Tag: Dave Ball (Page 3 of 3)

A Beginner’s Guide To MARC ALMOND

MarcAlmond-profileAlthough electronic pop only forms a part of MARC ALMOND’s repertoire, he is forever associated with SOFT CELL’s recording of ‘Tainted Love’, possibly the first true crossover record from the Synth Britannia era.

A fan of T-REX and DAVID BOWIE, Southport-born Almond started attending Leeds Polytechnic in 1979 to study Fine Art. One fellow student there in the year above was Frank Tovey, soon to become FAD GADGET. Specialising in performance art, Almond met Dave Ball, a seasoned clubber who explored his artistic musings through the new medium of affordable synthesizers from Japan. Together, they formed SOFT CELL.

Their first product was the self-released ‘Mutant Moments’ EP in 1980. It came to the attention of DJ Stevo Pearce, who had been compiling futurist charts for the music papers Record Mirror and Sounds, which covered the new wave of home grown electronic music that had emerged after the success of GARY NUMAN.

Soft+CellStevo gathered a number of these acts for the independently produced ‘Some Bizzare Album’ compilation in 1981. SOFT CELL appeared alongside young hopefuls such as DEPECHE MODE, BLANCMANGE, B-MOVIE and THE THE. With DEPECHE MODE opting for Mute and BLANCMANGE eventually heading for London, Stevo signed B-MOVIE, THE THE and SOFT CELL to his Some Bizzare label and began courting the major record companies for a licencing arrangement.

Phonogram had been particularly desperate to sign B-MOVIE in order to compete and SPANDAU BALLET and DURAN DURAN. Legend has it that Stevo sent his demands to their A&R chief Roger Ames on a cassette carried by a teddy bear dressed as Robin Hood; it stipulated that SOFT CELL had to be part of the deal!

Produced by Daniel Miller, SOFT CELL’s first recording for Phonogram was ‘Memorabilia’. While not a hit, it was critically acclaimed and become a cult club favourite. However, the encore of their live set was the one to capture the public’s imagination. A cover of ‘Tainted Love’, it reached No1 in the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada while also eventually entering the US Top 10.

SOFT CELLWritten by Ed Cobb, ‘Tainted Love’ was originally recorded by Gloria Jones and became a Wigan Casino favourite on the Northern Soul scene. As a fan of that scene, David Ball knew the song and took it into haunting electronic torch territory.

Segued with a Motown cover ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ on the extended version, it was to become one of Sire Records’ biggest selling 12 inch singles in America. But it was to be a double edged sword as the coupling of two covers made SOFT CELL minimal money, despite the record selling millions.

The follow-up ‘Bedsitter’ proved SOFT CELL could have a hit single with their own material. Amusingly after the release of the ‘Some Bizarre Album’, a disgruntled rival musician had poked fun at Almond and told him: “You couldn’t make a decent dance record if you tried”. However, the disgruntled rival musician faded into obscurity and gig no-shows with his deluded combo, while ‘Bedsitter’ made it three decent dance records in a row for SOFT CELL following the club popularity of both ‘Memorabilia’ and ‘Tainted Love’. Thus began a run of hit singles that ensured Almond and Ball would be Top 40 chart fixtures for the next three years.

Almond though was looking at a life outside of SOFT CELL, having already been involved in THE IMMACULATE CONSUMPTIVE with Jim Foetus, Lydia Lunch and Nick Cave. So he formed MARC & THE MAMBAS, a loose collective that at various times included Matt Johnson, Anni Hogan, Martin McCarrick, Billy McGee, Audrey Riley, Anne Stephenson, Lee Jenkinson and Dave Ball’s wife Gini.

It set the tone for the artist that he would eventually become. Almond was certainly channelling his venom with aplomb, especially on delightful ditties like ‘Catch A Fallen Star’. However, it was an indication that Almond’s drug fuelled paranoia was getting to him… he later threatened a Record Mirror journalist Jim Reid while brandishing a whip, for the scribe’s slating of his Mambas opus and temporarily retired!

