How Northerners and a Few Essex Boys Changed the Music World For the Better

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.

Electric Dreams — Why Spreading Jam on CDs Was Such A Bold Step Forward

I watched the second in the series of ‘Electric Dreams’ on BBC4  — on the 80s. The programme on the 70s last week was quite shocking in its accurate depiction of the spartan lifestyle people in this country led at the start of the 1970s — twin tub washing machines being quite a novelty and teasmades being at the cutting edge. One point the series seems to be making is that change is quite discontinuous: in retrospect there seem to be periods of relative stability and then a few years when huge changes happen. One of these times seems to be the late 70s until the mid-80s — co-incidentally when some great music came out.

The 70s seemed to be way back in history whereas by the end of the 80s they’d got computers, CDs, videos and so on which means most of the entertainment and music options were pretty similar to what people use today (if not the actual technology). It’s only mobile phones and the Internet that would seem to be the big innovations to come. Everything seems to have changed with Thatcher coming in which, whatever one’s opinion of her, certainly was quite disruptive. 

There were some classic pieces of footage — Cliff Richard looking very creepy in the ‘Wired for Sound’ video (perhaps he’s just not confident at roller skating?) and the totally absurd Sinclair C5 (I remember when BBC Nationwide built up to its launch describing it as a car). Particularly pleasing was the demonstration of the amazing properties of the compact disc which were shown by spreading honey and pouring coffee  over the disc — before cleaning it off and putting it in the machine. (Not sure it was the great Michael Rodd though.) Great selling point should you be the sort of person who wants to plaster your breakfast all over your music collection before playing it! Anyone under about 30 must be completely mystified why this test was carried out. (For any youngsters watching this, it’s because spreading jam on a vinyl record would irreparably break it — though it still doesn’t explain why someone would want to do it.)  

They picked some fantastic tunes for the soundtrack — more unusual ones than in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ — and it’s listed on the iPlayer page. I’d not heard ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants for a while. ‘Quiet Life’ by Japan always sounds so reminiscent of the era. Not heard much either is ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ by Rockwell (surprising as it has Michael Jackson singing). From later in the decade music included ‘System Addict’ by Five Star, ‘Good Life’ by Inner City (which I think is fantastic), ‘True Faith’ by New Order and ‘Pacific State’ by 808 State which, oddly, is also on a Ministry of Sound Chilled compilation of music for modern youngsters that takes in tracks up to 2008. It goes to show how maybe things have changed less than the intervening period than they did in the few years before and what a fascinating time the late 70s and early 80s were to grow up in.