1977 is often seen as Year Zero for synthpop, thanks to hit singles by DONNA SUMMER, SPACE and JEAN-MICHEL JARRE.
But it was not until 1979 with TUBEWAY ARMY reaching No1 with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ that the sound of synth truly hit the mainstream. Although ‘No1 Song In Heaven’ by SPARKS had actually been a hit a few months earlier, ‘Are Friends Electric?’ was the beginning of the synth being accepted as a worthy mode of expression, rather than as a novelty. But as synths became more affordable, they became the perfect tool of youthful expression.
The set starts appropriately with OMD and ‘Messages’, one of the first tunes showcasing the warmer side of electronics following the colder wave led by Messrs Numan and Foxx. But as if to counter this next generation of youngsters, ‘Messages’ is immediately followed by the collection’s vocoder laden title song ‘Musik Music Musique’ from Zeus B Held and the superb proto-industrial ode to loveless sex ‘Coitus Interruptus’ by the much missed FAD GADGET.
Zeus B Held was later to make his impression on popular culture remixing ALPHAVILLE and SIMPLE MINDS as well producing the likes of FASHION, DEAD OR ALIVE, SPEAR OF DESTINY and TRANSVISION VAMP, but his wider breakthrough came as part of GINA X PERFORMANCE in 1979 with The Blitz Club favourite ‘No GDM’; on this compendium, the lesser-known but just as worthy ‘Vendor’s Box’ from their second album ‘X-Traordinaire’ is deservedly provided a platform.
The best producers often earn their spurs as artists and realising their limitations, use their accumulated studio nous to subvert the mainstream via pop. ‘Astroboy’ by BUGGLES sees Trevor Horn develop his sonic architecture to prove that he had another song that wasn’t ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. Meanwhile the welcome inclusion of NEW MUSIK’s other hit ‘This World Of Water’ allows Tony Mansfield to showcase the crafted sparkle that would later go on to adorn records by CAPTAIN SENSIBLE, VICIOUS PINK, A-HA and NAKED EYES.
It may seem strange to see SPANDAU BALLET as part of this package but when they first appeared, they were considered a synthesizer band; ‘Glow’ was a UK double A side single with ‘Musclebound’ in 1981 and while it was the last synth-led track they did, their funk soul aspirations were there for all to hear. In fact, songwriter Gary Kemp had conceived ‘Glow’ with a brass section in mind, so it is now something of a curio that could be seen as a precursor to ‘Chant No1’.
SPANDAU BALLET were produced by Richard James Burgess who co-designed the Simmons SDSV; his electro-jazz combo LANDSCAPE figure with the Colin Thurston helmed ‘European Man’ which was actually designated “electronic dance music” on its single artwork some three decades before it was appropriated and abbreviated to become EDM…
Many of the usual suspects from the period like VISAGE, JAPAN, JOHN FOXX, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and OUR DAUGHTER’S WEDDING are all present and correct with familiar recordings, but interestingly (although not for the better), it’s the original version of PHIL LYNOTT’s ‘Yellow Pearl’ without the Rusty Egan drums or the Midge Ure remix that gets the nod!
One of the main beauties of these thoughtfully curated collections is to be able sway away from the obvious and feature a known-name with a lesser-known work; in the case of ULTRAVOX, it’s the occasionally Eno-inspired and Conny Plank produced ‘Waiting’ which was the B-side to their first Midge Ure fronted single ‘Sleepwalk’. Meanwhile, SUICIDE are represented by the excellent Ric Ocasek produced ‘Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne’ and YELLO with ‘Bimbo’, the oddball opener of the Swiss trailblazers’ debut long player ‘Solid Pleasure’.
SILICON TEENS get to feature with something other than ‘Memphis Tennessee’ and it’s the Daniel Miller‘s self-penned instrumental ‘Chip N Roll’ that has the honour, while the Mute Records founder gets another track in with ‘Brushing Your Hair’, a gloriously vibrant instrumental production and co-write for Alex Fergusson of ALTERNATIVE TV.
There’s additionally tracks by lesser known international acts or those bands that faded from view after effectively being one hit wonders. The entire career of M may have been overshadowed by the ubiquitous ‘Pop Muzik’ but Robin Scott did go on to release three albums and work with Ryuichi Sakamoto; the sombre ‘Official Secrets’ may not really have much of a hook but it contains some percolating bleepy sections that pre-date KRAFTWERK’s ‘Home Computer’ by one year.
‘A Circuit Like Me’ from Australian combo, THE METRONOMES actually sounds very 21st century with its detached female vocal and charming monosynths, while the gallop of ‘Drawn & Quartered’ by THE KORGIS is a worthy find. Now while ROCKETS found fame with a catchy robotic flavoured cover of ‘On The Road Again’ with the help of Zeus B Held, the silver faced Italians found that the vocoder suited their performance art poise and reapplied it for the self-penned space rocker ‘Galactica’.
Also possessing a bit of a gallop is LORI & THE CHAMELEONS’ wispy Morricone-influenced single ‘The Lonely Spy’ although with its acoustic strum, it is quite different from the understated electronic disco of their best known track ‘Touch’. Cut from a similar melodic post-punk cloth, the Martin Hannett produced ‘Sympathy’ from PAULINE MURRAY & THE INVISIBLE GIRLS is a reminder of how women were coming to the fore after punk in synth-assisted new wave, a fact borne out on ‘Musik Music Musique’ by the inclusion of more obscure works from TOYAH, KIM WILDE and HAZEL O’CONNOR.
‘Musik Music Musique’ is also an opportunity to become reacquainted with lost tunes of yore and ‘The Eyes Have It’ by KAREL FIALKA will be remembered by those who owned the 1980 Virgin Records compilation ‘Machines’, as will the octave driven ‘Destiny’ by DALEK I LOVE YOU. Some enjoyably avant pop adventures come courtesy of XYNN’s ‘Computed Man’ and SCIENCE’s ‘Tokyo’, while one of the more bizarre but successful experiments included is ‘I’m A Computer’ by THE GOO-Q.
One of the lesser known acts featuring with the eccentric ‘Money’ is MOEBIUS, not the member of German duo CLUSTER but an American art rock band with a penchant for DEVO. ‘Doctor …?’ by BLOOD DONOR is another wonderful discovery while of the more experimental art pieces included, NINI RAVIOLETTE’s ‘Suis-Je Normale’ delightfully comes over like a collaboration between Jane Birkin and Laurie Anderson.
Düsseldorf is often seen as the spiritual home of electronic music and there is worthy representation from DER PLAN and ‘Da Vorne Steht Ne Ampel’ illustrating how there were other dimensions to German electronic music other than that engineered by KRAFTWERK. But closing the set is the band named after the Electri_City itself, LA DÜSSELDORF with the light-hearted ‘Dampfriemen’; a quirky slice of synth “Oompah” with comedic chants and a kazoo section, it sums up the manic oddball nature of the former NEU! drummer Klaus Dinger.
There are many other tracks that have merit, but textures which reoccur on ‘Musik Music Musique’ to date stamp the period are the icy chill of the affordable ARP Quartet string machine and squawky sax, although not in an overblown jazz funk way.
Despite ‘Musik Music Musique’ comprising of a carefully researched tracklisting, a few errors do slip through; as well as the SPANDAU BALLET track being released in 1981 as already mentioned (although it was available on a very scarce Japanese-only promo sampler in late 1980), the version of ‘Kebabträume’ by DAF is the 1982 Conny Plank version from the Virgin album ‘Für Immer’ and not the Bob Giddens produced Mute Records five piece band recording which actually came out in 1980.
Then in the booklet, the Foxx fronted 1977 line-up of ULTRAVOX! gets illustrated as opposed to the New Romantic suited Midge Ure one, while LA DÜSSELDORF’s Hans Lampe is referred to as a “Keyboard Whizz” when he is actually a drummer and now performs with Michael Rother who was Klaus Dinger’s partner in NEU!; in fact Dinger handled keyboards himself under the pseudonym of Nikolaus Van Rhein.
Those are minor quibbles though, because this set is very good value and acts as a great music history lesson as well as offering the chance to hear some new vintage synth. While many may have heard of BERLIN BLONDES, THE PASSAGE, THE FALLOUT CLUB and EYELESS IN GAZA, only a few will have heard their music.
‘Musik Music Musique’ offers something of a low risk opportunity to make some new friends while becoming reacquainted with a few old and lost ones. Here’s to the 1981 follow-up set…
The soundtrack of The Blitz Club was provided by its resident DJ Rusty Egan and its story is more than well documented.