The pressure and criticism that came from the success of SOFT CELL was proving too much for Almond, as he went into a well-documented public meltdown. The duo turned into SUICIDE and strove to drive away what was left of their pop oriented audience. Those that remained would become The Gutter Hearts, Almond’s fan club who Boy George had generally described as “people who wear black and hate their parents”. The duo disbanded in Spring 1984 just as the third album ‘This Last Night in Sodom’ hit the shelves.

marc magiaAlmond’s first solo album ‘Vermin in Ermine’ released in late 1984 and embraced a classic European cabaret style with almost exclusively traditional instrumentation, often with dynamic orchestral arrangements.

There was a one-off collaboration with BRONSKI BEAT in 1985 but continuing in the orchestrated vein, Almond unexpectedly hit No1 again in 1989 with ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’, a spirited cover with the late Gene Pitney. But despite the recognition as an artist in his own right, the spectre of SOFT CELL continued to haunt Almond.

“Synthesizers and the bands or artists that used them weren’t taken seriously at first especially by so-called serious music critics. They were ridiculed…” he remembered in a recent interview with Advocate. But with the success of Acid House and the rave scene, electronic music was now being re-evaluated.

So in 1991, Almond re-voiced a number of SOFT CELL’s best loved numbers for the ‘Memorabilia – The Singles’ collection. He also began collaborating again with Dave Ball, who was now having success with his new musical partner Richard Norris in the dance oriented combo THE GRID. The results ended up on 1991’s ‘Tenement Symphony’, possibly the most mainstream recording of Almond’s career.

The follow-up ‘Fantastic Star’ should have been the record to consolidate Almond’s position as a pop artiste. But instead, it got lost in record company politics; while Almond remains dissatisfied with the overall album, it did lead to him working with guitarist Neal X of SIGUE SIGUE SPUTNIK fame, who today continues to be his right hand man.

Looking back, SOFT CELL were probably ahead of their time. Between 1981 and 1982, they were actually a much stronger proposition than the fledgling DEPECHE MODE. Ultimately, the duo set the blueprint as the proto-PET SHOP BOYS. And although far grittier both musically and lyrically, they also smoothed the path for acts like ERASURE. Almond once said that for an artist to be “truly subversive”, they had to have “access to the mainstream” and subvert he did. So when Almond and Ball came back in 2001 for a full SOFT CELL reunion, there was a welcome acknowledgement of their ground breaking legacy.

In 1993, Almond toured Russia at the invitation of the British Consul and began of his love affair with the nation’s folk songs which continues to this day. But in October 2004, Almond was seriously injured in a motorbike accident near St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Marc Almond 2015He began a slow recovery but remained determined to get back on stage and into the studio. 2007 saw Almond return with ‘Stardom Road’, a covers album including songs made famous by Dusty, Sinatra and Bowie. The concept had largely been prompted by him being unable to write new material since his accident.

But in 2010, Almond released ‘Varieté’ his first studio album of self-written material since 2001. It was a move towards more vintage theatrics and paved the way for his future projects like ‘Pop’pea’ and ‘Ten Plagues – A Song Cycle’. Immersing himself in a variety of work since then, Almond recently re-entered the pop sphere with ‘The Velvet Trail’. Meanwhile his current crowd-funded venture is an interpretation of Joris-Karl Huysman’s ‘À Rebours’, scored by Othon with lyrics by poet Jeremy Reed and set for release later this year.

So with such a vast and diverse career, what would a Beginner’s Guide to MARC ALMOND look like? Primarily focussing on his electronic, or at least, technologically assisted work and with a restriction of one song per album or project, here are The Electricity Club’s twenty choices…

SOFT CELL The Girl With The Patent Leather Face (1981)

Some_bizzare_albumWith Almond credited with “vocals/ effects / energetics”, ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ was one of the stand-outs from the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ showcase. Creepy and unsettling, Almond told the JG Ballard inspired story of a ”two-faced baby” who “tampers with machinery so other beauties crash their cars”. Ball’s gloriously out of tune Korg synths were a fine example of how electronics were maintaining Punk’s ethics of do-it-yourself minimalism.

