Category: Transmissions (Page 1 of 8)

Change: The Legacy of SPARKS

Photo by Richard Creamer

“Change – I don’t care what other people say, I know everything will be okay…”

The legacy of American sibling duo SPARKS has been celebrated in ‘The SPARKS Brothers’, a new documentary film directed by Edgar Wright. As can be expected from the man behind ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘The World’s End’, Wright’s delightful film captures the deadpan wit and sarcasm of the Mael Brothers, while illustrating their serious but artistic pursuit of fun.

Born in Los Angeles of Austro-Russian Jewish heritage, Ron and Russell Mael excelled at sports but opted for more artistic studies at UCLA while harbouring ambitions in music, driven by their love of British bands such as THE BEATLES, THE KINKS and THE WHO.

In a 50 year recording career that has taken in art rock, operatic glam, nouveau swing, electronic disco, new wave, Eurodance, orchestrated pop, theatrical indie and soundtracks, SPARKS have an array of musicians who cite them as an influence. So it is no surprise that the cast of contributors to ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ include Vince Clarke, Andy Bell, Rusty Egan, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Martyn Ware, Nick Heyward, Steve Jones, Alex Kapranos, Bernard Butler, Jack Antonoff, Thurston Moore, Björk, Flea, Beck, Jane Wiedlin, Weird Al Yankovic and many more

Featuring the Maels themselves and previous producers Todd Rundgren, Muff Winwood, Tony Visconti and Giorgio Moroder alongside former bandmates like Christi Haydon, Ian Hampton, Earle Mankey, David Kendrick, Les Boheme, Tammy Glover and Steve Nistor, humorous animations by Joseph Wallace visualise the stories not captured in the magnificent archive footage assembled for the documentary.

SPARKS had originally been HALFNELSON whose Todd Rundgren produced debut was released on the Warners subsidiary Bearsville Records, founded by Bob Dylan’s former manager Albert Grossman. Despite containing the lyrically prophetic ‘Computer Girl’, the album has not sold well but keen to exploit the Maels image, Grossman suggested they should rename themselves ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ after the comedy siblings Marx. Ron and Russell hated the idea but compromised and changed their name to SPARKS.

The HALFNELSON album was repackaged and reissued in 1972, with ‘Wonder Girl’ lifted as a single and gaining a prestigious TV slot on ‘American Bandstand’. This led to interest from UK promoters and a Warners sponsored tour which included a residency at The Marquee in London.

But following an appearance on BBC2’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ performing ‘Wonder Girl’, presenter Bob Harris was unimpressed and said SPARKS were the worst thing he had ever seen… this was the same esteemed music expert who had poured scorn on ROXY MUSIC a few months earlier and later called NEW YORK DOLLS “mock rock”!

However, this ultimately provoked even more fascination in the quirky brothers among British youth with queues around the block for their shows at The Marquee. One of the support acts was QUEEN who were undoubtedly taking notes from the side of the stage, particularly with Russell Mael’s bursts of falsetto within a traditional rock format.

The first SPARKS album proper was 1973’s ‘A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing’ and included ‘Girl From Germany’ with its narrative about a Jewish boy taking his new Mädchen to meet his shocked parents, perhaps reflecting the brothers’ own lives and conflicts. But the continuing indifference towards Ron’s Dadaist expressionism and Russell’s unusual vocal articulation in their homeland led to the Maels leaving America and uprooting to the UK to find fame and fortune after extracting themselves from the Bearsville deal.

Signing almost immediately to Island Records thanks to championing by Muff Winwood (brother of Steve), SPARKS recruited a new British backing band where the audition adverts required: “a really good face that isn’t covered by a beard”; one of those who did not pass the audition was Warren Cann, later to join ULTRAVOX. But eventually recruiting Dinky Diamond (drums), Adrian Fisher (guitars) and Martin Gordon (bass), the newly configured quintet recorded the now classic album ‘Kimono My House’ which included ‘Here In Heaven’ and ‘Falling In Love With Myself Again’ among its highlights.

Inspired by Ron Mael’s love of Westerns and playing out the breakdown of a relationship as a histrionic Bach-driven gunfight, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ was chosen as the album’s launch single and a now iconic appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in May 1974 sent the single stratospheric.

One of those enthralled was Glenn Gregory of HEAVEN 17: “Obviously ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ was and still remains one of the quirkiest and best songs ever… and the 1974 Top Of The Pops appearance was truly sublime, Russell, preening and looking beautiful, his older brother Ron looking like it was his first trip outside his bedroom in several years, it was mesmerising and I loved it”.

Rob Dean, guitarist of JAPAN recalled: “I first saw SPARKS on OGWT in ’72. They were interesting, quirky and certainly different but it wasn’t until ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ was on TOTP that their true focus and talent shone through. Here was a song (and a band) so unique and undeniably fresh that it was just irresistible-it still is. It just exploded out of the TV”

Who wasn’t frightened to death by the snarling stares of Ron Mael with his Charlie Chaplain moustache sitting motionless behind his RMI Electra-piano? But while his facial hair had been a feature for a number of years, the cutting of his naturally curly locks, now greased back, presented something a lot more sinister with possible references to The Third Reich. With the Maels being of Jewish descent, this was unlikely to have been a deliberate act of provocation; Ron Mael was to state his naivety in adopting such a look and years later would reshape his moustache accordingly.

But with stories circulating that John Lennon phoned Ringo Starr to tell him that “Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler!”, they surely would have been aware of the outrage that had been caused with 15 million people watching on that Thursday evening. However, with Russell’s good looks and animated stage presence, SPARKS gained themselves a screaming teenybopper audience and the appealing ‘Amateur Hour’ followed ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ into the UK Top10.

To maintain the upward momentum, SPARKS were quickly despatched to record the next album ‘Propaganda’, but discontent was already brewing with Adrian Fisher and Martin Gordon leaving the band. Brian May was invited to join but with QUEEN making progress having had a hit with ‘Killer Queen’, he declined and the void was filled by Trevor White and Ian Hampton from the band JOOK.

From ‘Propaganda’, ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ and ‘BC’ provided thrilling staccato stomps, but the beautiful synth laden ballad ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ pointed to environmental concerns and was later covered by Mary Hopkin, Martin Gore and Billy MacKenzie.