This vibrant post-punk scene, whose flamboyant clientele were dubbed ‘Blitz Kids’ and ‘New Romantics’, became the catalyst for several bands including VISAGE, SPANDAU BALLET and CULTURE CLUB, as well as assorted fashion designers, visual artists and writers.
Rusty Egan told The Electricity Club: “I just played as much as I could fit in, it was not all disco. It was a bar and opened after work. I’d arrive 8.30–9.00pm and played all my faves till it was packed, then I got them dancing and at the end, I slowed down”.
The dancing style at The Blitz Club often involved the swaying of arms at a distance from the face like slow motion maraca shaking so as not to spoil any carefully hairsprayed styles. Meanwhile, feet movements were often impossible as the small dancefloor was often overcrowded!
With Steve Strange as doorman and fashion gatekeeper, the concept for what was initially a “Bowie Night” came together at Billy’s nightclub in Soho in Autumn 1978 in an effort to find something new and colourful to escape the oncoming drabness in the Winter Of Discontent. After a disagreement with the owners of Billy’s, the pair moved their venture to The Blitz Club.
Although Rusty Egan had been a soul boy and an active participant in punk through a stint rehearsing with THE CLASH and then as a member of THE RICH KIDS with Midge Ure, the two friends became fascinated with electronic dance music though the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer and KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ album which had been a surprise favourite in New York discos and whose title track referenced David Bowie.
“There was a couple of years of punk which Midge Ure and myself weren’t too impressed with in terms of the clubs and the environment in Thatcherite Britain, it was horrible in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool!” recalled Egan, “So we were just trying basically to grasp the good in life, trying to be positive in a very negative time.”
Although Egan curated an eclectic playlist of available synth works supplemented with soundtracks and relatable art rock tunes, tracks were comparatively scarce in this new innovative electronic form.
So with studio time available following the split of THE RICH KIDS, Ure and Egan hit upon the idea of making their own electronic dance music for The Blitz Club, fronted by Steve Strange.
Ure came up with the name VISAGE for the project and presented the demo to his then employers at EMI Records, but it was rejected! Undeterred, the pair recruited Billy Currie from a then-in hiatus ULTRAVOX plus MAGAZINE’s Dave Formula, John McGeoch and Barry Adamson to record the first VISAGE album at the-then newly constructed Genetic Studios of Martin Rushent.
When Billy Currie toured with Gary Numan in 1979, he and fellow keyboardist Chris Payne composed what was to become ‘Fade To Grey’; it was included on the eventual ‘Visage’ album released by Polydor Records in 1980 and the rest is history, reaching No1 in West Germany!
VISAGE was the beauty of the synthesizer played with symphonic classical overtones fused to the electronic dance beat of Neu Europa and visually styled like a cross between the Edwardian dandies and Weimar Cabaret. Midge Ure remembered “it was a major part of my life and Steve was a major part of that period”.
The meeting of Ure and Currie in VISAGE led to the diminutive Glaswegian joining a relaunched ULTRAVOX who released the iconic ‘Vienna’ album in 1980. Co-produced by Conny Plank, the German always thought in terms of sound and on the title song, he imagined an old man at a piano in a desolate theatre who had been playing the same tune for forty years.
And when Billy Currie came to record his ivory parts, that was exactly the feel which Plank had engineered. It was to become a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the New Romantic movement when it was released as a single, stalling at No2 despite being one of the best selling singles of 1981, gracing the UK charts at the same time as ‘Fade To Grey’.
Having started as a “Bowie Night”, the man himself became fascinated by this emergent cult with no name that he had inspired. In 1980, Jacqueline Bucknell, an assistant from his label RCA who was also a Blitz Kid, had taken Bowie down to The Blitz Club to cast extras to appear in a video for his new single ‘Ashes To Ashes’; among the chosen ones was Steve Strange.
Utilising Roland guitar synths and an ARP string machine with a final burst of ARP Odyssey, David Bowie saw ‘Ashes To Ashes’ as an epitaph for his artistic past as he lyrically revisited the Major Tom character from ‘Space Oddity’ over a decade on.
With this, The Blitz Club had now become a mainstream phenomenon as the BBC’s Nationwide programme sent an investigative team in, signalling a changing of the guard in popular culture with parallel scenes going on at The Rum Runner in Birmingham, The Warehouse in Leeds and Crocs in Rayleigh from which DURAN DURAN, SOFT CELL and DEPECHE MODE were to respectively gain their fledgling followings.
The perceived elitist exclusivity of The Blitz Club had partly become legend as a result of Steve Strange refusing entry to Mick Jagger for his sporting of blue jeans. Playing on this and adopting its electronic aesthetic to attract attention, five lads from Islington formed SPANDAU BALLET and initially only performed at special events which were by invitation only. Essentially becoming The Blitz Club’s house band, the quintet later scored worldwide success with a less radical sanitised pop soul sound.
Singer Tony Hadley said to The Electricity Club: “Our first album The ‘Journeys To Glory’ will always be one of my favourite Spandau albums, we were just young excited lads trying to make our mark on the world. There’s a rawness and energy on that album that is impossible to recreate. I love synthpop and still one of my favourite songs is SPANDAU BALLET’s first release ‘ To Cut A Long Story Short’.”
Not all enjoyed their visits to The Blitz Club; Billy MacKenzie notably highlighted the vapid nature of the scene in ASSOCIATES’ second hit single ‘Club Country’. But buoyed by its success, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan eventually vacated The Blitz Club and took over The Music Machine in 1982 and relaunched it as The Camden Palace, making it one of the UK’s first modern superclubs.
But the spirit of The Blitz Club still lives on and recently, there came the surprise announcement that Zaine Griff was to join Rusty Egan and ‘Fade To Grey’ co-writer Chris Payne to perform the songs of VISAGE in an audio-visual presentation at a number of events across Europe including W-Festival in Belgium.
Using Dave Rimmer’s 2003 book ‘New Romantics: The Look’ as an initial reference point and calling on the memories of Rusty Egan himself to verify whether he had actually played these songs in his DJ sets, here are The Electricity Club’s 25 Songs Of The Blitz Club to celebrate the flamboyant legacy of that Blitz Spirit.
ROXY MUSIC Both Ends Burning (1975)
Following-up the hit single ‘Love In The Drug’, ‘Both Ends Burning’ was ROXY MUSIC’s second ‘Siren’ call. With Bryan Ferry’s stylised but anguished vocals, it was a track which laid down the sophisticated art pop trail that JAPAN and DURAN DURAN would later be pursuing. Featuring a prominent coating of ARP Solina string machine sweetened by hypnotic bass and squawky sax, ‘Both Ends Burning’ is probably the most under rated single in the Roxy canon.
Available on the ROXY MUSIC album ‘The Best Of’ via Virgin Records
With a title that was an anagram of TALKING HEADS, the New York art school combo were the inspiration for the frantic metallic romp of ‘Kings Lead Hat’ which became a favourite at The Blitz Club. Brian Eno aped David Byrne in his vocal delivery, while he was later to produce three of the band’s albums as he moved further away from art rock as a solo artist. The song was later covered by ULTRAVOX in their live sets during the early phase their Midge Ure-fronted incarnation.
KRAFTWERK reacted as they generally did to negative criticism by writing a song. A response to a review that said their motionless persona at live performances was like ‘Showroom Dummies’, the sparse eerie atmosphere was punctuated by a tight and rigid electronic drum sound that was completely new and alien, something Rusty Egan was looking to emulate. Incidentally, the count-in of “eins zwei drei vier” was a deadpan Germanic parody of THE RAMONES!
An Iggy Pop collaboration with David Bowie, the Vampiric glam of ‘Nightclubbing’ was the former James Osterberg’s commentary on what it was like hanging out with him every night. Utilising a simple piano melody and a cold Schaffel rhythm via the mechanical precision of a Roland drum machine, legend has it that Iggy insisted on keeping it, saying “it kicks ass, it’s better than a drummer”. Alongside ‘Lust For Life’, ‘Nightclubbing’ also featured in the soundtrack of ‘Trainspotting’.
Available on the IGGY POP album ‘The Idiot’ via Virgin Records
Utilising Warren Cann’s modified Roland TR77 rhythm machine, this was John Foxx moving ULTRAVOX! into the moody ambience pioneered by CLUSTER, away from the art rock of the self-titled first album and the punky interim single ‘Young Savage’. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ had initially been premiered as a far spikier uptempo number for the B-side of ‘ROckWrok’. Incidentally, the ‘CC’ credited on saxophone is not Chris Cross, but a member of the art collective GLORIA MUNDI.