Available on the compilation ‘Some Bizzare Album’ (V/A) via Some Bizzare Records

SOFT CELL Say Hello, Wave Goodbye (1981)

SOFT CELL Say Hello Wave GoodbyeSOFT CELL’s fine debut album was recorded and mixed in the more liberal setting of New York. It captured the edginess of minimal synth arrangements while married to an actual tune. With a magnificent arrangement by Ball that allowed Almond to indulge in his Scott Walker aspirations, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ is possibly SOFT CELL’s crowning achievement. Certainly, the line “We’re strangers meeting for the first time, OK?” has become one of the most memorable of the era…

Available on the SOFT CELL album ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ via Phonogram Records

SOFT CELL Torch – 12 Inch Version (1982)

SOFT CELL TorchPunctuated by John Gatchell’s flugelhorn, ‘Torch’ came in the middle of SOFT CELL’s imperial pop phase and the eight minute version was a piece de resistance. By now, Almond and Ball had got heavily into MDMA while partying on the New York club scene. They were introduced to the drug by the singing dealer Cindy Ecstasy, who soon featured on several SOFT CELL recordings! In an amusing spoken middle section, her nonchalant off-key vocal counterpointed Almond’s fabulously forlorn romanticism.

Available on the SOFT CELL album ‘The Twelve Inch Singles’ via Phonogram Records

MARC & THE MAMBAS Untitled (1982)

UntitledThe MARC & THE MAMBAS project had begun with a limited edition mail order only 12 inch release featuring ‘Sleaze’ and ‘Fun City’. With a revolving door cast of collaborators away from a traditional band format, it was rare that all the members of the collective would perform on the same recording. ‘Untitled’ was a co-write with THE THE’s Matt Johnson that had distinct European overtones. With its Roland TR808 backbone and melodic chorus, ‘Untitled’ could have easily been mistaken for a SOFT CELL song.

Available on the MARC & THE MAMBAS album ‘Untitled’ via Phonogram Records

SOFT CELL Forever The Same (1983)

SOFT CELL The Art Of Falling ApartJohn Gatchell returned, this time with his trumpet on ‘Forever The Same’ from the appropriately titled difficult second album ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’. However, Phonogram’s proposal for it to be a single release was vetoed for the less immediate ‘Numbers’. Not becoming the hit the label was hoping for, in a bid to hype it up the charts, the 12 inch was twinned with a free copy of ‘Tainted Love’. Dismayed, this incident set off an already edgy Almond and Stevo to trash the record company’s offices in a destructive rage!

Available on the SOFT CELL album ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ via Phonogram Records

MARC & THE MAMBAS Torment (1983)

Torment & TorerosCo-written with SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES’ Steve Severin, the precise digital drum machine and eerie organ stabs of ‘Torment’ were offset by the gorgeous Bohemian string arrangements and the chromatic allure of Almond’s dramatic refrains. Co-produced by a young Flood, ‘Torment & Toreros’ had been an adventurous double album indulgence, but the tracklisting could have easily been streamlined into a more cohesive single long player.

Available on the MARC & THE MAMBAS album ‘Torment & Toreros’ via Phonogram Records

SOFT CELL Down In The Subway (1984)

SOFT CELL Down In The SubwayIf ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ was SOFT CELL’s difficult second long player, ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ was an even more challenging proposition; the duo’s final hit in their first phase was this thundering percussive cover of ‘Down In The Subway’, an obscure Northern Soul song by Jack Hammer was, undoubtedly a metaphor for Almond’s mental breakdown.