This was all at the height of SPARKS-mania and superbly documented at what was to be the final British concert of their Island period at Croydon Fairfield Halls in September 1975. The show turned into exuberant chaos when girls rushed the stage and tackled Russell to the ground while Ron, who trying his best to maintain his stoic stance, was even accorded an embrace.

This was undoubtedly the end of an era as the Tony Visconti-produced ‘Indiscreet’ released in October 1975 proved. Those girls who had rushed the stage in Croydon were undoubtedly peeling their posters off the wall as they were treated to this bizarre collection of songs such as the strident marches of ‘Hospitality On Parade’ and ‘Get In The Swing’. Meanwhile ‘Looks Looks Looks’ with its backing by elderly jazz swing musicians and the string quartet laden ‘Under The Table With Her’ may have been the final straw.

Getting homesick, the Maels dissolved their British band to move back to the US in 1976 and delivered the AOR focussed ‘Big Beat’. Working with Rupert Holmes, he of ‘The Pina Colada Song’ and producer of Barbra Streisand, it was largely met with indifference. This period in the artistic doldrums was summed up by SPARKS’ appearance performing ‘Fill-Er-Up’ and ‘Big Boy’ in 1977’s ‘Rollercoaster’, a disaster movie starring George Segal. It was a disaster in more ways than one and the ironically titled ‘Introducing’ album did little to change fortunes.

In a creative rut and seeking a new direction, the Maels opened their ears to the burgeoning electro-disco sound as heard on Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ and were put into contact with its producer Giorgio Moroder by a journalist in Los Angeles.

The idea of fusing electronics with the neo-operatic songs of SPARKS was intriguing, so Moroder set to work with them immediately, the tremendous propulsive result being ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’. Released in March 1979, it reached No14 in the UK charts, actually a few months before TUBEWAY ARMY’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’ which is often been seen as the cultural turning point for the synthesizer.

Having worked with Moroder himself, Rob Dean recollected: “After two disappointing albums, hearing that they had recorded with Giorgio Moroder was welcome news as I was already a fan through the brilliant ‘I Feel Love’ and the ‘Midnight Express’ soundtrack. When I heard ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’, it was gratifying to hear that the band’s integrity had been left completely intact, and it was another high watermark in their career. It was a more successful collaboration both commercially and artistically than JAPAN’s own ‘Life In Tokyo’ I think.”

Featuring just six tracks, the parent album ‘No1 in Heaven’ released on Virgin Records featured an embarrassment of riches including an even bigger hit in ‘Beat The Clock’ and the cosmic ‘Tryouts For The Human Race’, while ‘Academy Award Winning Performance’ would have made a great single.

“My favourite SPARKS track is, well actually, two songs together really, ‘My Other Voice’ segued into ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’” said Glenn Gregory, “I have a fantastic memory of a bonfire night in 1979. Martyn Ware and I had taken some magic mushrooms and walked around a fairground immersed in colour and light, embraced by voices and sounds, a wonderful experience. Then as the fireworks climaxed, we were stood by the waltzer and ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’ was blaring out through the speakers… we both saw God at the same time, we went back to Martyn’s flat and had that album on repeat for the rest of the night.”

“The ‘No.1 In Heaven’ period is my SPARKS” explained Peter Fitzpatrick of CIRCUIT3, “They’re like Doctor Who aren’t they? Everyone has their version of them. Pirate radio in Dublin played SPARKS constantly in the spring and summer of 1979. With Gary Numan appearing around the same time, it became normal to have these odd looking people on TOTP playing electronic keyboards”

It was during their TV appearances promoting singles from ‘No1 In Heaven’ that SPARKS invented the synth duo. While Russell’s flamboyant falsetto fitted in well with the electro-disco sound and inspired movement, the throbbing programmed backing meant Ron could maintain the impression he was “doing nothing” and appearing unhappy about it. As Vince Clarke put it in ‘The SPARKS Brothers’: “There’s myself, the guy from the PET SHOP BOYS, and DURAN DURAN… we’re all miserable f*ckers; it’s a look which we just stole from SPARKS!”

Virgin Records pulled out all the stops with releases pressed in different colour variations. But despite the artistic rejuvenation and chart hits for SPARKS, the ‘No1 In Heaven’ album did not sell well. The Maels had perhaps been overshadowed by the success of Gary Numan, but it was possible that the singles focussed disco audience who had crossed over felt those were enough. To add salt to the wound, SPARKS were branded as “disco traitors” by the music press which now seems bizarre in hindsight for such a pioneering work.

Undeterred, SPARKS were despatched by Virgin Records to record the follow-up ‘Terminal Jive’. Although Moroder was still nominally at the helm, it was Harold Faltermeyer who took up most of the production duties as the Italian started to lose interest, distracted by more lucrative soundtrack work such as ‘American Gigolo’ which hit paydirt with the BLONDIE collaboration ‘Call Me’.

With Ron forbidden from actually playing his own keyboard parts, the ‘Terminal Jive’ songs featured more guitar and less of the throbbing sequencer magic with ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll People In A Disco World’ reflecting the confused state of mind on a record that was lacking the Maels’ personality.

Intended to appeal more to American ears, ‘Terminal Jive’ was not actually issued in the US on its eventual release in January 1980. Paradoxically, ‘When I’m With You’ was a massive hit in France and even covered by NEW ORDER in concert.

During this period, the brothers relocated there for a few years, appearing on ‘L’Académie Des Neuf’ (the French equivalent of ‘Celebrity Squares’) as “LES SPARKS” and writing with Belgian neighbours TELEX during their sojourn.

Licensed to RCA in the US via a deal brokered by Moroder and recruiting Californian combo BATES MOTEL as a backing band, SPARKS recorded their 1981 album ‘Whomp That Sucker’ with QUEEN producer Reinhold Mack in Munich as a much more rock orientated affair.

Channelling a cathartic aggression, the ‘Whomp That Sucker’ cover depicted Russell and Ron as boxers. “I went to a SPARKS album launch party at the Grosvenor Hotel on Park Lane where they had a full size boxing ring” remembered Glenn Gregory amusingly, “they came out and fought a few rounds, I stood talking to Vivian Stanshall of BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND… or maybe I was tripping!”