Available on the ULTRAVOX! album ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ via Island Records
LA DÜSSELDORF’s second long player ‘Viva’ was their most successful album and the title track was a regular staple at The Blitz Club. An oddball slice of cosmic space rock sung in French and German by Klaus Dinger, proceedings were aided by the dual motorik thud of Hans Lampe and Thomas Dinger. Performed with the same group of musicians, ‘E-Musik’ by Dinger’s previous band NEU! had also been a favourite at The Blitz Club, influencing the intro of the ULTRAVOX B-side ‘Face To Face’.
Commissioned by Alan Parker for the graphic prison drama ‘Midnight Express’, the noted director wanted some electronic accompaniment to the crucial chase scene of the film in the style of ‘I Feel Love’. The bassline from Giorgio Moroder’s own 1976 cover of ‘Knights In White Satin’ was reappropriated. The fruit of their labours was this Oscar winning Hi-NRG romp bursting with VANGELIS-like keyboard melodies, driven by an intense slamming and syncopated by popping pulses.
Already a fan of German music and ‘Autobahn’ by KRAFTWERK in particular, Daniel Miller’s sense of experimentation and an adoption of punk’s DIY ethic led him to buying a Korg 700s synthesizer. Wanting to make a punk single with electronics, he wrote and recorded the stark JG Ballard influenced ‘Warm Leatherette’ as an independent single release on his own Mute Records. Meanwhile, The Blitz Kids came up with their own bizarre twisting and turning dance entering a human arch to accompany it…
The late Wolfgang Riechmann is the forgotten man in the Düsseldorf axis having been in SPIRITS OF SOUND with Michael Rother and Wolfgang Flür; had his life not been tragically cut short, he certainly had the potential to become a revered and respected cult musical figure. The opening title track of his only album chimed like a Cold War spy drama before the beautifully almost oriental melodic piece imagined PINK FLOYD meeting CLUSTER over a delicate Schaffel beat.
ZAGER & EVANS’ pessimistic ditty was perfect fodder for the first VISAGE demo. Steered by Midge Ure using his freshly acquired Yamaha synths and punctuated by Rusty Egan’s incessant Roland drum machine and synthetic percussion, ‘In The Year 2525’ was perfectly resigned aural dystopia from its vocodered intro onwards. Steve Strange’s deadpan fronted the sombre tone perfectly but Ure’s vocal backing and counterpoints added that extra slice of musicality.
Available on the VISAGE album ‘The Face’ via Universal Records
One of first Japanese bands to have a Top 20 hit single in the UK was YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA in 1980. ‘Firecracker’ was a cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny but actually released as ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’. Recorded in 1978, the parent self-titled album was noted for its use of the then brand new Roland MC8 Micro-Composer to control the synthesizers. The result was a clean, exotic pop sound that was unusual, even in the synthpop heartland of Europe.
Produced by Zeus B Held, ‘No GDM’ was written by androgynous art history student Gina Kikoine in honour of the “great dark man” Quentin Crisp and featured an array of ARP and Moog synths to signal the birth of a new European Underground. Unsurprisingly, the song gained heavy rotation at The Blitz Club. The nonchalant, detached vocal influence of GINA X PERFORMANCE went on to be heard in the music of LADYTRON, CLIENT and MISS KITTIN.
Working with Giorgio Moroder, David Sylvian submitted ‘European Son’ for the session in Los Angeles but it was rejected by the producer. Instead, the Italian offered several of his demos, of which, Sylvian picked the one he considered to be the worst so that he could stamp more of his own vision for the developing synthesized sound of JAPAN. Considered to be too avant-garde at its inception but ahead of its time, unbeknown to Moroder and Sylvian, they had just conceived DURAN DURAN!
Available on the JAPAN album ‘Assemblage’ via Sony BMG Records
THOMAS LEER & ROBERT RENTAL Day Breaks Night Heals (1979)
Originally released on THROBBING GRISTLE’s Industrial Records, ‘The Bridge’ album saw Scottish duo Thomas Leer and Robert Rental trading vocal and instrumental duties. With an air of FAD GADGET, ‘Day Breaks Night Heals’ showcased some of Leer’s pop sensibility that was later apparent in his Arista solo period and in ACT with Claudia Brücken, while Rental maintained a dark experimental presence in this slice of artful electronic blues. Robert Rental sadly passed away in 2000.
Available on the album ‘The Bridge’ via The Grey Area
Manipulating their influences like SPARKS and MAGAZINE with a very European austere, Glasgow’s SIMPLE MINDS were “underground, pulsating through” thanks to the rhythmic interplay of Derek Forbes’ bass with Mick McNeil’s synths. Charlie Burchill was now thinking beyond the sound of a conventional electric guitar while the precision of under rated drummer Brian McGee locked the glue. That just left Jim Kerr to throw his bizarre shapes and pontificate over this dark avant disco.
Having graced the UK Top 20 again with the tremendous ‘No1 Song In Heaven’, SPARKS continued their Giorgio Moroder produced rejuvenation and had an even bigger hit with ‘Beat The Clock’. Percussively augmented by Keith Forsey who was later to produce Billy Idol, Russell Mael’s flamboyant falsetto more than suited the electronic disco sound while the programmed backing meant that Ron Mael could stoically maintain his image of doing nothing.
Belgian trio TELEX comprised of Marc Moulin, Dan Lacksman and Michel Moers, with the intention of “making something really European, different from rock, without guitar”. Opening their debut album ‘Looking for Saint Tropez’ which also contained their funeral robotic cover of ‘Rock Around The Clock’, ‘Moscow Diskow’ took the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow, adding a funkier groove compared with KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ excursion for what was to become a cult international club favourite.
From their third album ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’, the uncompromising THROBBING GRISTLE led by the late Genesis P-Orridge were neither jazzy or funky! Gloriously sequenced by Chris Carter via a Roland System-100M modular, ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ was mutant dystopian disco lento with a hypnotic rhythm punctuated by a synthetic whip-crack for that S&M twist as Cosey Fanni Tutti’s whispered vocals competed with pentatonic melodies and electronic drill noises!
Zaine Griff had a Bowie-esque poise was tailor made for The Blitz Club and Tony Visconti saw enough in him to produce his debut solo album ‘Ashes & Diamonds’. Featuring Hans Zimmer on synths, the title song was sitting just outside the Top 40 and earned a performance on Top Of The Pops but the episode was pulled thanks to a Musicians Union strike. Demonstrating the song’s longevity despite it not being a major hit, it was recently covered live by American alternative rockers MGMT.
‘Being Boiled’ was the first song Philip Oakey wrote with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh for THE HUMAN LEAGUE, his bizarre lyrics being the result of a confusion between Buddhism and Hinduism while highlighting the plight of silk worms. Intended to reimagine FUNKADELIC’s funky overtones as synthetic horns, this brassier re-recorded version with fatter electronic beats was included on the ‘Holiday 80’ EP and the ‘Travelogue’ album, becoming a dance staple of The Blitz Club.
Available as a bonus track on THE HUMAN LEAGUE album ‘Travelogue’ via Virgin Records
Didier Marouani wrote the worldwide hit ‘Magic Fly’ but having left the band, Roland Romanelli and Jannick Top continued as SPACE. The rousing thrust of ‘Tender Force’ was, like ‘Magic Fly’, produced by Jean-Philippe Iliesco who later invited Rusty Egan to contribute a timbale heavy remix of this synth disco tune ; he was later to begin an ill-fated business relationship with Iliesco who was named by Midge Ure in his ‘If I Was’ autobiography as responsible for putting a wedge between him and Egan in VISAGE…
Although now known as a duo, eccentric Swiss pioneers YELLO actually began as a trio of Dieter Meier, Boris Blank and Carlos Peron. Later remixed and extended, the military drum tattoo at the start of ‘Bostich’ was deceiving as an electronic throb quickly set in. This was perfect avant garde disco for The Blitz Club with a quirky range of vocal pitches from Meier while the track also included a style of speedy European rap later that was repeated on their only major UK hit ‘The Race’ in 1988.
Available on the YELLO album ‘Essential’ via Mercury Records
Electronic pop music was often seen as pretentious, LANDSCAPE had their tongues firmly in their cheeks as evidenced by ‘Einstein A Go-Go’. “The song is a cautionary tale about the apocalyptic possibilities of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of theocratic dictators and religious extremists.” said the band’s Richard Burgess, “We talked about the track conceptually before we wrote it and our objective was to make a very simple, cartoon-like track with a strong hook that would belie the meaning of the lyrics!”
Written as a B-side instrumental for The Blitz Club’s resident dance troupe SHOCK to work a routine to, ‘R.E.R.B.’ was constructed by Rusty Egan and Richard Burgess, hence the title. Burgess had been doing the linking interludes with a Fairlight on the first VISAGE album and brought in Roland System 700 modular driven by the Micro-composer while Egan triggered the brain of the synthesized drum system that Burgess had been working on with Dave Simmons for its punchy drum fills.