Available on the SOFT CELL album ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ via Phonogram Records

MARC ALMOND Tenderness Is A Weakness (1984)

Marc-Almond-Tenderness-Is-A-W-294090Adopting a back-to-basics approach as a reaction to SOFT CELL, Almond produced many fine songs in his trilogy of albums with THE WILLING SINGERS comprising of musicians who had been involved in ‘Torment & Toreros’. Free of the mechanical limitations of SOFT CELL, he was more melodramatic than ever before. Produced by Mike Hedges who worked with ASSOCIATES and SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES, ‘Tenderness Is A Weakness’ was a remarkably passionate song, regardless of genre.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘Vermine In Ermine’ via Phonogram Records

MARC ALMOND These My Dreams Are Yours (1988)

MARC ALMOND Stars we areWhile Almond was continuing on his path of orchestrated European cabaret torch songs, an electronic element was starting to creep back in, particularly in the club remixes of ‘Tears Run Rings’ and ‘Bittersweet’. A pulsating electronic bassline formed the backbone of the emotive ‘These My Dreams Are Yours’, a song which owed its existence to ‘No Regrets’, made famous by Scott Walker in 1976. Featuring the vocals of Victoria Wilson-James, this string laden drama showed Almond was opening up to technology again.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘The Stars We Are’ via EMI Records

MARC ALMOND Madame La Luna (1990)

MARC ALMOND ENCHANTEDProduced by Bob Kraushaar who had worked with PROPAGANDA, ACT and PET SHOP BOYS, the success of the ‘The Stars We Are’ meant its follow-up ‘Enchanted’ was allowed a bigger recording budget by EMI. The ethos behind pop production in this CD age was “bigger is better” and the epic album opener ‘Madame De La Luna’ was a fine example of the marvellous fusion between the Fairlight CMI programmed by co-producer Gary Maughan and the cinematic orchestrations of Billy McGee.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘Enchanted’ via EMI Records

MARC ALMOND Meet Me In My Dream (1991)

Tenement SymphonyWhile ‘Tenement Symphony’ is best remembered for the mighty Trevor Horn produced covers ‘Jacky’ and ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’, it also hosted a writing reunion with Dave Ball. The magnificent ‘My Hand Over My Heart’ was given an epic reworking by Mr Horn and closed the collection. But starting the album was the more minimal, but no less emotive ‘Meet Me In My Dream’. A classic SOFT CELL song in all but name, it was a reminder of the undeniable magic that Ball and Almond together possessed.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘Tenement Symphony’ via WEA Records

MARC ALMOND Brilliant Creatures (1996)

MARC ALMOND Fantastic StarThe original ‘Fantastic Star’ album sessions had seen Almond reunited with Mike Thorne who had produced SOFT CELL’s first two albums. But at Mercury Records behest, numerous other studio personnel were brought in. It also led to managerial strife which eventually ended his relationship with Stevo. Produced by Martyn Ware, who was fresh from steering ERASURE’s ‘I Say I Say I Say’ album, ‘Brilliant Creatures’ reflected the uptempo club friendly electronic pop of the times.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘Fantastic Star’ via Mercury Records


MARC ALMOND Open All NightUnder new manager Vicki Wickham who had looked after Dusty Springfield, Almond signed to Echo Records in 1998, but almost straight away, record company politics intervened. The eventual album ‘Open All Night’ was issued on Almond’s own Blue Star label and a more downbeat electronic based excursion than he had previously attempted. A feisty trip-hop electro fusion with the Queen of Goth, ‘Threat Of Love’ was orchestrated with an amorous, but sinister Middle Eastern tone.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘Open All Night’ via Blue Star

SYSTEM F featuring MARC ALMOND Soul On Soul (2001)

system F soul on soulFerry Corsten had a huge international hit in 1999 with ‘Out Of The Blue’ under his SYSTEM F moniker. It highlighted the spiritual connection between synthpop and trance. So substantiating the link further, the Rotterdam based producer recruited Almond to guest on the blinding ‘Soul On Soul’. It was a spirited, club friendly workout, with Almond giving an exuberant performance over the frantic dance beats and swirling arpeggios.