Songs from ‘Whomp That Sucker’ and their next two long players on Atlantic Records ‘Angst In My Pants’ and ‘In Outer Space’ like ‘Funny Face’, ‘I Predict’ and ‘Cool Places’ with Jane Wiedlin from THE GO GO’S were playlisted by KROQ-FM. An influential Pasedena-based radio station, it specialised in what Americans termed New Wave with acts such as DEPECHE MODE, YAZOO, NEW ORDER, OMD, THE PYSCHEDLEIC FURS, BERLIN, DURAN DURAN, PET SHOP BOYS, SIMPLE MINDS, THE CURE, ABC and A-HA on regular rotation during its imperial phase.

This support from KROQ-FM assured SPARKS of some West Coast success for a period, although 1984’s ‘Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat’ with DURAN DURAN producer Ian Little saw SPARKS become too immersed in new digital technology, with the album’s lead single ‘With All My Might’ sounding more like HEAVEN 17.

The Mael Brothers had another rethink and used the Fairlight to accentuate their more eccentric and provocative side again with ‘Change’ on what turned out to be a one-off single with London Records in July 1985. Returning to Europe to record with Dan Lacksman of TELEX, the middle eight featured a sonic passage that would have made Trevor Horn proud and reminded audiences of how enthralling SPARKS could be.

However, London Records were not happy with one A&R muttering “why can’t you make music that you can dance to?” – from criticism comes inspiration and this led to the next SPARKS album ‘Music That You Can Dance To’ released on MCA in September 1986, although the energetic similarities of the title song to ERASURE’s ‘Oh L’Amour’ did not go unnoticed while Russell got to impersonate Gene Pitney on ‘Rosebud’.

1988’s ‘Interior Design’ did not halt downward trajectory although a French version of the album closer ‘Madonna’ possessed some Gallic charm and this ongoing affinity with the country saw a superb collaboration with the Parisian avant pop couple LES RITA MITSOUKO with ‘Singing In The Shower’, a track later used in the 1989 film ‘Black Rain’ starring Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia.

With ambitions in cinema, SPARKS turned their attention to an adaptation on the Japanese anime comic ‘Mai The Psychic Girl’ to be directed by Tim Burton. The lead was to have been played by Christi Haydon who had been a regular extra on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. But when the film project floundered, she became an important aspect of their video and live presentations for their next album ‘Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins’ released in November 1994.

Now working as a duo, SPARKS’ new material was picked up by the German based Logic label, then home to trendy dance acts like COSMIC BABY and SNAP! And just when people least expected it, Russell and Ron Mael returned like a phoenix from the flames.

With a superb vintage styled sibling rivalry video directed by Sophie Muller, the brilliant ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ became a smash in Germany and gave them an unexpected career renaissance with a brand new young audience. The song had everything; atmospherics, subtle rhythmical infections and an anthemic uplifting chorus. And as if to repay their debt for SPARKS paving that path for synth duos, Vince Clarke and Dave Ball of SOFT CELL (in his new guise of THE GRID with Richard Norris) provided remixes.

Meanwhile ‘(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing’ was very much in the frantic Eurodance vein of the period, sounding like PET SHOP BOYS ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ being covered by Freddie Mercury! Russell Mael brought his obviously more quizzical character into the cutting ‘I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car’ with its Arabic overtones and unsettling multi-tracked chants. ‘Now That I Own The BBC’ humorously imagined the Maels returning to the fame game, but best of all was the chilling ballad ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil’, now with the passage of time sounding like MUSE gone synthpop!

However, the Maels lost it all again with the rather pointless 1997 reworkings collection ‘Plagiarism’ featuring special guests ERASURE and FAITH NO MORE, and then capped it all with the poorly received ‘Balls’ in 2000. After the lush synths of ‘Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins’, ‘Balls’ was more jagged with the title track and ‘Bullet Train’ rhythmically attempting to ape THE PRODIGY, although songs such as ‘More Than A Sex Machine’ and ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ showed SPARKS could still do catchy electronic pop when it took their fancy. But ‘Balls’ was the Maels trying to emulate others rather than being themselves.

As always, SPARKS bounced back again in 2002 with the acclaimed classical concept album ‘Lil Beethoven’, described in the original CD booklet as “Nine scintillating works of seduction and self-delusion…” – the bookends ‘The Rhythm Thief’ and ‘Suburban Homeboy were immediate highlights while ‘What Are All These Bands So Angry About?’ was a wry baroque observation on self-destructive egos in the music biz.

‘Hello Young Lovers’ in 2004 developed on the template further but adding conventional band augmentation with the prog pop opus ‘Dick Around’ and the orchestrated swing rock of ‘Perfume’ released as singles, although the former earned itself a BBC radio ban.

Using photos featuring Susie the baby chimpanzee on the cover, 2008’s ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ with songs like the buzzy ‘I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All the Cr*p In This Song’ and the playful dig ‘Lighten Up, Morrissey’ showed SPARKS still had it was far as sardonic lyricism went. To launch the new album, they undertook their ‘21×21’ adventure, performing each of their 20 previous albums in full during a London residency at Islington Academy over 20 nights, before culminating in the live premiere of ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ at Shepherds Bush Empire.

But there were signs that another jolt was needed creatively. First came the radio musical ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ in 2009 while the Maels undertook two stripped down duo tours under the ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ banner.

The 2015 union of FRANZ FERDINAND and SPARKS was a visceral project centred around a six piece band together in a room, unlike many modern collaborations which are distant and detached. The resultant FFS album could easily have been titled ‘Art School Musical’ with the Glasgow art rockers particularly invigorated by their spiritual godfathers. Snatching back the intellectual artistic high ground, the Mael brothers found themselves in the mainstream again for the fourth time in their multi-decade career.

From ‘FFS’, ‘Call Girl’ and ‘So Desu Ne’ revisited SPARKS’ past electronic adventures while ‘P*ss Off’ was the ultimate two fingered anthem, grabbing the vibrancy of the ‘Kimono My House’ and ‘Propaganda’ era with its joyful multi-track phrasing and vitality. Contradicting its title, ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ combined operatic rants and country with buzzy synthpop, spacey jazz, a showtune and a classical mini-symphony! It was bonkers and brilliant with the sorcerer and the apprentice working in unison to double the magical power!