Available on the SHOCK single ‘R.E.R.B.’ via Blitz Club Records
Produced by Daniel Miller, one of the first SOFT CELL recordings on signing to Phonogram was the seminal ‘Memorabilia’. While not a hit, it was critically acclaimed and become a favourite at The Blitz Club. Dave Ball’s deep Roland Synthe-Bass and klanky Korg Rhythm KR55 provided a distinctive danceable backbone to accompany Marc Almond’s souvenir collecting metaphors about sexual promiscuity. After this, SOFT CELL were signed by Rusty Egan to Metropolis Music for publishing.
Europe is the spiritual home of electronic music, inspiring it not just artistically but forming an important bond with the continent’s classical tradition through the romance of its historical imagery.
Continental Europe is defined as being bordered by the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Often considered to be separated from Asia by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas and the waterways of the Turkish Straits, it includes the part of Russia where Moscow and St Petersburg are located.
Mark Reeder was one of the first British music personalities to fully adopt Europe, making West Berlin his home in 1978 and subsequently releasing a number of themed compilation albums such as ‘European’ in 1995 and ‘Assorted (E For Europe)’ in 1999 on his MFS label. His fellow Mancunian and friend Bernard Sumner of NEW ORDER said to The European in 2016: “I feel European, I regard myself as a European… as a musician I’ve always been massively influenced by Europe and its people”.
From Paris to Vienna back to Düsseldorf City, Europe fascinated British musicians who having been open-minded enough to use synthesizers, now embraced many different mindsets, languages, cultures and cuisines, all within a comparatively accessible geographical land mass. Meanwhile, European instrument manufacturers such as PPG, Elka, Crumar, RSF, Jen and Siel found their products in the thick of the action too.
The Electricity Club stands proud of its Eurocentric focus. Esteemed names like Hütter, Schneider, Flür, Bartos, Moroder, Jarre, Vangelis, Plank, Rother, Dinger and Froese have more than highlighted the important debt that is owed by electronic music to Europe.
While the UK may have scored an equalizer with Synth Britannia, it was the Europeans who took that crucial half time lead. So to disengage with the European tradition would be betraying everything that The Electricity Club is all about.
Presented in yearly and then alphabetical order with a restriction of one track per artist moniker, here are The Electricity Club’s favourite twenty electronic tunes that were inspired, either directly or obliquely, by the legacy of Europe…
DAVID BOWIE Warszawa (1977)
‘Warszawa’ was named after the Polish capital city but accurately captured the Cold War tensions in Europe without the need for lyricism. At Hansa Studios where the sessions were being mixed, the watch towers in East Berlin could look into the windows of the building! Tony Visconti’s production only enhanced the collaborative drama between David Bowie’s enigmatic wailing over Brian Eno’s Minimoog and Chamberlain keys. This formed part of an all instrumental suite on the ‘Low’ album’s second side.
Available on the DAVID BOWIE album ‘Low’ via EMI Records
With KRAFTWERK utilising a customized 32-step Synthanorma Sequenzer and a Vako Orchestron with pre-recorded symphonic string and choir sounds sourced from optical discs, if there was such a thing as a musical European travelogue, then the romantically optimistic beauty of ‘Europe Endless’ was it. This lengthy work influenced the likes of NEW ORDER, OMD and BLANCMANGE who all borrowed different aspects of its aesthetics for ‘Your Silent Face’, ‘Metroland’ and ‘Feel Me’ respectively.
‘For Belgian Friends’ was written in honour of Factory Benelux founders Michel Duval and the late Annik Honoré. Although not strictly electronic in the purest sense, Martin Hannett’s technologically processed production techniques made Vini Reilly’s dominant piano sound like textured synthetic strings, complimenting his sparing melodic guitar and the crisp percussion of Donald Johnson. This beautiful instrumental was one of Reilly’s best recordings, originally on the compilation ‘A Factory Quartet’.
Available on THE DURUTTI COLUMN album ‘LC’ via Factory Benelux Records
Nottingham combo FATAL CHARM supported ULTRAVOX and OMD in 1980. Their excellent first single ‘Paris’ was produced by Midge Ure and could be seen reflecting the electronically flavoured new wave template of the period. Singer Sarah Simmonds’ feisty passion gave a freshly charged sexual ambiguity to the European love story written in the days before the Channel Tunnel. Instrumentalist Paul Arnall said to The Electricity Club: “we were able to use Midge’s Yamaha synth which gave it his sound”.
Available on the FATAL CHARM album ‘Plastic’ via Fatal Charm
Did you hear the one about the Japanese band impersonating a German band and doing it rather well? Influenced by the motorik backbeat of NEU! and also heavily borrowing form its guitarist Michael Rother’s solo track ‘Karussell’, IPPU DO’s leader Masami Tsuchiya was something of a multi-cultural sponge, later joining JAPAN for their final ‘Sons Of Pioneers’ tour in 1982. Meanwhile IPPU DO are still best known in the UK for their startlingly original cover version of THE ZOMBIES ‘Time Of The Season’.
Electronic pioneer Richard James Burgess said to The Electricity Club: “I think we all embraced this new direction because of our raw excitement over the new technology…We discussed it in the band and everyone was on board so I started working on the lyrics that became ‘European Man’”. Colin Thurston was the producer assisting in realising this new direction and interestingly, the rear artwork of the first issue featured an early use of the term “electronic dance music”.
“Europe has a language problem” sang Jim Kerr on ‘I Travel’, adding “in central Europe men are marching”. Aware of the domestic terrorist threats that were apparent in every city they were visiting on tour, SIMPLE MINDS captured a claustrophobic tension within its futuristic frenzy like a doomy disco take on Moroder. It was a favourite of DJ Rusty Egan at The Blitz Club where its shadier spectre was highly welcomed by its clientele, reflecting their own discontent closer to home.
TELEX’s manifesto was “Making something really European, different from rock, without guitar.” Having previously visited a ‘Moscow Disko’ and with tongues firmly in cheeks, they entered the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest with a bouncy electropop song that had deliberately banal lyrics about the whole charade itself. Performing to a bemused audience in The Hague with the sole intention of coming last, unfortunately Finland decided otherwise! Who said the Belgians didn’t have a sense of humour?!
If there was a song that truly represents The Electricity Club’s ethos, then the synth rock fusion of ULTRAVOX’s ‘New Europeans’ is it! Noting that “his modern world revolves around the synthesizer’s song” in lyrics largely written by drummer Warren Cann, it all pointed to an optimistic way forward “full of future thoughts and thrills” that would later be opened up by direct train travel across the channel with freedom of movement to and from the continent for “a European legacy and “a culture for today”.
Available on the ULTRAVOX album ‘Vienna’ via EMI Records
While in his dual role as DJ at The Blitz Club and VISAGE’s drummer, Rusty Egan had become inspired by the melodic interplay of Japanese trio YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA which had been European influenced: “I liked the album and played it along with TELEX and SPARKS. The sound was an influence on VISAGE. By the time we recorded ‘Moon Over Moscow’, that was to include Russia, Japan, Germany and France in our sound… the drummer was also using the same drum pads as me!”
Available on the VISAGE album ‘Visage’ via Alliance Import
ASSOCIATES first musical signs of a fascination towards European influenced electronic music came with the funereal pulse of ‘White Car In Germany’. The swirling electronics, cold atmosphere and treated percussion were intended to sound as un-American as possible. Billy MacKenzie’s observational lyric “Aberdeen’s an old place – Düsseldorf’s a cold place – Cold as spies can be” accurately captured post-war tensions under the spectre of the bomb.
Foxx admitted he had been “reading too much JG Ballard” and had thawed considerably following ‘Metamatic’. Now spending his spare time exploring beautiful Italian gardens and taking on a more foppish appearance, his new mood was reflected in his music. Moving to a disused factory site in Shoreditch, Foxx set up a recording complex which he named ‘The Garden’ and the first song to emerge was the Linn Drum driven ‘Europe After The Rain’. Foxx had now achieved his system of romance.
Recorded as a JAPAN demo for the 1979 Giorgio Moroder sessions that produced ‘Life In Tokyo’, this sequencer heavy number was rejected by the Italian disco maestro. Left dormant in the vaults of Ariola Hansa, the song was finished off under the supervision of John Punter and later given a single remix by Steve Nye with redone parts by Mick Karn. ‘European Son’ showed David Sylvian’s vocals in transition from the catty aggression of earlier albums to the Ferry-ish croon most now associated with the band.