Available on the SYSTEM F album ‘Out Of The Blue’ via Tsunami Records

MARC ALMOND Glorious (2001)

MARC ALMOND Stranger ThingsDespite the parallel SOFT CELL reunion, Almond recorded another solo album ‘Stranger Things’. ‘Glorious’ was an appropriately titled electronic torch ballad that combined his unique vocal histrionics with a big sound production that had not been heard since his work with Trevor Horn for ‘Tenement Symphony’. Icelandic producer Jóhann Jóhannsson did a fine job with the song’s widescreen dynamics, adding some vintage ARP Odyssey textures along the way as well.

Available on the album ‘Stranger Things’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records

SOFT CELL Desperate (2002)

SOFT CELL Cruelty Without BeautyAlmond and Ball’s comeback album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ saw a return to the kitchen sink dramas that the pair were famous for. The launch single ‘Monoculture’ was an attack on modern society’s acceptance of the bland. And with ‘Desperate’, reality talent shows were where Almond chose to vent his spleen. Narrating the thoughts of a young hopeful seeking fame and fortune at whatever cost, with its Bond Theme styled brass inflections, ‘Desperate’ was a great example of the satirical social commentary.

Available on the SOFT CELL album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ via Cooking Vinyl

T-TOTAL featuring MARC ALMOND Baby’s On Fire (2005)

T-TOTAL Baby's On FireA danced up cover of Brian Eno’s cult favourite from ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’, Almond always saw himself as a fan of the ROXY MUSIC synth dandy, rather than the more suave singer Bryan Ferry. He relished the opportunity to cover one of his favourite songs and saw the collaborative adventure as a good way to ease himself back into the recording process after his accident in 2004. This reworking still retains much of the mad swirling spirit of the original, while updating the song for a new audience.

Available on the T-TOTAL featuring MARC ALMOND single ‘Baby’s On Fire’ via Pure Mint

STARCLUSTER featuring MARC ALMOND Smoke & Mirrors (2008)

STARCLUSTERFollowing his ‘Stardom Road’ covers project, Almond continued with his one-off collaborations. Maintaining his varied portfolio and willingness to try different styles, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ was a Hi-NRG octave shifting dance anthem in the vein of Giorgio Moroder. Produced under the auspices of Anglo-German duo Roland Faber and Kai Ludeling, there was even a sweeping VANGELIS rooted synth solo thrown in for good measure towards the conclusion.

Available on the STARCLUSTER album ‘Silver City Ride’ via Private Records

MARC ALMOND Worship Me Now (2014)

The dancing marquisWith a buzzing cacophony of synths, ‘Worship Me Now’ was Almond’s most overtly electronic work in quite a while. Written by PULP’s Jarvis Cocker, it saw Almond having fun with interpreting the lyrics and sending himself up with the passion of his own classic torch songs. Apart from suggesting the female backing vocals, he had very little to do with the track other that sing, preferring to leave himself in the competent hands of producers Jason Buckle and Tris Penna.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘The Dancing Marquis’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records

MARC ALMOND Bad To Me (2015)

the velvet trailWith the aftermath of his accident and acknowledged as a fine interpreter of other people’s songs, it was understandable that Almond was content with just being able to perform and record. But when producer Chris Braid heard Almond had say “the songwriting muse had all but left me”, he spun into action and sent Almond a number of songs that successfully re-inspired the tainted soul. ‘Bad To Me’ was a wonderfully glitzy, Schaffel stomper that announced Almond’s welcome return to the mainstream.

Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘The Velvet Trail’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records

For further information on MARC ALMOND, please visit: http://www.marcalmond.co.uk/

The limited edition cloth bound photo book ‘Marc Almond’ published by First Third is available from http://www.firstthirdbooks.com/books/marc-almond-2/





Text by Chi Ming Lai with thanks to Ange Chan
26th August 2015, updated 21st February 2018



Synth You’ve Been Gone

BBC4’s marvellous ‘Synth Britannia’ celebrated the rise of the synthesizer and how it changed popular music forever, particularly in the UK.