SPARKS returned as themselves in September 2017 and it was zoo time again on ‘Hippopotamus’ with the Maels are waxing lyrical about amphibious mammals, French culture, flat pack furniture, presidential widows and The Scottish Play. Featuring a whopping 15 tracks, there was the orchestrated rock eccentricity of ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’, the frantic electronically assisted storm of ‘The Amazing Mr Repeat’ and the poperatic ‘Life With The Macbeths’. Meanwhile the fascination for all things Gallic continued with ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ and ‘When You’re a French Director’ featuring Leos Carax on guest vocals and accordion.

Heading into the fifth decade of their career and with their weird and wonderful sense of humour still intact, SPARKS showed no signs of waning in their zest for idiosyncratic adventure on 2020’s ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’. If the album had a key track, then it was the glorious ‘One For The Ages’ with its narrative about craving artistic longevity.

The baroque synth classical of ‘Stravinsky’s Only Hit’ was a light hearted reflection on serious artistes while paradoxically ‘Self-Effacing’ was an anthemic song about modesty in the ‘Kimono My House’ vein but sans Ron’s electric piano. Returning to the lyrical gist of their 1975 hit ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’, there was the profound closing plea of ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’.

Still remaining as enjoyably oddball as ever, after numerous aborted film projects, Russell and Ron Mael recently fulfilled their cinematic dream with the musical film ‘Annette’ starring Adam Driver and directed by Leos Carax.

After watching ‘The SPARKS Brothers’, Rob Dean said: “This is a well-deserved, successful and exhaustive overview of the brothers’ chequered career so far that somehow manages to still keep their enigma intact. Undoubtedly a must see for any fan such as myself, anyone else with the curiosity to explore can expect to be richly rewarded and surprised too.”

“The documentary reminded me I wish I’d been an art school boy. SPARKS let you in on the joke, never too smart for their own good and not excluding the listener” Peter Fitzpatrick thought, “Reviewers comment on the humour of course but the message it’s sending to artists is choose your own path and don’t follow convention; stick it out because what you create is all that matters. I dove back into their catalogue before the documentary came out and rediscovered how similar to XTC they are in that sheer bloody mindedness, but in a good way. Some current bands are like that for dumb reasons with notions about themselves. Artistic bloody mindedness is an admirable trait. SPARKS have it in spades.”

As far as legacy is concerned, apart from synth duos and any act with a static keyboard player, bands such as SIMPLE MINDS and ASSOCIATES mined the poise of SPARKS’ glam period for their earlier post-punk records, while the eccentric sound of SPARKS continues to be heard in modern female-fronted acts such as MARINA & THE DIAMONDS and GOLDFRAPP. But Paul McCartney choosing to impersonate Ron Mael in the ‘Coming Up’ video in 1980 was the ultimate symbol of worldwide cultural impact.

“I have some very happy memories of SPARKS” Glenn Gregory surmised, “genuinely one of the most innovative, interesting bands ever”, but as Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff put it succinctly in the documentary: “All modern pop music is rearranged Vince Clarke and rearranged SPARKS, that’s the truth”

While SPARKS were not easy task masters in their pursuit of the unconventional, their unwillingness to compromise and determination to remain accessibly intelligent has to be admired in a world that has lowered itself to ignorance and complacency over the past few years.

“They’re clever but not impenetrable” concluded Peter Fitzpatrick.


With thanks to Glenn Gregory, Rob Dean and Peter Fitzpatrick for their contributions

‘The SPARKS Brothers’ is on general release in selected cinemas, more information at http://thesparksbrothers.co.uk

‘The Sparks Brothers (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’ will be released by Waxwork Records as a quadruple marbled vinyl LP boxed set on 22nd January 2022

‘Past Tense – The Best of SPARKS’ is available as a 2CD, 3CD and triple vinyl set via BMG

http://www.allsparks.com/

https://www.facebook.com/sparksofficial/

https://twitter.com/sparksofficial

https://www.instagram.com/sparks_official/

https://sparks.lnk.to/spotifyWE


Text by Chi Ming Lai
3rd August 2021

2020 End Of Year Review

“It’s such a strange day, in such a lonely way” sang NEW ORDER on ‘Truth’ in 1981.

The coronavirus crisis of 2020 put the entire live music industry into limbo as concerts were postponed and tours rescheduled.

The situation was affecting everyone with several musicians like Bernard Sumner, Andy McCluskey, John Taylor and Sarah Nixey publicly stating that they had contracted the virus. Even when all pupils returned to schools in the Autumn, there was a ban on indoor singing in English classrooms. It was an indication that out of all professional fields, the arts was going suffer the most.

To make up for the absence of live shows, online streamed events become popular. Two of the best live online gigs were by Swedish veterans LUSTANS LAKEJER from the KB in Malmö and Sinomatic techno-rockers STOLEN with Lockdown Live From Chengdu. Not strictly a lockdown show but available for all to view on SVT was a magnificent live presentation of KITE at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm recorded in late 2019 combining synthesizers, orchestra and choir, proving again why Nicklas Stenemo and Christian Berg are the best electronic duo in Europe.

Concluding his ‘Songs: From the Lemon Tree’ series, Bon Harris of NITZER EBB presented a wonderful set of four electonic cover versions including songs made famous by Joan Armatrading, Connie Francis and Diana Ross. Meanwhile among independent musicians, Dubliner CIRCUIT3 led the way with an innovative multi-camera effected approach to his home studio presentation and Karin My performed al fresco in a forest near Gothenburg.

Taking the initiative, ERASURE did a delightful virtual album launch party for their new album ‘The Neon’ on Facebook with Vince Clarke in New York and Andy Bell in London, talking about everything from shopping to classic synthpop tunes.

Demonstrating a possible new model for the future, Midge Ure launched his subscription based ‘Backstage Lockdown Club’ which included intimate live performances and specials guests like Glenn Gregory and Howard Jones.

Other streamed forms of entertainment came via podcasts and among the best was ‘The Album Years’ presented by Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness. Their knowledgeable and forthright views on selected years in music were both informative and amusing. It was interesting to note that at the end of the 1976 episode, the pair nominated ‘Oxygène’ by Jean-Michael Jarre as the most important album of that year while for 1979, it was ‘The Pleasure Principle’ by Gary Numan.

Many artists who had scheduled releases in 2020 went through with them, although in some cases, there were the inevitable delays to physical product. But a few notable acts couldn’t help but abuse the situation, notably a certain combo from Basildon.