THE MOBILES’ were from the sleepy shores of Eastbourne; while ‘Drowning In Berlin’ may have come across as a ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ New Romantic parody on first listen, its decaying Mittel Europa grandeur was infectious like Hazel O’Connor reinterpreting ‘Vienna’ with The Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub. And like ‘Vienna’, ‘Drowning In Berlin’ was inspired by a holiday romance, in this case one that singer Anna Maria had while visiting the divided city.
Inspired by acts like ULTRAVOX and KRAFTWERK, Californian band BERLIN with their approach to synthesizers were a far cry from the way they were being used Stateside within rock. And in ‘The Metro’ with its frantic motorik drum machine and Teutonic pulses, songwriter John Crawford aimed to capture the tense filmic romance of Paris despite never having visited the city, a vibrant but detached feeling ably projected by partner and singer Terri Nunn in a similar fashion to FATAL CHARM.
Available on the BERLIN album ‘Best Of’ via Geffen Records
Radio Luxembourg broadcasted pop music to the UK using the most powerful privately owned transmitter in the world. But when DEPECHE MODE played the country in early 1982, they were booked to perform in a small town called Oberkorn. With a glorious ambient instrumental on the B-side of the then soon-to-be-released single ‘The Meaning Of Love’ requiring a title, Martin Gore needed no further inspiration, unconsciously capturing the air of the Grand Duchy’s countryside and oceanic climate.
Available on the DEPECHE MODE boxed set ‘DMBX1’ via Columbia Records
Before the days of the Channel Tunnel, young York based New Romantic trio THE MOOD noted the how long it took by boat and train to get to the French capital. ‘Paris Is One Day Away’ was the hit that got away; reaching No. 42, it secured a slot on ‘Top Of The Pops’. However, it was the 1982 World Cup and a match heading into extra time meant that a hasty edit was made. And it was THE MOOD’s performance as the new and unknown act that ended up on the cutting room floor!
After ‘Dancing On The Berlin Wall’, RATIONAL YOUTH mainman Tracy Howe turned his attention towards Poland. “What was it like to be young person behind the Iron Curtain? What did they do on a Saturday night anyway?” he told The Electricity Club, “Did they have clubs to go to? Probably underground ones. They’d probably break down the door. Apart from the fact that there are no ‘navy docks’ in Silesia, this record makes a jolly racket and may well be the first recorded instance of a Roland TR-808.”
Fascinated by the likes of Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan, JETHRO TULL frontman Ian Anderson went synth in 1983. Assisted by Peter John Vitesse, ‘Different Germany’ embraced both the electronic and progressive sides of Anderson’s career perfectly with a marvellous middle section featuring a bristling keyboard solo. The end result sounded not unsurprisingly like Tull fronting ULTRAVOX; of course, the circle was completed when Midge Ure covered ‘Living In The Past’ in 1985.
Born to French parents in Notting Hill, THE STRANGLERS’ bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel was a loyal European, even releasing a 1979 solo album entitled ‘Euroman Cometh’ where “a Europe strong, united and independent is a child of the future”. Taking lead vocals for the beautiful ‘European Female’, it possessed an understated quality with subtle Spanish guitar from Hugh Cornwell alongside Dave Greenfield’s sparkling synths and Jet Black’s electronic percussion to celebrate the allure of continental mystery.
While Colin Thurston is perhaps not as lauded as Conny Plank, Giorgio Moroder and Trevor Horn, he undoubtedly helped shape the sound of a pioneering musical era.
A jingle writer and jobbing musician, legend has it that he bluffed his way into audio engineering before securing a job with Tony Visconti.
Working alongside the legendary producer during his sojourn at Hansa Tonstudio in the Kreuzberg district of West Berlin by the Wall, he experienced a baptism of fire as he worked on what became two legendary albums, David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’.
He impressed enough to be recommended to Virgin Records signings MAGAZINE when they approached Tony Visconti as producer for the follow-up to their debut album ‘Real Life’. It was this connection to Virgin Records that also led Thurston to work with THE HUMAN LEAGUE on their debut album ‘Reproduction’.
Working together on classic League tracks such as ‘Empire State Human’, ‘Almost Medieval’, ‘Blind Youth’, ‘The Path Of Least Resistance’ and a stark cover of ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, while the union was not a commercial success, Phil Oakey, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh gained valuable experience that would ultimately progress their music careers.
But it was Thurston’s work with DURAN DURAN that was to have the biggest worldwide impact. John Taylor said: “without Colin’s depth of vision, we would never have become the band we became” – under Thurston’s production guidance, DURAN DURAN grew from being a promising New Romantic band with a JAPAN fixation into becoming one of the UK’s biggest music exports to North America.
This was thanks in part to the striking videos accompanying songs such as ‘Girls On Film’, ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ and ‘Save A Prayer’ directed by the likes of Godley & Crème and Russell Mulcahy, all gaining regular rotation on MTV, although DURAN DURAN’s willingness to undertake long periods of Stateside touring also helped their cause.
After working with DURAN DURAN, Thurston also produced albums by TALK TALK, KAJAGOOGOO, and CAMOUFLAGE, although a reunion with THE HUMAN LEAGUE in 1985 on what was intended to be ‘Crash’ came to nought when Virgin Records rejected the results of the recording sessions.
Thurston became an in-house producer for the Canadian label Brouhaha and latterly undertook only occasional production work. There had been talk of Thurston working together again with DURAN DURAN when the classic line-up of Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor reunited in 2001, although this came to nothing. Sadly after a long illness, he passed away in January 2007, aged 59.
His portfolio indeed reads like a Who’s Who? of popular music; an under rated figure in the successful application of electronic instrumentation within a studio environment, The Electricity Club looks back at the career of Colin Thurston via eighteen tracks presented in chronological order, with a limit of one track per album project.
IGGY POP Tonight (1977)
Featuring Bowie on ARP Solina and providing his very distinct backing vocals to compliment Pop’s brooding baritone, ‘Tonight’ was a reflective number dealing with the spectre of heroin addiction. Recorded in Berlin, Thurston co-produced and engineered the parent ‘Lust For Life’ album under the collective name of Bewlay Bros with his two star performers.
Engineering alongside producer Tony Visconti, Thurston found himself working with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp to help fully utilise the Frippertronics tape looping technique that provided the celestial triple guitar signature. Melting in alongside swooping EMS Synthi AKS, stabbing Chamberlain brass and swimmy ARP Solina string machine textures, coupled to a most passionate vocal performance, the train ride that was ‘Heroes’ became one of the most iconic David Bowie recordings.
Available on the DAVID BOWIE album ‘Heroes’ via EMI Records
As a disco flavoured experiment helmed by Thurston, THE HUMAN LEAGUE recorded ‘I Don’t Depend On You’ under the pseudonym of THE MEN using a drummer, bassist and female backing vocalists, planting the seed for HEAVEN 17 when Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left in 1980. Released before the ‘Reproduction’ album, while the single wasn’t a hit, a certain Nick Rhodes was listening and included it in his DJ sets at The Rum Runner.
Available on THE HUMAN LEAGUE album ‘Travelogue’ via Virgin Records
Howard Devoto and co had initially suggested Tony Visconti as producer of their second long player, but were very happy to have his engineer as a substitute. But nervous about his credentials, Thurston did not reveal this was his first full album production. ‘Rhythm Of Cruelty’ captured the art rock virtuosity of Barry Adamson and John McGeoch, while allowing Dave Formula’s keyboards to shine.
With a manifesto of “synthesizers and vocals only”, Colin Thurston was the man behind the desk for THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s eagerly awaited debut album. Eerily intro-ed with a taped announcement from Peter Lewis of London Weekend Television that Steve McGarrett from ‘Hawaii Five-O’ was about to arrive on a Hawker Siddeley Trident, the clattering synthetic dystopia and narcotic doom of ‘Circus Of Death’ was delivered with a charismatically sombre baritone by Phil Oakey.
Electronic pioneer Richard James Burgess said to The Electricity Club: “I think we all embraced this new direction because of our raw excitement over the new technology…We discussed it in the band and everyone was on board so I started working on the lyrics that became ‘European Man’”. Colin Thurston was ideally the man to assist in realising this new direction and interestingly, the rear artwork of the first issue featured an early use of the term “electronic dance music” while the catalogue number was EDM1.
Led by the striking evangelical presence of Sal Solo, CLASSIX NOUVEAUX flirted with New Romanticism and while the eventual third album ‘La Verité’ was self-produced by Solo, the Colin Thurston steered ‘Never Again’ was the lead single. Written by bassist Mik Sweeney, it showcased Solo’s passionate falsetto amongst a barrage of period Simmons drums, synths, octave bass and flanged guitars. While just missing out on being a Top 40 single, it paved the way for ‘Is It A Dream?’ to reach the No11 spot six months later.
