While 1979 saw a post-punk revolution with new wave and ska emerge as energetic expressions of youth with the likes of JOY DIVISION, XTC, THE SPECIALS and MADNESS, maturer acts with power pop sensibilities such as BLONDIE and THE POLICE dominated the UK charts.
But the synthesizer had become a new tool of creativity for those who weren’t interested in learning chords on a guitar and preferred to use one finger, thanks to its new found affordability with refined technology from Japan. While electronics had been present in disco, progressive rock and esoteric avant garde forms, following seminal records in 1978 such as ‘Warm Leatherette’ b/w ‘TVOD’ by THE NORMAL and ‘Being Boiled’ by THE HUMAN LEAGUE, a new DIY artpop form was developing that would eventually take on KRAFTWERK at their own game.
Among those fledgling electronic acts who released their debut singles in 1979 on independent labels were OMD with ‘Electricity’ on Factory Records and FAD GADGET with ‘Back To Nature’ on Mute Records. Meanwhile on another independent Rough Trade, CABARET VOLTAIRE achieved a wider breakthrough with ‘Nag Nag Nag’, the standalone single accompanying their first album ‘Mix-Up’.
Having experimented with synths on ‘Low’ released in 1977, David Bowie had gone to see THE HUMAN LEAGUE at The Nashville in late 1978 and hailed them as “the future of rock ‘n’ roll”. Alas it was TUBEWAY ARMY fronted by Gary Numan who beat THE HUMAN LEAGUE to the top of the UK singles charts in Summer 1979 with Are Friends Electric?’. However, just a few weeks earlier, SPARKS had taken the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘No1 Song In Heaven’ into the UK Top20. But however history is perceived, a revolution had begun that would lead to the dawn of “synthpop” in 1980.
Here are 20 albums which ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK sees as contributing to the electronic legacy of 1979. They are listed in alphabetical order with a restriction of one album per artist moniker, meaning Gary Numan and Edgar Froese appear twice…
As ASHRA, Manuel Göttsching released what many consider to be his first ambient masterpiece ‘New Age Of Earth’. On 1978’s ‘Blackouts’, he expanded the line-up to include drumming synthesist Harald Grosskopf and guitarist Lutz Ulbrich which continued on ‘Correlations’. Despite being more rock-oriented, it featured sequenced electronics with ‘Club Cannibal’ almost entering Jean-Michel Jarre territory.
‘Correlations’ is still available via Spalax Music
PETER BAUMANN Trans Harmonic Nights
Although he had released ‘Romance ‘76’ while still a member of TANGERINE DREAM, Peter Baumann’s first solo album after departing the band was something of an interim record before venturing into electronic pop with ‘Repeat Repeat’. Mostly shorter instrumental compositions using mysterious melodies and occasional vocoder textures, ‘Trans Harmonic Nights’ remains something of an underrated electronic gem.
‘Trans Harmonic Nights’ is still available via Cherry Red Records
EDGAR FROESE Stuntman
Away from TANGERINE DREAM and perhaps prompted by the success of Jean-Michel Jarre’s electronic symphonies, ‘Stuntman’ was Edgar Froese at his most accessible with strong synth melodies, particularly on the title track. Elsewhere, new age resonances were developing while on ‘Drunk Mozart In The Desert’, there were atmospherics coupled with a rhythmic bounce.
‘Stuntman’ is still available via Virgin Records
GINA X PERFORMANCE Nice Mover
Produced and co-written by Zeus B Held, the debut album by androgynous art history student Gina Kikoine featured an array of ARP and Moog synths to signal the birth of a new European Underground. Cult club favourite ‘No GDM’ was written in honour of the “great dark man” Quentin Crisp while other highlights included the detached robotic soul of the title song and the feisty gender statement ‘Be A Boy’.
Available on the album ‘Nice Mover + Voyeur’ via Les Disques du Crepuscule
With Giorgio Moroder acquiring Roland’s new System 700 and an MC8 Micro-composer to control it, ‘E=MC²’ was touted as the first “electronic live-to-digital” album. This allowed for an uptempo funkiness previously unheard on sequencer based music to come into play. With the euphoric energy and treated vocals of ‘What A Night’, the sound of DAFT PUNK was inadvertently being invented!
‘E=MC²’ is still available via Repertoire Records
STEVE HILLAGE Rainbow Dome Musick
As a member of GONG and solo artist, Steve Hillage had a love of German experimental music and ventured into ambient with long standing partner Miquette Giraudy. Recorded for the Rainbow Dome at the ‘Festival For Mind-Body-Spirit’ at Olympia, these two lengthy Moog and ARP assisted tracks each had a beautifully spacey vibe to induce total relaxation with a colourful sound spectrum.
‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ is still available via Virgin Records
THE HUMAN LEAGUE Reproduction
With a manifesto of “synthesizers and vocals only”, the debut album by THE HUMAN LEAGUE included ‘Empire State Human’, ‘Circus Of daeth’, ‘Almost Medieval’, ‘Blind Youth’ and a stark cover of ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’. While ‘Reproduction’ was not a commercial success, Phil Oakey, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware gained valuable experience that would progress their careers.
‘Reproduction’ is still available via Virgin Records
JAPAN Quiet Life
Although considered a 1980 album, the third JAPAN long player was actually released late 1979 in Japan, Canada, Holland and Germany. Featuring the sequencer-driven title song as well as the rockier ‘Halloween’, despite Roxy rip-off accusations, it was a major artistic step forward as a quality timeless work embracing synths, muzak and orchestrations.