There were already “quality control issues” with the lavish ‘MODE’ 18 CD boxed set, but there was uproar even among the most hardcore Devotees with the ‘Spirits In The Forest’ release. The cardboard packaging was reported to be flimsy and prone to dents, while there was continuity errors galore as Dave Gahan rather cluelessly and selfishly wore different coloured outfits over the two nights in Berlin that the live footage was filmed under the direction of Anton Corbijn.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was an Anton Corbijn official illustrated history of DEPECHE MODE entitled ‘DM AC’ in the form of a coffee table photo book published by Taschen which retailed at €750; even though it was signed by Messrs Gahan, Gore and Fletcher, the price tag was a mightily steep. The increasingly ironic words of “The grabbing hands grab all they can…” from ‘Everything Counts’ were not lost on people, who are people, after all!

But Andy Fletcher did provide the most amusing and spot-on quote of the year; during DEPECHE MODE’s acceptance speech into that dinosaur institution The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, when Dave Gahan remarked to his bandmates that “I dunno what the hell I would have been doing if I didn’t find music to be quite honest…”, the banana eating handclapper dryly retorted “YOU’D HAVE BEEN STILL STEALING CARS DAVE!”

There were lots of great albums released in 2020 and Berlin appeared to be at the creative centre of them.

There was ‘LP II’ from LINEA ASPERA who made a welcome return after eight years in hiatus and  the playful debut by ULTRAFLEX, a collaborative offering from Berlin-based Nordic artists SPECIAL-K and FARAO which was “an ode to exercise, loaded with sex metaphors badly disguised as sports descriptions” .

The DDR born Jennifer Touch told her story with ‘Behind The Wall’ and resident New Yorker DISCOVERY ZONE was on ‘Remote Control’, while Lithuania’s top pop singer Alanas Chosnau made ‘Children of Nature’, his first album in English with Mark Reeder, who himself has lived in the former walled city since 1978; their collected experiences from both sides of the Iron Curtain made for a great record with the political statement of ‘Heavy Rainfall’ being one of the best songs of 2020.

Synth-builder and artist Finlay Shakespeare presented the superb angst ridden long player ‘Solemnities’ with its opener ‘Occupation’ tackling the social injustice of unemployment. A most frightening future was captured in musical form by New York-resident Zachery Allan Starkey who saw his home become a ‘Fear City’, while WRANGLER got themselves into ‘A Situation’.

SPARKS discussed ‘The Existential Threat’ and ‘One For The Ages’ while pleading ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’ on their eclectic 25th album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’, just as NIGHT CLUB reflected what many were thinking on ‘Die Die Lullaby’ with ‘Miss Negativity’ looking to ‘Die In The Disco’ while riding the ‘Misery Go Round’.

ASSEMBLAGE 23 chose to ‘Mourn’ with one of its highlights ‘Confession’ illustrating what DEPECHE MODE could still be capable of, if they could still be bothered.

But it was not all doom and gloom musically in 2020. With the title ‘Pop Gossip’, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP did not need to do much explaining about the ethos of their second album and drum ‘n’ synth girl GEORGIA was happily ‘Seeking Thrills’.

Veterans returned and 34 years after their debut ‘Windows’, WHITE DOOR teamed up with the comparative youngster Johan Baeckström for ‘The Great Awakening’, while CODE made a surprise return with their second album ‘Ghost Ship’ after an absence 25 years.

‘The Secret Lives’ of German duo Zeus B Held and Mani Neumeier illustrated that septuagenarians just want to have fun. Along with Gina Kikoine, Zeus B Held was also awarded with Der Holger Czukay Preis für Popmusik der Stadt Köln in recognition of their pioneering work as GINA X PERFORMANCE whose ‘No GDM’ was a staple at The Blitz Club in Rusty Egan’s DJ sets.

Incidentally, Rusty Egan announced that Zaine Griff would be joining him with Numan cohorts Chris Payne and David Brooks in a live presentation of VISAGE material, although the announced dates were postponed, pending rescheduling for 2021.

Swiss trailblazers YELLO were on ‘Point’ and continuing their occasional creative collaboration with Chinese songstress Fifi Rong, while one time YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA collaborator Hideki Matsutake returned as LOGIC SYSTEM and released a new long player ‘Technasma’, his project’s first for 18 years.

It was four decades since John Foxx’s ‘Metamatic’ and Gary Numan’s ‘Telekon’, with the man born Gary Webb publishing ‘(R)evolution’, a new autobiography to supersede 1997’s ‘Praying To The Aliens’. Meanwhile, the former Dennis Leigh teamed up with former ULTRAVOX guitarist Robin Simon plus his regular Maths collaborators Benge and Hannah Peel for the blistering art rock statement of ‘Howl’ as well as finally issuing his book of short stories ‘The Quiet Man’.

2020 saw a lot of 40th anniversaries for a number of key albums including ‘Vienna’ by ULTRAVOX, ‘Travelogue’ by THE HUMAN LEAGUE and ‘Closer’ by JOY DIVISION.

Back in 1980, it was not unusual for bands to release two albums in a calendar year as OMD did with their self-titled debut and ‘Organisation’, or JAPAN did with ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’.

It appeared to be a tradition that BLANCMANGE were adopting as Neil Arthur delivered the acclaimed ‘Mindset’ and an enjoyable outtakes collection ‘Waiting Room (Volume 1)’.

PET SHOP BOYS and CERRONE proved they still liked to dance to disco because they don’t like rock, but the year’s biggest surprise came with THE SMASHING PUMPKINS whose single ‘Cyr’ crossed the templates of classic DEPECHE MODE with DURAN DURAN.

Interestingly, Gary Daly of CHINA CRISIS and Michael Rother of NEU! used sketches recorded many moons ago to inspire their 2020 solo creations, proving that if something is a good idea, it will still make sense years later. Veteran Tonmeister Gareth Jones released his debut solo album ‘ELECTROGENETIC’ having first come to prominence as the studio engineer on ‘Metamatic’ back in 1980, but Jah Wobble was as prolific as ever, issuing his ninth album in four years, as well as a run of download singles over lockdown.