Available on the CLASSIX NOUVEAUX album ‘La Verité’ via Cherry Red Records
After seeing the promising support act for Hazel O Connor’s 1980 tour, Colin Thurston found his perfect band, one that appealed to both his electronic and art rock sensibilities. Combining the disco sequencer drive of Giorgio Moroder, the funkier groove of CHIC and the anthemic qualities of glam rock, Messrs Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylor, Taylor and Taylor were to be the new romantics who moved beyond “looking for the TV sound” as they became one of the biggest bands on ‘Planet Earth’.
“We were proud of our musicianship, that we could play complicated parts with precision and speed” said Scott Simon of OUR DAUGHTER’S WEDDING to The Electricity Club and having supported DURAN DURAN, they summoned the services of Colin Thurston for their ‘Digital Cowboy’ EP . Utilising a live drummer in Simon Phillips who played on Thurston’s session with THE MEN, ‘Target For Life’ was the frantic highlight from the five track offering.
It’s bizarre to think now that when TALK TALK first appeared, they were dismissed as nothing more than DURAN DURAN copyists, thanks to their double name, patronage by EMI and production on their debut album ‘The Party’s Over’ by Colin Thurston. Utilising synths and Simmons drums, their eponymous signature song was not actually a hit first time round and following a number of disagreements, Thurston’s name was taken off the credits of the album.
Based around a frantic arpeggio sourced from Nick Rhodes’ Roland Jupiter 4, ‘Rio’ is possibly Colin Thurston’s finest moment as a producer. From utilising a reversed slowed down tape of metal rods being dropped on a grand piano’s strings for the intro and capturing some amazing funky bass work from John Taylor, to the quintet locked in full flow with a rousing chorus and sax driven middle section, it was to become an iconic work both musically and visually.
Available on the DURAN DURAN album ‘Rio’ via EMI Records
Look past the silly haircuts and what you see in ‘Too Shy’ is a very well-produced and well-written pop tune. Limahl had handed over a demo to Nick Rhodes while working as a waiter at London’s Embassy Club. Curious, he took the tape to Colin Thurston and when the band signed to EMI, they were embraced by a teenybop audience. Less happy were the other members of KAJAGOOGOO who had been the more serious ART NOUVEAU and the result as a coup d’état with Limahl ousted as lead singer.
A catchy militaristic tune with a profound anti-war statement, London-based combo KISSING THE PINK had wanted Brian Eno as producer, having worked with Martin Hannett on their debut single ‘Don’t Hide In The Shadow’. But their then-label Magnet Records suggested that Colin Thurston would give a more commercial sound and they were proved right when ‘The Last Film’ become a UK Top 20 single, although it was to be the band’s only hit.
Available on the KISSING THE PINK album ‘Naked’ via Cherry Red Records
Notably High Wycombe’s most famous son, Howard Jones told The Electricity Club of working with Thurston on his debut single: “Warners wanted me in the studio as quick as possible to get something going and Colin was doing very well with DURAN DURAN and KAJAGOOGOO”. With a catchy new song that sounded like a synthpop version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’, Jones got that first hit twhich his label desired although he and Thurston were not to do any further work together.
With Limahl gone and working with Giorgio Moroder, Thurston stuck with KAJAGOOGOO, now led by bassist and Chapman stick player Nick Beggs. ‘Big Apple’ was a rousing funky pop punctuated by brass section that allowed the band to show off their musical virtuosity. Interest in KAJAGOOGOO waned afterwards, although Beggs was to become a noted sessioneer, working with Gary Numan, Howard Jones, Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson.
Available on the KAJAGOOGOO album ‘Islands’ via EMI Records
Having not had a happy experience working with Bill Nelson on the ‘Warriors’ album, Gary Numan was open to sharing the studio with an outsider again when the name of Colin Thurston was suggested. The first fruit of labour was the excellent and uncluttered PPG dominated ‘Your Fascination’. However, there was to be no further productions with Thurston as he was in the middle of working with THE HUMAN LEAGUE on the first version of ‘Crash’, which was subsequently scrapped.
As synthesizers became more passé with the advent of MTV and a desire for American success, Thurston found himself working with more guitar oriented acts like IMMACULATE FOOLS, WESTWON and ATLANTIC while adding his modern studio sheen. One of his more successful productions in this period was with Aylesbury AOR band FLIP whose appealing FM friendly number ‘That’s What They Say About Love’ was a minor hit in The Netherlands.
Originally available on the FLIP album ‘Flip’ via CBS Associated Records, currently unavailable
In order to move away from the DEPECHE MODE derived sound of their first two albums ‘Voices & Images’ and ‘Methods Of Silence’, Marcus Meyn and Heiko Maile enlisted session drummer Gavin Harrison and Thurston to capture more of a live feel to their music. ’Heaven’ was certainly looser than previous CAMOUFLAGE recordings although like with DEPECHE MODE not long after, the use of live drums ironically took some of soul and tension out of the band’s sound.
Available on the CAMOUFLAGE album ‘The Singles’ via Polydor Records
Richard James Burgess is the renowned record producer who famously coined the term New Romantic.
His triumphs from that era include the brilliant 12 inch Special Mix of ‘The Freeze’ and the glorious neo-classicism of ‘Musclebound’ by SPANDAU BALLET.
The Islington quintet’s earlier, more electronic sounding work was all produced by Burgess. A winner of numerous production awards, his book ‘The Art Of Music Production’ is an international best seller.
He is also a successful musician in his own right with the group LANDSCAPE who scored their biggest hit ‘Einstein A Go-Go’ in 1981.
At the forefront of studio developments such as the Roland Microcomposer, the Fairlight CMI and his own Simmons SDSV, Burgess appeared on the BBC’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ on no less than three occasions to demonstrate these wonders of musical technology that without doubt changed music forever.
It is the Simmons SDSV that could be considered Burgess’ biggest contribution to music and popular culture. Conceptualised and co-designed with Dave Simmons, it was the first standalone electronic drum kit where the individual parameters of each sound could be adjusted. The original idea had been to make a machine which could be played by a drummer as a replacement for acoustic drums and was developed from having to deal with the problems of audio spill via microphones when playing drums live. Sounds were originally mocked up around an ARP 2600 synthesizer which had already been popular with producers such as Martin Hannett and Daniel Miller for being able to obtain distinctive but useable percussive palettes.
A prototype of the SDSV triggered by a Roland Microcomposer was used on singles by SHOCK and the LANDSCAPE album ‘From the Tea-rooms of Mars to the Hell-holes of Uranus’. But the full kit itself did not appear on a recording until SPANDAU BALLET’s ‘Chant No1’ in 1981. The hexagonal pads, made from material used in police riot shields, became an iconic image while the distinctive synthetic “dzzshhh” sound (which Burgess modelled on the way he tuned his Pearl concert toms with one tension rod loosened causing the pitch to drop after the initial hit) became ubiquitous featuring on records by ULTRAVOX, DURAN DURAN, TALK TALK, CLASSIX NOUVEAUX, THOMAS DOLBY and A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS among many.
Now based in Washington DC where he works as Director of Marketing and Sales for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Richard James Burgess recently paid a visit to the UK and hooked up with his old mate Rusty Egan from VISAGE and The Blitz Club. He took time out from his busy schedule to talk to The Electricity Club at length about his pioneering career.
How did you first get into record production?
I bought a portable Tandberg tape recorder when I sixteen and recorded everything that made a noise. I actually studied electronics at college before I went to Berklee and Guildhall for music and then I owned an EMS Synthi A synthesizer and bought myself a Revox tape machine that I used to record almost every LANDSCAPE gig. In the mid-70s when I was in the group Easy Street signed to CBS and Polydor Records, we used to produce our own demos in high end studios all over London and I was working with wonderful producers as a studio musician and in the various bands I was playing in.
At first producing didn’t appeal to me because it involved such a lengthy commitment of time to a single project but when I started making music using the MC-8 Microcomposer, I realized that none of the producers and engineers had any understanding of how to deal with that technology and what was about to become the new way of making records.
LANDSCAPE had recorded one track for what would become the ‘Tea-rooms of Mars…’ album with Colin Thurston and we realized that it would be easier to produce the record ourselves because we understood the underlying thinking of computer generated music. We were putting most of it together at my home studio and then just dumping it to tape at the studio anyway.
So the ‘Tea-rooms…’ album would be the first commercial co-production (with the other members of LANDSCAPE) that I did, but we held it back until after the SPANDAU BALLET ‘Journeys to Glory’ album came out.
