“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
Several 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.)
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.
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 Driving, A 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 Army, Japan, The Eurythmics, Flowers, Oppenheimer 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.