ANI GLASS had her debut long player ‘Mirores’ shortlisted for Welsh Music Prize and OMD remixed her song ‘Ynys Araul’ along the way, while SARAH P. was ‘Plotting Revolutions’. NINA and a returning ANNIE vied to be the Queen Of Synthwave with their respective albums ‘Synthian’ and ‘Dark Hearts’, although Canadian synth songstress DANA JEAN PHOENIX presented her most complete and consistent body of work yet in ‘Megawave’, a joint album with POWERNERD.

RADIO WOLF & PARALLELS contributed to the soundtrack of the film ‘Proximity’ released on Lakeshore Records and from the same label, KID MOXIE made her first contribution to the movie world with the score to ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need To Have A Serious Talk’ that also featured a stark cover of ALPHAVILLE’s ‘Big In Japan’. Meanwhile gothwavers VANDAL MOON made their most electronic album yet in ‘Black Kiss’ and POLYCHROME got in on the kissing act too with their new single ‘Starts With A Kiss’.

It would be fair to say in recent times that the most interesting and best realised electronic pop has come from outside of the UK; the likes of TWICE A MAN and COSAQUITOS EN GLOBO explored the darker side of life, although TRAIN TO SPAIN used the dancefloor as their mode of expression, 808 DOT POP developed on the robopop of parent band METROLAND and ZIMBRU preferred disco art pop.

In Scandinavia, there was the welcome return of UNIFY SEPARATE (formally US) and HILTIPOP aka Magnus Johansson of ALISON who finally released some music in his own right; once he started, he didn’t stop with 9 releases and counting in 2020! APOPTYGMA BERZERK released ‘Nein Danke!’, their self-proclaimed return to “New Wave Synthpop” and out of that set-up sprang the very promising PISTON DAMP.

Within the PAGE camp, Eddie Bengtsson continued his Numan fixation on the ‘Under Mitt Skinn’ EP although his musical partner Marina Schiptjenko teamed up with LUSTANS LAKEJER bassist Julian Brandt to ride the Synth Riviera for a delightful second helping of their electro crooner concept cheekily titled ‘For Beautiful People Only’.

Over in Germany, U96 teamed up Wolfgang Flür while RENARD, the solo vehicle of Markus Reinhardt from WOLFSHEIM teamed with Marian Gold of ALPHAVILLE and Sarah Blackwood of DUBSTAR. DUBSTAR themselves released a striking corona crisis statement entitled ‘Hygiene Strip’ which saw reconfigured duo reunited with producer Stephen Hague. Meanwhile another poignant song on the topic ‘Small World’ came from SNS SENSATION, the new project by Sebastian Muravchik of HEARTBREAK. In lockdown, TINY MAGNETIC PETS recorded an entire album which they called ‘Blue Wave’.

Of course, 2020 was not full of joy, even without the pandemic, as the music world sadly lost Florian Schneider, Gabi Delgado-Lopez, Chris Huggett, Andrew Weatherall, Matthew Seligman, Dave Greenfield, Rupert Hine, Tom Wolgers, Harold Budd and Ennio Morricone.

An introspective tone was reflected the music of female fronted acts such as and ZANIAS, PURITY RING, WE ARE REPLICA, KALEIDA, LASTLINGS, NEW SPELL, WITCH OF THE VALE, REIN, BLACK NAIL CABARET, GLÜME, GEISTE THE FRIXION, FEMMEPOP and SCINTII. However, countering this, the optimism of RIDER, ROXI DRIVE and NEW RO presented a much brighter, hopeful take on life and the future.

ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK celebrated 10 years as a platform and affirming the site’s intuition about synth talent in anticipation of them achieving greater things, SOFTWAVE opened for OMD on the Scandinavia leg of their ‘Souvenir’ tour. The Danish duo became the sixth act which the site had written about to have become part of a tradition that has included VILLA NAH, MIRRORS, VILE ELECTRODES, METROLAND and TINY MAGNETIC PETS.

On a more cheerful note, S.P.O.C.K beamed down to Slimelight in London before lockdown for their first British live performance in 17 years. Meanwhile on the same night, LAU NAU and VILE ELECTRODES did modular sets at Cecil Sharp House, the spiritual home of English traditional music.

At that event, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK took delight in curating a DJ set comprising of John Cage’s 4’33” in variations by DEPECHE MODE, GOLDFRAPP, ERASURE, NEW ORDER and THE NORMAL from Mute’s Stumm433 boxed set. This defiant act of silence even caused a curious Jonathan Barnbrook to raise an eyebrow, this from the man who designed the artwork with the white square on David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ 😉

The final live event that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK attended before the March lockdown was an informative lecture at Queen Mary University in London presented by noted cultural scholar Dr Uwe Schütte, in support of his book ‘KRAFTWERK Future Music From Germany’.

Also attending was Rusty Egan who held court at the reception afterwards by having a debate with another musician about the state of UK synth music. He then loudly beckoned ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK over and mentioned how the site was only interested acts that scored “9 out of 10” before admitting that a number of acts he supported only scored “6 out of 10”, with his reasoning being that if acts aren’t supported, then there will be no synth acts existing at all. After a decade in existence, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK remains proud that it is still extremely selective.

In 2020, the notion of reviews being needed to achieve a promotional profile underwent an existential crisis among media platforms. With streaming now being the main method of music consumption, why would anyone want to read a blog for an opinion about an album when they can just hit ‘play’ and hear the thing for themselves on Spotify, Amazon, Tidal or Bandcamp?

The sound of classic synthpop does live on happily in today’s mainstream via singles by THE WEEKND, DUA LIPA and even STEPS! In that respect, the trailblazing kings and queens of Synth Britannia from four decades ago did their job rather well.

From SUGABABES mashing-up ‘Are Friends Electric?’ for ‘Freak Like Me’ in 2002 to ‘Blinding Lights’ borrowing a bit of A-HA in 2020, the sound of synth is still strong.

It is up to any potential successors to live up to that high standard of Synth Britannia, which was as much down to the quality of the songwriting, as much as it was to do with the sound of the synthesizer. It is a fact that many overlook and if aspiring musicians could pay more attention to the song, instead of making the synthesizer the excuse for the song, then classic electronic pop music may still be around for a little longer and continue to evolve.


ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK Contributor Listings of 2020

PAUL BODDY

Best Album: LOGIC SYSTEM Technasma
Best Song: NEW ORDER Be A Rebel
Best Gig / Live Stream: NICOLAS GODIN at London Rough Trade
Best Video: POLLY SCATTERGOOD Snowburden
Most Promising New Act: RUE OBERKAMPF


IAN FERGUSON

Best Album: ASSEMBLAGE 23 Mourn
Best Song: DUBSTAR I Can See You Outside
Best Gig / Live Stream: WITCH OF THE VALE online Unplugged Live for SAY Women
Best Video: STEVEN WILSON Personal Shopper
Most Promising New Act: LASTLINGS


SIMON HELM

Best Album: LINEA ASPERA LPII
Best Song: PAGE Blutest Du?
Best Gig / Live Stream: LAU NAU + VILE ELECTRODES at Cecil Sharp House
Best Video: STRIKKLAND Dance Like A God
Most Promising New Act: INDEPENDENT STATE


CHI MING LAI

Best Album: LINEA ASPERA LPII
Best Song: ALANAS CHOSNAU & MARK REEDER Heavy Rainfall
Best Gig / Live Stream: LUSTANS LAKEJER online at Malmö KB
Best Video: ULTRAFLEX Olympic Sweat
Most Promising New Act: LASTLINGS


MONIKA IZABELA TRIGWELL

Best Album: ERASURE The Neon
Best Song: DUBSTAR Hygiene Strip
Best Gig / Live Stream: IŻOL Koncert online at Ziemi Rybnickiej
Best Video: PET SHOP BOYS Monkey Business
Most Promising New Act: MENTRIX


Text by Chi Ming Lai
21st December 2020

HAROLD BUDD 1936 – 2020

Minimalist composer Harold Budd has sadly passed away at the age of 84.

He was known for his calming impressionistic soundscapes which he recorded as a solo artist and working with the likes of Brian Eno, John Foxx, Robin Guthrie, Andy Partridge, Bill Nelson, Jah Wobble and David Sylvian among many.

Widely acclaimed as an ambient music trailblazer, he developed a style of piano playing which he referred to as “soft pedal”. Born in Los Angeles, Budd actually began as a jazz drummer while serving in the US Army. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1966 with a degree in musical composition.

He gained a good reputation within California’s avant garde scene, but retired temporarily in 1970 and began a teaching career at the California Institute of the Arts, although his first album ‘The Oak Of The Golden Dreams’ appeared in 1971. Returning to composition in 1972, Budd began an extended cycle of works which eventually would become ‘The Pavilion of Dreams’; produced by Brian Eno in 1976, it was released on Obscure Records in 1978.

Harold Budd continued his association with Eno, utilising both acoustic and electric piano for what were to become two of his best known albums; ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ from 1980 and ‘The Pearl’ from 1984 were marvellously sparkling atmospheric works, both enhanced by electronic treatments from the former ROXY MUSIC synthesist.

Budd’s collaborations with Eno saw him experiment more with synthesizers on his solo albums, with 1986’s ‘Lovely Thunder’ and 1988’s ‘The White Arcades’ exploring subtle electronic textures to compliment his distinctive ivory style with an austere depth.

1986 also saw the release of ‘The Mood & The Melodies’, an album recorded with COCTEAU TWINS comprising of evocative instrumentals as well as songs.

This album was the start of a long and successful artistic relationship with Robin Guthrie, with whom he recorded a beautiful experiment in duality ‘Before The Day Breaks’ and ‘After Night Falls’ in 2007. The pair continued the standard with ‘Winter Garden’ recorded with Eraldo Bernocchi in 2011, while a new Guthrie / Budd long player ‘Another Flower’ had only just been released.

2000’s ‘The Room’ was a solo return to more minimalist climes while in 2003, ‘La Bella Vista’ captured Budd improvising on piano unawares in the Los Angeles living room of U2 producer and Eno associate Daniel Lanois. But collaboration was where Harold Budd seemed to be happiest and he recorded a notable trilogy of works with John Foxx.

Both Budd and Foxx had worked with Eno previously so had common ground. Released in 2003, while ‘Translucence’ was classic shimmering Budd, ‘Drift Music’ was a more subdued ambient affair.

However, 2011’s ‘Nighthawks’ with the late Ruben Garcia was a soothing tranquil nocturnal work with tinkling ivories melting into the subtle layered soundscape in keeping with its Edward Hopper inspired title.

This was all despite Budd declaring that ‘Avalon Sutra’ issued on David Sylvian’s independent record label Samadhisound in 2004 was to be his “Last Recorded Work”. Meanwhile a performance at Brighton Dome in 2005 was billed as his last public performance. However, he did return and performed live as recently as 2019 at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival.

Despite being a comparative late starter to recording, Harold Budd became extremely prolific in the latter half of his life. He has an extraordinary back catalogue worthy of investigation and his list of collaborators are an indicator of how highly he was thought of as an artist, despite his preference for a much lower profile.

Harold Budd’s music is played almost on a daily basis at ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and while his aural presence will remain, his understated artistic integrity will be missed.

https://www.haroldbudd.com/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
8th December 2020

ELECTRONIC MUSIC Versus ORCHESTRAL

So what would a piece of electronic music sound like played by an orchestra? And what would a piece of orchestral music sound like performed electronically?

Two musicians did an experiment to swap genres, to highlight not just the differences but also the similarities in their respected artistic forms.

Composer David Bruce studied dance producer Jeremy Blake’s electronic track ‘Aquamarine’ to create an orchestral version performed by the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Jason Lai. This was an interesting project for the Singapore-based conductor as he had endured his sister Sarah’s DURAN DURAN tapes as a youngster.

Jason Lai is a second cousin of ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s founder Chi Ming Lai and became the Assistant Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic after winning the BBC Young Conductors Workshop in 2002. In 2006, he was a panel expert on the BBC’s ‘Young Musician of the Year’ and then a judge for the BBC classical music talent show ‘Classical Star’ in the following year.

But one of his most high profile moments came in 2008 when he was the professional mentor in the BBC celebrity conductor reality TV show ‘Maestro’ to the eventual winner Sue Perkins. He recently presented ‘Heart Of Thailand’, a series of short documentaries about the country’s culture for BBC World News.