Spandau’s manager Steve Dagger called me out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to produce their first album. I was very excited about that and I had seen the band at nearly all of their first six gigs. I knew them personally from The Blitz and liked them. I also knew that we could make a great album that would be a hit and that the LANDSCAPE album would be more likely to chart if I had a hit with SPANDAU BALLET first.
The confidence of youth is a beautiful thing and it all worked out very well. The ‘Journeys to Glory’ album immediately went gold and launched my production career. It nearly ended my career as well because all I was offered after that was artists who wanted to sound just like SPANDAU BALLET and I preferred to work with artists who are fundamentally original.
The new remastered sound of ‘Journeys to Glory’ is really quite shocking. As the producer, do you have an opinion on this and this trend for loudness and brickwalling in mastering?
I am not sure I have the same version you do and I don’t listen to my old stuff at all unless I have a reason to do so. Labels don’t bother to call the original producer about these things and who knows which masters they are using. I stand strongly opposed to brickwalling in mastering. It existed in vinyl mastering too – everyone was trying to make the loudest record. What makes no sense about this practice is that it doesn’t matter – radio compresses and EQs the life out of everything anyway so destroying the sound of your production to make it a couple of dB louder is irrational. If you are listening in the car or at home you can just turn it up a bit if it seems quiet.
‘Diamond’ has come out much better and it occurred to me how the second artier side is a very under rated. The track ‘Innocence & Science’ in particular isn’t really that different from JAPAN’s ‘Ghosts’. Many who have never heard this would be surprised to learn it’s SPANDAU BALLET. How did you achieve those naturalistic sound textures like the cheng, sitar, vocal drones, water drips, ethnic percussion etc? Were those courtesy of your Fairlight?
Thank you. My recollection is that this was about the time I stopped reading my press.
If I recall correctly, we got slammed for the B side – some reviewers thought it was pretentious. It was Gary Kemp’s idea, I loved it. There is no Fairlight on it at all.
We did it at Jam Studios in North London and we played or created all those sounds naturally, the huge sounding concert bass drums were courtesy that amazing huge old room (it used to be a Decca classical soundstage).
I felt that we were naturally progressing – ‘Chant No1’ signalled the move from the initial sparse, New Romantic sound into the funkier sound that many other groups picked up on and that B side of ‘Diamond’ was pushing into atmospheric, world kinds of sounds. As you have success, it seems like a good opportunity to stretch and take risks
LANDSCAPE started as primarily as a jazz funk fusion group. Was there a particular moment when you and the group decided to pursue a more synthetic direction?
As I mentioned I had a strong grounding in electronics and Chris Heaton (keyboard player in LANDSCAPE) and myself had an avant garde electronic group (ACCORD, with Chris on treated and prepared piano, Roger Cawkwell on synth, myself on homemade electronic percussion and sometimes Chris’s brother Roger Heaton on clarinet). I had been fascinated by the computer music experiments going on at Stanford and IRCAM (John Chowning etc) and when I heard about the Roland MC-8 Microcomposer, John L Walters and myself immediately went out to the Roland warehouse to play with it and I bought one.
I had been working on what would become the Simmons SDSV drum synthesizer and had been using electronics triggered by my drums for several years (as can be heard on the first LANDSCAPE album on RCA). I had been playing around with several concepts for electric and electronic drums and had built a bunch of prototypes which I used on gigs. LANDSCAPE had sold about 25,000 EPs of our live recordings, U2XME1X2MUCH (pr. you two timed me one time too much) and Workers Playtime. I don’t know what the first LANDSCAPE album for RCA sold but it didn’t chart in any big way.
Rusty Egan was playing several tracks from it at The Blitz, in particular the lead track ‘Japan’ which featured treated piano, electronically altered soprano sax and trombone and electronic triggers on the drums. I also used Moog Drum (Mechanical Bride) on the album and other bits and pieces I begged, borrowed and made myself. I had used very early electronic percussion on the Easy Street recordings in the mid-70s: the Impakt Percussion device and I used my Synthi A to mock up percussive sounds.
We had all or most of the music written for what would become the ‘Tea-rooms…’ album and I was sitting at home thinking and I realized that we were going to get the same result as we did with the debut album if we put out another instrumental jazz-funk album through a major label. We discussed it in the band and everyone was on board so I started working on the lyrics that became ‘European Man’ (over a track we called Route Nationale). John and I worked up ‘Einstein A Go-Go’; everybody in the band wrote and arranged so we reconceptualised that album.
We rehearsed the music and recorded those sessions, I wrote out my drum parts and programmed them for the MC-8 Microcomposer and the prototype SDSV drum synth. John and I programmed many of the other parts too and the rest we played using mostly altered or synthetic sounds. By this time I also had one of the first three Fairlight CMI samplers to leave Australia (Peter Gabriel had one, Syco Systems who sold them had one and I had the other) and we were very close to putting a track on the album featuring that instrument but in the end decided that the album was complete without it.
I think we all embraced this new direction because of our raw excitement over the new technology and the seemingly endless possibilities for new sounding orchestrations along with the realization that we weren’t going to be able to survive at RCA if we kept making instrumental jazz-funk recordings.
Electronic pop music was often seen as pompous and pretentious by the general public, but it always seemed LANDSCAPE had their tongues firmly in their cheeks as evidenced by ‘Einstein A Go-Go’, ‘Norman Bates’,’Eastern Girls’ and the album title ‘From the Tea-rooms of Mars to the Hell-holes of Uranus’! Do you think this all went over the heads of most people?
I am so glad that you understand this. The clothes (vinyl suits!), much of what we did was tongue in cheek. We were serious about the music and production but we understood the inherent ironies and challenges of being an odd looking band with a very non standard line-up trying to make a living and even hit the charts.
It did not appear to me that the humour, irony and cynicism were ever picked up on by the media. I did see a recent review of ‘Einstein A Go-Go’ that mentioned that the song is a cautionary tale about the apocalyptic possibilities of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of theocratic dictators and religious extremists. We talked about the track conceptually before we wrote it and our objective was to make a very simple, cartoon-like track with a strong hook that would belie the meaning of the lyrics!
You were very close to the scene at The Blitz and are credited with coining the term New Romantic. How did this come about and why do you think this has stuck when other descriptions like ‘The Cult With No Name’, ‘Blitz Kids’, ‘Peacock Punks’ and ‘Futurists’ etc fell by the wayside?
I always believed that for a movement to stick and be identifiable it needed a name. We had just been through punk and glam. Initially I was using three terms Futurist, Electronic Dance Music (the LANDSCAPE singles have EDM printed on them) and New Romantic. My feeling was that the first two terms applied to LANDSCAPE and bands like ULTRAVOX but SPANDAU BALLET was the pre-eminent band for the new movement and New Romantic really applied to the dandyish dress styles of not only Spandau but the whole Blitz look. The look was what caught the attention of the worldwide media – it was such a contrast with punk.
Even ADAM ANT (I produced him later in 1983) who had been around for several years by that time got roped into the New Romantic category in America because of his look. The track ‘Face of the Eighties’ on ‘Tea-rooms…’ was a reference to the phenomenon. Once the other bands like CULTURE CLUB, DURAN DURAN, HUMAN LEAGUE broke and then the next generation kicked in such as HAIRCUT 100, KAJAGOOGOO etc, the die was cast.
You were at the forefront of new technology with developments such as the Roland Microcomposer, Fairlight CMI, Lyricon and the Simmons SDSV electronic drum kit. How exciting was this period for you, particularly with the Simmons which has now become so iconic that LA ROUX has an unplugged bass drum pad as a stage prop?
It was incredibly exciting without question, but I don’t think I could really appreciate what was happening fully because I was so busy – and that was exciting to be in demand and working with great people so much. I tend to be forward looking and think about what’s next more than thinking about what has been, so once it all happened I was definitely in ‘next’ mode.
Was the futuristic looking hexagonal shape of the Simmons pads your idea?
Yes it was. I was driving up to St Albans where Musicaid was based (that was the name of the company before they went bankrupt and Simmons was formed) and I was thinking about what kind of shape the pads should be. I realized they didn’t need to be round. The first prototype was triangular (I still have that) but I wanted something that would fit together well in a drum set and it struck that the honeycomb is an organic shape that locks together. Dave Simmons made bats-wings and the Rushmore Head set (I have two of those) but in the end it was the hex shape that caught on.
I mentioned to Rusty Egan that the SHOCK B-side ‘RERB’ was one of my favourite tracks of his. You co-wrote and co-produced it with him, can you remember how this magnificent track came about and were you ever disappointed it never gained the recognition it deserved as a classic electronic dance track?
We wrote that in about ten minutes at my home studio in London. It was made as a B-side for ‘Angel Face’ so I didn’t have any major aspirations or expectations for it. My MC8 / System 100M setup was always ready to roll; we talked about what we wanted and it popped out complete.