‘Quiet Life’ is still available via BMG
GARY NUMAN The Pleasure Principle
Devoid of guitar but using a flesh-and-blood rhythm section, Gary Numan realised his dream of producing a new form, machine rock. Synths were fed through guitar effects pedals to add a more sinister metallic tone and while there was sombre isolation communicated on all the songs, there was a catchy melodic sensibility which turned Numan into the first synthesizer pop star.
‘The Pleasure Principle’ is still available via Beggars Banquet
ROBERT RENTAL & THOMAS LEER The Bridge
Originally released on THROBBING GRISTLE’s Industrial Records, ‘The Bridge’ album saw Scottish duo Thomas Leer and Robert Rental trading vocal and instrumental duties. Comprising of a side of five songs and a side with four ambient instrumentals, ‘Day Breaks, Night Heals’ and ‘Monochrome Days’ both showcased an avant pop sensibility. Robert Rental sadly passed away in 2000.
‘The Bridge’ is still available via Mute Artists
Best known as a member of CLUSTER with the late Dieter Moebius, ‘Selbstportrait’ was Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ third solo album, a “self-portrait” reflecting the gentle introspective ambience of the record. Something of a sister album to the 1977’s ‘Sowiesoso’, it was more accessible than CLUSTER’s own structurally minimal ‘Grosses Wasser’ also issued in 1979.
‘Selbstportrait’ is still available via Bureau B
KLAUS SCHULZE Dune
After the ambitious double opus ‘X’ which also incorporated strings in a record comprising of “Six Musical Biographies” in honour of figures including ‘Dune’ author Frank Herbert, Klaus Schulze conceived an actual album called ‘Dune’. Something of a diversion, ‘Shadows of Ignorance’ featured the eccentric poetry of Arthur Brown while the experimental ambient title track made use of cello.
‘Dune’ is still available via Bureau B
SIMPLE MINDS Real To Real Cacophony
Stronger than their debut LP ‘Life In A Day’, SIMPLE MINDS started experimenting with more electronics and a very European austere on its swift follow-up ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ with the title song presenting their take on KRAFTWERK’s ‘Radio-Activity’. Underground and pulsating through on ‘Changeling’, that and ‘Premonition’ really were a sign of things to come in their dark avant disco templates.
‘Real To Real Cacophony’ is still available via Virgin Records
SPARKS No1 In Heaven
Following the inspirational success of ‘I Feel Love’, SPARKS were put in contact with its producer Giorgio Moroder who had aspirations to work with a band. The resultant album saw Russell Mael’s flamboyant falsetto fitting well with the electronic disco template. ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’ hit the UK charts a few months before ‘Are Friends Electric?’ while the follow-up ‘Beat The Clock’ got into the Top 10.
‘No1 In Heaven’ is still available via Lil Beethoven Records
TANGERINE DREAM Force Majeure
Still feeling the void left by the departure of Pete Baumann, following the vocal experiment of ‘Cyclone’, Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke opted to retain drummer in Klaus Krüger. While there was also increased guitar and piano usage, the title song and ‘Thru Metamorphic Rocks’ utilised pulsing sequencer passages to signal the Hollywood direction that TANGERINE DREAM would head in.
‘Force Majeure’ is still available via Virgin Records
TELEX Looking For Saint Tropez
The ethos of Belgian trio TELEX was “making something really European, different from rock, without guitar”. ‘Looking For Saint Tropez’ contained ‘Moscow Diskow’ took the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow by adding a funkier groove while also included were a funereal robotic cover of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and their deadpan debut single ‘Twist A Saint Tropez’.
‘Looking For Saint Tropez’ is still available via Mute Artists
THROBBING GRISTLE 20 Jazz Funk Greats
The title and the group photo on Beachy Head were tongue-in-cheek statements but THROBBING GRISTLE were still deathly uncompromising as shown by ‘Persuasion’. However, there were glints of light with the glorious cascading instrumental ‘Walkabout’ and mutant disco lento of ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ as Cosey Fanni Tutti’s whispered vocals competed with synthetic whip-crack and drill noises!
‘20 Jazz Funk Greats’ is still available via Mute Artists
TUBEWAY ARMY Replicas
Whereas the TUBEWAY ARMY debut featured punk tunes with added synth, ‘Replicas’ would see the Philip K Dick inspired dystopian vision of Gary Numan paired with appropriate electronic sounds as the main melodic component on the now classic UK No1 ‘Are Friends Electric?’. But ‘Down In The Park’ and ‘I Nearly Married A Human’ pointed to a future guitar-free follow-up.
‘Replicas’ is still available via Beggars Banquet
Although VANGELIS had never been to China at the time the album was recorded, he had developed a passionate fascination for its people, culture and vast landscape, noting a connection between ethnic Greek and Chinese music. Using traditional elements alongside his synthesizers, the centrepieces were the majestic ‘Chung Kuo’ and the meditative pentatonic piece ‘The Tao Of Love’.
‘China’ is still available via Universal Music
YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA Solid State Survivor
The second and best YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA album featured an embarrassment of riches. It included the glorious Technopop of ‘Rydeen’, the mighty ‘Technopolis’, the moodier ‘Castalia’, the Cossack romp of ‘Absolute Ego Dance’ and ‘Behind The Mask’ which was later covered by Greg Phillinganes, Eric Clapton and Michael Jackson.
‘Solid State Survivor’ is still available via Sony Music Direct
Text by Chi Ming Lai
1 January 2024