Superbly produced and directed by Ben Whalley with interlinking cultural commentary provided by ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’  author Simon Reynolds, it was an empathetic documentary that captured the spirit of a golden era.

The contributors to the programme read like a ‘Who’s Who?’ of electronic music: Wolfgang Flür; Daniel Miller; Richard H Kirk; John Foxx; Gary Numan; Phil Oakey; Martyn Ware; Andy McCluskey; Paul Humphreys, Martin Gore; Vince Clarke; Andy Fletcher; Midge Ure; Dave Ball; Alison Moyet; Susanne Sulley; Joanne Catherall; Bernard Sumner; Neil Tennant; Chris Lowe. They were to become the heroes of the revolution, rebels with a cause, poster boys and girls of the VCO! Although there were a few errors, especially with regards dates like when OMD signed to Factory and the single of ULTRAVOX’s ‘Vienna’ was released, this was an entertaining 90 minutes.

The new attitude brought about by punk in 1977 was still a bit too rock’n’roll for some like the young Daniel Miller, learning three chords was still three too many! But armed with newly affordable silicon-chipped technology by Korg and Roland from Japan, the true DIY spirit encouraged by the new wave would be fully exploited. Wonderful and weird sounds could be made using just one finger, knob twiddling would become the new art! Daniel Miller and Martyn Ware gleefully tell of their first synth purchase, in both cases it was the Korg 700s. The accessibility of the budget priced synthesizer offered the ultimate challenge to musical convention. It was electric dreams over acoustic nightmares!

humanleague-promo80Like some on this programme, my first introduction to the sound of the synthesizer came via KRAFTWERK and WALTER (now WENDY!) CARLOS. In the summer of 1976, my junior school teacher was the young and pretty Miss Neilson. She’d already shown her Bohemian colours by naming our pet guinea pig ‘Bilbo’!! But one day in PE, she made Class4 interpret movement to ‘Autobahn’ and the soundtrack to ‘A Clockwork Orange’!!!

Although too young to really appreciate what was going on, my aural palette was being shaped by this fantastic cacophony of electronics. Novelty instrumental hits like JEAN MICHEL JARRE’s ‘Oxygene Part VI’ and SPACE’s ‘Magic Fly’ soon followed and caught my pre-teen futuristic mind as I eagerly waited for the next episode of ‘Space 1999’! The importance of science fiction in the development and imagination of electronic music cannot be underestimated with ‘Dr Who’ and the writings of JG Ballard being particularly important influences.

DONNA SUMMER’s ‘I Feel Love’ was Year Zero for modern electronic pop music as we know it. Producer GIORGIO MORODER‘s throbbing sequencers and dance beats were “the future of the future”.

But GARY NUMAN’s first appearance in May 1979 on ‘Top Of The Pops’ was for many including myself, their ‘Ziggy Stardust’ moment in the birth of synthpop, ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ was cold and detached, the discordant Moog machinery and the haunted vocal sneer connected with many during this gloomy period in Britain. It seems unbelievable now, but it was the talk of school the following morning. Electronic music had just found its first pop star!

Unemployment in the UK was at an all time high. Margaret Thatcher was now in power while across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan was “President Elect”! With fascist gods in motion, the Cold War had heightened to the point where no-one’s future on this earth could be guaranteed. Whilst OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’ related to the nuclear holocaust paranoia of the time via some incongruous melodic warmth, there were a number of other pop-orientated bands just around the corner.

The new Mk2 version of THE HUMAN LEAGUE, SOFT CELL and DEPECHE MODE all possessed a defiant spirit of optimism in the face of adversity because ultimately “everybody needs love and affection”! The music was emotive and avant, all at the same time! “We never wanted to be KRAFTWERK” says Phil Oakey, “we wanted to be a pop band!”

