There was a great 90 minutes of nostalgia on BBC4 last night — an account of Synth Britannia — the story of electronic music in the late 70s and very early 80s (the fantastic track list is on this page). The origins of the movment and their inspiration in terms of novels, films and Kraftwerk was all very interesting but the best bit was when some of the musicians started talking about their iconic records and demonstrating the synthesizers actually used on the record. Dave Ball from Soft Cell played ‘Tainted Love’ (one of the candidates for best synth track ever) along with the electronic percussion that makes the record still so memorable (there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to when it comes in). He spoke in a bluff Yorkshire accent and talked about coming down to Soho with Marc Almond like a pair of country hicks.
One remarkable aspect of the bands featured was they overwhelming came from two regions — northern industrial cities and Essex. Liverpool had OMD, Manchester Joy Division, Leeds for Soft Cell, Sheffield the Human League and Heaven 17. Essex produced Gary Numan and Yazoo/Depeche Mode.
Numan was the subject of some revisionist history — Andy McCluskey from OMD said it was a scandal that Numan’s career was effectively cut short by press sniping. Numan himself admitted he was not a particular sociable person and this may explain his faux pas in openly supporting Thatcher in the 80s. Many more bands completely embraced Thatcherism in their desire to ‘make lots of money’ but were smart enough to maintain a left-leaning image as a sop to the music press. Apparently the established bands like OMD and the Human League who were struggling to get in the charts were a bit put out that ‘Are Friends Electric’ steamed in to number one in 1979. Listening to it now, they shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s probably still the best synth track ever although it has guitars and acoustic drums. The drumming is the making of the track IMHO — a fantastic relentless sound that complements the mechanical synth lines.
I have a soft spot for the Human League and it was good to see Phil Oakey talking about how they made some records. Apparently they had the first Linn drum in the country and put it hurriedly on ‘Sound of the Crowd’. It was interesting to see how Suzanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall had aged. I always preferred Joanne (the dark one) but she now looks like one of the panellists on ‘Loose Women’. Suzanne still looked quite good, albeit with lots of make up and an extravagant hairdo.
Martyn Ware (or was it Ian Craig Marsh) from Heaven 17 described how he was motivated to outdo the Human League, having been fired by them (Phil Oakey said something about not turning up to a photoshoot). Dare and Penthouse and Pavement were apparently recorded simultaneously in the same studio — Human League by day and Heaven 17 by night. I love both albums and Dare is probably the best album as it has two classic tracks (‘Love Action’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me’) and the rest are pretty strong too. Yet Penthouse and Pavement has a fantastic redolence of place and time — although I didn’t really get to know the album until a couple of years after it was released. The title track of the album seems to reflect the 80s political point of inequality and contrast (hence Penthouse and Pavement) in its musical arrangement: descending piano chords and dance beat contrasting with the rambling woodwind soundg synth introduction and Glenn Gregory’s laconic vocals — ‘Sweat my youth away’. Breathy female vocals and the fast percucssion give a contrasting sense of urgency to the chorus.
As with the Electric Dreams technology programme, the music in Synth Britannia — and particularly ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ show what a huge societal change occurred in the 1980s. The cover of ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ anticipates the arrival of the yuppie culture — and the Essex types took the title of ‘Let’s All Make a Bomb’ literally — despite the group’s ideological standpoint being to look back to the industrial society of the north — out of which this music was created in the first place.