I think SHOCK, in general, suffered from being too early, as did LANDSCAPE. A couple of years later there were radio stations all over the world that would play this stuff and many more clubs but this was still the end of the disco era and the new wave era, we were limited to cutting edge DJs in London, NYC and LA and very little else.
To see SHOCK perform that stuff on stage in a packed show at The Ritz in NYC was an electrifying experience, and it really fed the excitement of the early adopters but there just weren’t enough of them, worldwide, at that time for it to gain mass acceptance. Many of the people at that Ritz gig and their other gigs became movers and shakers in the 80s scene – it was as if this was the kind of music and the look they were waiting for.
Your production credits also include KING, ADAM ANT, VIRGINIA ASTLEY, KIM WILDE, WHEN IN ROME and PRAISE. As well as that, you did Fairlight programming for KATE BUSH and VISAGE. Did you have any particular favourite acts who you worked with and memories you can share?
I can’t say enough good things about KATE BUSH. She was always wonderful to work with, incredibly talented and an innovator. She called us about the Fairlight – she found out about it through PETER GABRIEL and she fully grasped the implications of what it could do immediately. KIM WILDE is an absolute sweetheart and that was a fun record to make in Los Angeles. VIRGINIA ASTLEY was a really different record for me and she had a strong vision which is something I really look for in an artist.
I did the VISAGE programming at my home studio and recorded it at Mayfair and that was fun because of all the guys in the band who were setting the trends in the Futurist/New Romantic scene, there was a feeling that we were treading new ground. WHEN IN ROME I did in LA and I am still in contact with those guys – nice people and a lot of fun.
I felt that PRAISE really set the ambient music compass, Geoff MacCormack and Simon Goldenberg really defined that world music and wordless vocal sound. As successful as the record was, I don’t think they got the credit they deserved. Records can be hard to make for many reasons, personality clashes and creative differences being among them but I really felt fortunate in being able to work with great people.
LIVING IN A BOX were great. SHREIKBACK was tough because Barry Andrews didn’t really want to make a record that commercial and I can commiserate with that, but that’s what Island Records brought me in for and we wound up with three or so tracks in the Billboard modern rock charts simultaneously from ‘Go Bang’.
It would be true to say that I got a lot of satisfaction out of the COLONEL ABRAMS tracks I cut, particularly ‘Trapped’ and ‘I’m Not Gonna Let’. I produced all the hits that he had and some people say that we defined the early house music sound. I had just moved to NYC and I didn’t have much equipment with me – a LinnDrum, DX7 and a Juno 106 and I made the record with just those instruments. The special factor there (apart from Colonel’s incredible voice) was Colonel and Marston’s NY street sensibility combined with my radio production perspective and programming sensibility and we got something that really took off.
How did you feel when Stock Aitken and Waterman basically ripped ‘Trapped’ off for RICK ASTLEY’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’
It’s funny, I didn’t even know until LIVING IN A BOX pointed it out to me. Frankly, I take it as a huge compliment. SAW are very capable writers and for them to build a completely new song and create another big hit off of one of my bass lines just points up the incredible breadth of possibilities available even in a specific genre like dance music.
You and John L Walters from LANDSCAPE originally produced HOT GOSSIP’s debut album in 1981 which Dindisc Records didn’t release and it was eventually completed with HEAVEN 17’s Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. But Andy McCluskey from OMD who were also signed to Dindisc at the time was particularly uncomplimentary about you in the music press. Did you ever get to the bottom of why he had such venom and did you ever bump into him to err… discuss the matter?
I made a decision right after my first big success as an artist and producer not to read my press. So this is the first I am hearing about Andy McCluskey’s negative comments.
All I can say is that I am really good friends with Mike Howlett who produced those OMD records and I hold him in very high regard. I don’t know Andy and I have no understanding of why people can be negative like that about someone and something they know nothing about.
I also met Martyn Ware recently and like him immensely; clearly we have a lot of shared interests and history.
I will say that I think the HOT GOSSIP record that I made with John L Walters was one of my favourite productions. I haven’t listened to it in nearly thirty years, but my recollection is that we really broke some new ground.
Unfortunately I think what Carol Wilson (the A&R person) and Arlene Phillips (HOT GOSSIP) were looking for was something more like SHOCK, LANDSCAPE, SPANDAU BALLET and I used Harvey Mason Jr on drums, Gil Evans played piano on it (that is a great story) and David Sanborn played sax along with many other amazing musicians. I was young and somewhat naive and I played the roughs to Arlene and the label all the way through the process; everyone was nothing but enthusiastic and yet when I turned in the mixes, it all went horribly south.
With a couple more years of experience under my belt I might have been able to right the ship, but they just went ahead and remade the album without any meaningful discussion. This was a huge learning experience for me and rocked my confidence for a bit. With regard to negative press in general, I think it’s inevitable once you have major success that the knives will come out. Artists attacking artists – especially ones they don’t personally know – seems unnecessary. There was a period where I could do no wrong and another where I could do no right in the music press’s eyes.
What would you say was your proudest artistic or technological achievement?
Some of the moments I am proudest of are ones that were ephemeral: gigs in the early jazz-funk phase of LANDSCAPE. I am a musician, a drummer – I still play regularly- to play with great musicians really excites me. I was never driven by money or success, although both are good and necessary in order to keep making music.
There were some specific gigs I remember that were incredibly exhilarating, I am thinking about The Stapleton in Crouch Hill and the Music Machine before it became the Camden Palace (we used to jam that place), the guys in LANDSCAPE were so great to play with.
I am still happy with ‘Einstein A Go-Go’ and the whole ‘Tea-rooms’ album. I am still comfortable with what I did with ‘Chant No1’, ‘Trapped’, ‘Living In A Box’ and many other tracks I produced. I wanted to keep challenging myself and once everybody else starts doing something, it tends to lose its appeal for me so that we made the first computer driven hit single and album with the MC-8 (‘Einstein’ and ‘Tea-rooms…’) the Fairlight stuff with Kate, the SDSV for sure, ‘Trapped’ felt like we were pioneering again, PRAISE seemed like new territory at the time also.
The early programming stuff in the 70s was incredibly exciting, if equally tedious. We were programming drums in machine code – ons and offs – the other parts were just a series of numbers; three to define one note. Although it’s not remarkable at all today, to be able to stand back after hours and hours of programming and watch this thing that looked like an adding machine play your compositions and arrangements was an unbelievable thrill.
Oh, three times on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ was fun.
You are now Director of Marketing and Sales for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington DC. What does this involve? And how do you feel about records such as MOBY’s Play and 18 which sample a lot of traditional gospel and folk recordings as their conceptual basis?
The original intention of copyright law was to protect a work for a period to allow the artist to benefit and then to make that work available for others (preferably after the artist is dead). Montage and collage has been around for a very long time in the visual arts, I have no problem with people sampling other people’s work and creating a new work. If the work is still in copyright then a license should be obtained and the creator should be compensated fairly. If the creator is still alive, they can always decline the license if they don’t approve of the use. I do think copyright law for sound recordings needs to be standardized internationally and I don’t agree with the fifty year law in Europe – at the very least the artist’s lifetime should be covered. Artists can always issue Creative Commons licenses if they so desire.
Your book The Art Of Music Production was a big seller and is still going strong. How do you feel about modern production techniques and how they’ve developed? Are there any of new generation of producers who you rate?
Oh, so many. I think we have moved into a new era where record production is not as clearly defined as it was and we will see more and more slash producers – artist/producer/video director etc. I only see that as a good thing. When I sit down in my studio I still am amazed at the power of software recording
Do you listen to much new electronic pop music these days? Is there anyone who has caught your attention that you enjoy?
I have very wide taste in music. I’ll jump from Beethoven’s Ninth to early 20s recordings of jazz. I have been immersed in jazz for quite a while again because I am producing a boxed set called Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology that covers the history of jazz from 1917 to 2005, 111 artists and a 200 page book. Obviously I get to hear a lot of roots music and world music being at Smithsonian Folkways but we also have early electronic stuff – JOHN CAGE etc.
I do hear new stuff that I like. I think that one of the dangers is that when so much is possible – samples of all kinds of sounds are available online and software synths and keyboards can emulate anything – things can start to get samey. It usually takes someone to come along and work within economic, technological or self imposed limitations to create something that is really different and stimulating. There has always been a tendency for record labels to sign the epigones and overlook the innovators and the originators.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Richard James Burgess
Special thanks also to Rusty Egan
‘RERB’ will be re-issued by Blitz Club Records on 13 September 2010 as a 12 inch single with a 2010 remix by Rusty Egan as its AA side.