Photo by Eric Watson

The use of synthesizers was a statement of intent, like an act of artistic subversion. But as Marc Almond once said, you can only truly subvert when you have access to the mainstream. How can you change the world if no-one hears you? Musically, the best way to achieve this was going to be through pop songs! Whilst owing a debt to KRAFTWERK and taking advantage of the door opened by GARY NUMAN, these acts managed to appeal to people who didn’t necessarily know what a Linn Drum Computer was! Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley amusingly recalled when the UK’s first Linn LM-1 was delivered to Martin Rushent’s Genetic Studios for the making of ‘Dare’: “They were all very excited… OK boys!”

There are several technology driven insights like Paul Humphreys playing ‘Enola Gay’ on the Korg Micro-Preset, John Foxx demonstrating the ARP Odyssey and Daniel Miller operating the ARP 2600 which was used on all the early DEPECHE MODE albums. There were often misconceptions about how this stuff worked though. “The number of people who thought that the equipment wrote the song for you: ‘well anybody can do it with the equipment you’ve got!'” remembers Andy McCluskey, “F*** OFF!!”

“You’ve got to remember it was the first time ever that someone could sit and make a record on their own” says Midge Ure, stating the recording of EURYTHMICS ‘Sweet Dreams’ in a basement on an 8 track tape machine as an example! But as the success of synthesizer continued, the backlash set in. Numan was particularly the victim of some venomous media attacks; not only was he doing electronic music but he had none of the anti-hero stance of punk… he wanted to be a popstar: “I don’t speak for the people because I don’t know them!” he exclaimed!

Photo by Virginia Turbett

Photo by Virginia Turbett

Andy Fletcher tells of the Battle Royale that DEPECHE MODE were always having with the press. People insisted it wasn’t proper music. The Musicians Union even tried to ban the use of synths in studios and live performance!

I remember fellow classmates unceremoniously smashed up and burned a copy of ‘Cars’… AND THEN presented me with the remains! If I wasn’t already feeling isolated, then this sort of intimidation was certainly going to seal it!

Martin Gore quotes a disgruntled rock journalist who described the genre as being for “alienated youth everywhere, and Germans!” As an outsider with a typical post-war ‘Boys Own’ fascination for Airfix kits and Messerschmitts, this music would define me! What did these narrow-minded hooligans know?

Worshipping America was not what I wanted! To me, soul and jazz funk (much like R’n’B today) was the horrid soundtrack of the school bully! SYNTHPOP and its Mittel Europa romanticism appealed to my sense of elitism. I could wear my intelligence on my sleeve, it would become my badge of honour! Pretentious… MOI?

Photo by Glenn A Baker

The move towards today’s electronic based dance music as pioneered by GIORGIO MORODER is symbolised by the success of NEW ORDER and PET SHOP BOYS. Legend has it that KRAFTWERK were so impressed by the sound of ‘Blue Monday’, they sent an engineer down to Britannia Row Studios to check out the equipment only to find out it was comparatively unsophisticated! But ‘Synth Britannia’ actually goes on to suggest that the success of the third generation acts like HOWARD JONES and THOMPSON TWINS was the death of this fantastic period.

“There was too much synthpop around, it was all very well being on a synth but actually the melodies and how some of the songs were structured was quite traditional and trite…” sighs Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t that inventive as electronic music!” – he was right!

Unfortunately by the mid-80s, most of our heroes had given up the fight and went conventional. “We were all a bit lost by then” says Phil Oakey, “like we didn’t have anything to prove!” After declaring in 1980 that ‘Travelogue’ contained “synthesizers and vocals only”, THE HUMAN LEAGUE had by the disappointing ‘Hysteria’ credited Jo Callis with “guitars, keyboards, vocals”, sadly in that order!

