive power of society. There is no ethos as such in 1984 – no desire, however wrong-headed or perverse to construct – only sadistically and maliciously control… the real subject of 1984 is the abuse of power or more explicitly, ‘the mind of totalitarianism’.”
Among industrial and synth artists of the post-punk era were individuals rebelling against Thatcherism and, through the fetish, arguably created an alternate world based on Central and Eastern Europe. The dystopian fetish is therefore a largely (and unavoidably) uninformed critique of the Eastern Bloc while also naïve utopian promotion of either an inter-war ‘Europe lost’ or a communist Europe juxtaposed to Western neoliberalism.
Thus in the sci-fi fetish of communism, aspects of utopia and dystopia are combined. The Eastern Bloc/Cold War fetish was borne out of grass-is-greener, domestic discontent. Feeding into this unrest stood the the grim, post-industrial environment, which electronic groups were able to express either through an immersion in the very anti-qualities they heard and observed in everyday life or through the creation of a sci-fi inspired, alternate reality, heightening Ballard’s world.
*Berlin group Tangerine Dream’s transition from the underground into soundtrack specialists took in projects such as Sorcerer (1977), Thief (1981), The Keep (1983), Risky Business (1983) and Firestarter (1984). Vangelis scored the likes of Chariots of Fire (1981), Blade Runner (1982) and The Bounty (1984).
For his part Giorgio Moroder worked on Midnight Express (1978), American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982), Electric Dreams (1983), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983) and The Never-Ending Story (1984). Francis Monkman’s score for The Long Good Friday (1980) was also notable for its use of synths. Meanwhile, Wendy Carlos would collaborate once more with Kubrick on The Shining (1980) before adding Tron (1982) to her list of credits.
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.