Swapping roles and returning the complement, Jeremy Blake then reworked David Bruce’s orchestral piece ‘Fanfarrón’ into an electronic version using a variety of software instruments and samples. The two videos make interesting viewing…

With Gary Numan having worked with the Skalaris Orchestra and OMD with the Liverpool Philharmonic in a live concert context, while producer William Orbit has brought classical music to an electronic dance audience via his two ‘Pieces In A Modern Style’ reinterpretations albums, genre swaps are very much part of the 21st Century music landscape.

This idea for the Electronic Music versus Orchestral genre swap first came about following a YouTube challenge thrown up by producer Andrew Huang to see how different producers would use a sample from a single song ‘Foreign Bodies’ by Lucy Swann. Jeremy Blake was among those taking part in the eventual ‘4 Producers Flip The Same Sample’ films.


http://www.davidbruce.net/

https://twitter.com/davidbruce

https://rmr.media/

https://twitter.com/jjbbllkk

https://www.jason-lai.net/

https://www.facebook.com/jasoncwlai/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
28th June 2020

FLORIAN SCHNEIDER 1947 – 2020

Florian Schneider, co-founder of KRAFTWERK has sadly passed away at the age of 73 after a period of critical illness.

Born into a wealthy Düsseldorf family, his father was Paul Schneider-Esleben, a noted modernist archictect who had designed the Mannesmann-Hochhaus and Cologne-Bonn Airport. Florian Schneider studied at the Academy of Arts in Remscheid.

It was there that he met Ralf Hütter in 1968 during a jazz improvisation course. They formed the experimental group ORGANISATION who released just one album ‘Tone Float’ as a five piece in 1970 on RCA.

However, determined to have more control over their future musical endeavours, the pair formed KRAFTWERK and issued two self-titled albums in 1970 and 1972 under the helm of Conny Plank, each featuring colour variations of the now-iconic traffic cone emblazoned on the artwork.

Photo by Maurice Seymour

However, the story might have turned out differently in-between those two records. Hütter left in 1971 to continue his studies, leaving Schneider to continue performing under the KRAFTWERK name with Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, although they soon left to form NEU!

But Hütter rejoined Schneider and they began to use pre-programmed rhythm units instead of a conventional drummer and headed towards a cleaner, more minimal path that was less kosmische and rock, certainly compared with their German contemporaries.

The pair acquired their first synthesizers in time for 1973’s ‘Ralf & Florian’ and while Hütter took ownership of a Minimoog, Schneider favoured the ARP Odyssey alongside his trusty flute. KRAFTWERK’s breakthrough came with the more electronically driven ‘Autobahn’ in 1974, their final album with Conny Plank and the rest is history. Their appearance on the BBC1 science magazine show ‘Tomorrow’s World’ notably ended with a knowing grin from Schneider, as if he was plotting to change the course of popular music…

‘Autobahn’ was a surprise hit as an edited single in the US and with that came opportunities for touring across the Atlantic. The addition of electronic percussionists Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos formed the classic quartet line-up of KRAFTWERK which released the highly revered long players ‘Radio-Activity’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’, The Man Machine’ and ‘Computer World’.

These records were to forever change the musical landscape and influence generations of musicians in synthpop, hip-hop and dance. In the UK, KRAFTWERK finally got the recognition they deserved when their 1978 recording ‘The Model’ reached No1 in the singles chart in 1982, demonstrating just how ahead of their time they had been. Without KRAFTWERK, it is almost certain that TUBEWAY ARMY, ULTRAVOX, OMD, DEPECHE MODE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, SOFT CELL and NEW ORDER would not have pursued electronics as a means of artistic expression.

But despite being considered the godfathers of modern music, things were not well in die Mensch Maschine. Ralf Hütter’s cycling accident in 1983 led to the cancellation of the ‘Techno Pop’ album during an existential crisis in their Kling Klang studio complex. The eventual reworked album ‘Electric Café’ in 1986 was a disappointment and precipitated the departures of first Flür and then Bartos.

Schneider stayed loyal to Hütter and although both ‘The Mix’ and ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ were considered underwhelming works artistically, KRAFTWERK were in demand as a live spectacle, with a notable appearance at Tribal Gathering in 1997 as well as undertaking their own successful headlining tours.

However, Schneider was known to suffer from stage fright and disliked the rigors of touring. Even within KRAFTWERK, he had become less involved in the writing process from 1977 and preferred to explore vocal processing, voice colouring technology using vocoders and speech synthesis using Votrax type ’n’ speak machines as debuted on the ‘Radio-Activity’ album and later a Texas Instruments language translator for ‘Computer World’.

Florian Schneider undoubtedly complimented KRAFWERK’s robotic image with a suitably futuristic audio aesthetic. Having not appeared with KRAFTWERK since 2006 due it was said to work on other projects, it was confirmed officially that he had left the band in November 2008.

Although enigmatic, Schneider’s eccentric persona won him a lot of fans, as indicated by the number of music pieces dedicated to him. David Bowie titled the ‘Heroes’ instrumental ‘V-2 Schneider’ as a tribute after the two bonded over a mutual love of vintage Mercedes cars and TUXEDOMOON’s Blaine L Reininger recorded the song ‘Rolf and Florian Go Hawaiian’ for his ‘Byzantium’ album in 1987. Meanwhile in 2009, British duo KATSEN released the single ‘Florian’ which musically was more than a musical homage to ‘Kometenmelodie 2’ from ‘Autobahn’.

Over the years, Schneider continued to cycle and visit music technology shows but there was no music. However in 2016, Schneider broke his musical silence and collaborated with Dan Lacksman from TELEX on the track ‘Stop Plastic Pollution’ to highlight the issue of ocean environment conservation as part of the campaign Parley For The Oceans.

Photo by Lutz Hilgers

More recently, Schneider had become less reclusive. He was photographed by Lutz Hilgers for the January 2017 edition of The Heritage Post in a variety of relaxed poses including riding tandem with a lady in a scenario that delightfully provoked the outrage of the German right wing. He was also spotted having coffee with Robert Görl of DAF and had been photographed in a friendly reconciliation with Wolfgang Flür.

It looked as though Florian Schneider had been enjoying his retirement from the music business, but was happy to use his profile for causes close to his heart.

He was a true innovator who can rightly be called a legend for his part presenting an intelligent alternative to rock ‘n’ roll via KRAFTWERK’s concept for industrielle Volksmusik.


Text by Chi Ming Lai
6th May 2020

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