Meanwhile OMD went from listing all their equipment on their ‘Dazzle Ships’ and ‘Junk Culture’ albums to Paul Humphreys simply being on “vocals, electronic keyboards, piano” for ‘Crush’! The lure of dollars to water down the synthesized sound for synthobic America just couldn’t be resisted anymore! This classic era of quality synthpop was sadly now over! However, while the others fragmented, DEPECHE MODE got darker and stuck to their electronic blueprint, eventually achieving massive success in the US from 1988. So it would seem these pioneering acts’ original Eurocentric electronic manifestos had been right after all.

Their legacy is evident today: LITTLE BOOTS and LA ROUX have hit the Top 10, and collaborated on the marvellous BBC6 Music ‘Back To The Phuture’ live sessions with GARY NUMAN and HEAVEN 17 respectively; rock band MUSE credit “synths and programming” on their new album while featuring a song that sounds like ‘Vienna’; and a girl group cover of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is a ‘Comic Relief’ charity single!

Meanwhile, the synthpop era’s big international No1s ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ and ‘Tainted Love’ are still being played at weddings and night clubs, ironically often being sung along to by the same bully boys who were setting fire to GARY NUMAN records years earlier!! “It was exciting to be part of a musical movement that had never been done before, it was a fine time” smiles Vince Clarke.

soft-cell‘Synth Britannia’ ends appropriately enough with ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ and this final quote from Andy McCluskey: “We were trying to do something new, that is specifically why we chose electronics, we wanted to sweep away all of the rock clichés! And then what happens towards the end of the 80s and even worse, the mid 90s? Everybody decides guitars are back, synthesizers are somehow old fashioned AND, we get Oasis!!”

McCluskey holds his hand to his head in despair but today, most of the acts featured in ‘Synth Britannia’ are still playing to packed audiences around the world.

What was originally an electric dream is now a full blown reality. JUSTICE and a job well done 🙂

Ohm Sweet Ohm! The ‘Synth Britannia’ Soundtrack

WALTER CARLOS William Tell Overture
WALTER CARLOSTitle Music from ‘A Clockwork Orange’
THE CLASH White Riot
THE NORMAL Warm Leatherette
OMD Messages
OMD Enola Gay
JOHN FOXX Underpass
THROBBING GRISTLE Hot on the Heals of Love
FAD GADGET Back to Nature
SILICON TEENS Memphis Tennessee
TUBEWAY ARMY Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
VISAGE Fade to Grey
DEPECHE MODE Just Can’t Get Enough
DEPECHE MODE Sometimes I Wish I Was Dead
HEAVEN 17 – Penthouse & Pavement
SOFT CELL Tainted Love
YAZOO Only You
YAZOO Don’t Go
OMD Maid of Orleans
DEPECHE MODE Everything Counts
DEPECHE MODE Master and Servant
PET SHOP BOYS West End Girls
NEW ORDER Ceremony
NEW ORDER Blue Monday
PHILIP OAKEY& GIORGIO MORODER Together in Electric Dreams

Now That’s What I Call Synthpop, Not 80s!

After ‘Synth Britannia’, some magnificent footage from the BBC archives was aired under the title of ‘Synth Britannia At The BBC’. With Moogs turned up to 11, this made a perfect history lesson. The track listing was well thought out and would have made a brilliant compilation album. And thankfully, it was a SPANDAU BALLET and KAJAGOOGOO free zone, unlike some of those ‘I Love The 80s’ type programmes!

ROXY MUSIC Do the Strand
TUBEWAY ARMYAre ‘Friends’ Electric?
SPARKS Beat the Clock
THE HUMAN LEAGUE The Path of Least Resistance
OMD Messages
NEW ORDER Temptation
SOFT CELL Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
JAPAN Ghosts
YAZOO Don’t Go
EURYTHMICS Love is a Stranger
HEAVEN 17 Temptation
PET SHOP BOYS Opportunities

Text by Chi Ming Lai
27th March 2010, updated 29th November 2014

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