i want to be a machine

“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

the_enola_gay_b-29Several decades prior to JG Ballard’s Crash (1973) detailed the erotic union between flesh and desire 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.)

synthpop unplugged

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 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.

london orbital

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 Systems of Romance record, Foxx sought to move away from a band format and instead use solely electronic sounds to create a soundscape for the ‘lost’ city in which he lived. 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.

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. Underpass is pure Ballardian, though tracks such as He’s a Liquid, No-One DrivingA 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 Bizzare 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 within subjects such as architecture, cities and motion; surveillance, state violence and conformity; consumption, dislocation and machines.

praying to the aliens

Informed by social and cultural politics, visual art movements and tropes from sci-fi literature, the intellectual underpinning of synthpop arguably 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 ArmyJapanThe Eurythmics, FlowersOppenheimer 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.

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voice of america

“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

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crushed by the wheels of industry

“I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country.”

The The, The Sinking Feeling, 1983.

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“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.”

riot squad

Three albums of ‘post-industrial dance-funk’ – The Crackdown (1983), 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 also be a critique of Thatcher’s Britain of strikes, riots, rising unemployment, social division etc. Vocalist 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.”

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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.”

factory fun

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.”

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’.”

art of noise

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”.

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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 in 1978. The Cabs’ early work had a distinctly industrial bent, and growing up in a staunchly blue-collar town, Kirk 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 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 The Comsat Angels, Artery, Clock DVA, I’m So Hollow, They Must Be Russians, Hula and Graph, 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.

love action

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.

Dignityoflabour

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 energeticPenthouse 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.)

let’s dance

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, experienced a turbulent period with Parlophone, then launched their own label – freed up creatively, they 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, later made famous by the 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 this 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.

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science-fiction stories

“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

451burn

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.”

patron saint

That British artists drew inspiration from contemporary political, social and physical environments owes plenty to both Burgess and Ballard. Run through the latter’s near-future sci-fi, synthpop as proposed by Kraftwerk, became the soundtrack to experienced and imagined cities as the dominant, futurist aesthetic evolved from the application of Ballard’s prose to sonic contexts. From Trevor Horn’s appropriation of short story The Sound Sweep for Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star to Ian Curtis naming a Joy Division track after novel The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard’s influence permeates this musical era, infusing the literate end of post-punk and most obviously seen in the work of John Foxx and The Normal.

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 RunningLogan’s Run, The Black HoleMoonraker 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.

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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.”

utopia/dystopia

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.”

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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.

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*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.

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stories of old

“We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party.”

– Aneurin Bevan, start of 1945 election campaign

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summer in berlin

“Berlin’s contemporary city planners and marketers, like other urban professionals elsewhere, selectively borrowed urban forms and lifestyles of imagined past Berlins to ‘remember’ a new global city for the future.

“Marketers represented the city as a spectacle and drew from images of Weimar cosmopolitanism. Such contemporary stagings of the New Berlin located Cold War and National Socialist Berlin elsewhere, into the undesirable spaces of the ‘old’.

“Another way marketers downplayed Cold War images was by emphasising the central status of Berlin as a European gateway and cosmopolitan city, evoking new Berlin marketing campaigns from the 1920s. In Weimar Berlin, just as today, marketers sought to promote Berlin as a world-class city on par with London, Paris, and New York; they represented the city as a modern metropolis, a cultural centre, and a liveable city.

“Psychologically, images of the future can only have a resonance with what appears to be familiar, with known experiences from the past and present.

“Through the act of recalling and situating the past through place-based images, the presence or endurance of imagined futures is made possible ontologically. Places are remembered in one’s imagination, and through that memory the future is located in the past. Modernist utopian visions of society, the nation and global power in Germany (and in other nations) have been staged through contemporary historic urban landscapes and architectural fragments understood as standing for times gone by – and for times to come.”

– Karen E Till, The New Berlin: Memory. Politics, Place (University of Minnesota Press 2005)

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the landscape is changing

“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.

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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.

High-Rise

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.

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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.”

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Early adopters

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”.

Prior to covering themes of child murder and paedophilia, Throbbing Gristle drew heavily on Nazi imagery for the cover art on debut single United / Zyklon B Zombie and subsequent releases such as Subhuman / Something Came Over Me and Adrenalin Distant Dream (Part Two)Moreover,  the band’s heavily-featured logo was based on the insignia of the British Union of Fascists.
Sheffield trio Cabaret Voltaire, formed in 1973, were inspired variously by politics and current affairs not only close to home but also in the US and the Middle East, as well as happenings in Europe (to the extent that like Visage, the group worked Moscow into a song title). Comprising the son of a communist and steel worker a History and Politics student and an GPO electronics engineer, the group pioneered the use of ‘found’ sounds, snippets from TV and radio and tape-loop recordings, mixing these elements together with squalling guitar noise.

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.”

Despite being early adopters of new technology these contemporaries of Kraftwerk were certainly not clean nor quaint in their delivery or musical content; rather, they represented the first wave of industrial music. According to Biba Kopf, “Britain’s industrial age was well over before TG and CV began operations. In effect, the pair bridged the gap between its end and the beginning of the computer age.” (from the introduction to Tape Delay: Confessions From the Eighties Underground)

Concrete Island

As explained by Laura Kaye in her production notes for the BBC’s Synth Brittania, “All of the early synth artists found themselves making music in urban areas from the run down, empty streets of East London to industrial Sheffield under the shadow of the massive concrete Park Hill Estate. By a fortuitous coincidence just at the moment that the world started looking like this, the affordable synthesizer arrived on the market and musicians looking for a way to express their feelings of alienation in this new concrete jungle found just the thing in its strange, eerie, inhuman sounds. The cityscapes of the ’70s posed a challenge to artists to write something that would fit there.”

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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.

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