1981 is the year covered by the second instalment of Cherry Red’s ‘Musik Music Musique’ series.
1980 was something of a transition year for the synth as it knocked on the door of the mainstream charts but by 1981, it was more or less let in with welcome arms. From the same team behind the ‘Close To The Noise Floor’ compendiums and the most excellent ‘Electrical Language’ boxed set, ‘Musik Music Musique 2.0 1981 – The Rise Of Synth Pop’ presents rarities alongside hits and key album tracks from what many consider the best year in music and one that contributes the most to the legacy of electronic music in its wider acceptance and impact.
Featuring HEAVEN 17 with ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’, OMD with ‘Souvenir’ and the eponymous single by VISAGE, these songs are iconic 1981 canon that need no further discussion. Meanwhile the longevity of magnificent album tracks such as ‘Frustration’ by SOFT CELL and ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ by ULTRAVOX can be summed by the fact that they have featured in 21st Century live sets alongside their parent acts’ hits.
Although not quite as celebrated, ‘You Were There’ from pastoral second John Foxx long player ‘The Garden’ captures the move from stark JG Ballard imagery to something almost romantic. DEVO are represented by the LinnDrum driven ‘Through Being Cool’, the opener of the ‘New Traditionalists’ album which comes as a statement that the mainstream was their next target; the Akron quintet were one of the many acts signed by Virgin Records as the label focussed on a synth focussed takeover that ultimately shaped the sonic landscape of 1981.
Then there’s TEARS FOR FEARS’ promising debut ‘Suffer The Children’ in its original synthier single recording and The Blitz Club favourite ‘Bostich’ from quirky Swiss pioneers YELLO. Another Blitz staple ‘No GDM’ from GINA X PERFORMANCE gets included despite being of 1978 vintage due to its first UK single release in 1981. The use of synth came in all sorts of shapes and FASHIØN presented a funkier take with ‘Move Øn’ while the track’s producer Zeus B Held took a more typically offbeat kosmische approach on his own ‘Cowboy On The Beach’.
Pivotal releases by JAPAN with the ‘The Art Of Parties’ (here in the more metallic ‘Tin Drum’ album version) and A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS ‘(It’s Not Me) Talking’ highlight those bands’ then-potential for mainstream success. But in the battle of the New Romantic boy bands, the sitar tinged DURAN DURAN B-side ‘Khanada’ easily blows away the SPANDAU BALLET album track ‘Reformation’ in an ominous sign as to who would crack it biggest worldwide.
The great lost band of this era, B-MOVIE issued the first of several versions of ‘Nowhere Girl’ in December 1980 on Dead Good Records and its inclusion showcases the song’s promise which was then more fully realised on the 1982 Some Bizzare single produced by the late Steve Brown although sadly, this was still not a hit.
The best and most synth flavoured pop hits from the period’s feisty females like Kim Wilde and Toyah are appropriate inclusions, as is Hazel O’Connor’s largely forgotten SPARKS homage ‘(Cover Plus) We’re All Grown Up’. But the less said about racist novelty records such as ‘Japanese Boy’ by Aneka, the better… the actual nation of Japan though is correctly represented by their most notable electronic exponents YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA with ‘Cue’ from ‘BGM’, the first release to feature the Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer.
With these type of boxed sets, it’s the less familiar tracks that are always the most interesting. As the best looking member of TANGERINE DREAM, Peter Baumann had a crack at the single charts with the catchy Robert Palmer produced ‘Repeat, Repeat’ while former Gary Numan backing band DRAMATIS are represented by ‘Lady DJ’ although its epic A side ‘Ex Luna Scientia’ would have equally merited inclusion. But BEASTS IN CAGES who later became HARD CORPS stand out with the stark dystopia of ‘Sandcastles’.
The one that “should-have-been-a-pop-hit” is the ABBA-esque ‘I Can’t Hold On’ by Natasha England and it’s a shame that her career is remembered for a lame opportunistic cover of ‘Iko Iko’ rather than this, but the delightful ‘Twelfth House’ demonstrates again how under-rated Tony Mansfield’s NEW MUSIK were, and this with a B-side!
The rather fraught ‘Wonderlust’ by THE FALLOUT CLUB captures the late Trevor Herion in fine form on a Thomas Dolby produced number with a dramatic Spaghetti Western flavour that is lushly sculpted with electronics. Over a more sedate rhythm box mantra, ‘Love Moves In Strange Ways’ from BLUE ZOO swirls with a not entirely dissimilar mood.
Mute Records founder Daniel Miller was breaking through with his productions for DEPECHE MODE in 1981, but representation on ‘Musik Music Musique 2.0’ comes via the colder austere of ‘Science Fiction’ by Alan Burnham. ‘West End’ by Thomas Leer adds some jazzy freeform synth soloing to the vocal free backdrop, while ‘Surface Tension’ from ANALYSIS is an appealing instrumental.
The strangely accessible weirdness of CHRIS & COSEY’s ‘This Is Me’, MYSTERY PLANE’s ‘Something To Prove’ and the gritty ‘Brix’ from PORTION CONTROL will delight those more into the leftfield, while AK-47’s ‘Stop! Dance!’, the work of Simon Leonard (later of I START COUNTING and KOMPUTER fame) is another DIY experiment in that aesthetic vein.
Some tracks are interesting but not essential like Richard Bone’s ‘Alien Girl’ which comes over like an amusing pub singer SILICON TEENS, Johnny Warman’s appealing robopop on ‘Will You Dance With Me?’ and the synth dressed New Wave of ‘Close-Up’ by THOSE FRENCH GIRLS. For something more typically artschool, there’s the timpani laden ‘Taboos’ by THE PASSAGE and SECOND LAYER’s screechy ‘In Bits’.
More surprising is Swedish songstress Virna Lindt with her ‘Young & Hip’ which oddly combines showtune theatrics with blippy synth and ska! The set ends rather fittingly with Cherry Red’s very own EYELESS IN GAZA with the abstract atmospherics of ‘The Eyes Of Beautiful Losers’ although they too would eventually produce their own rousing synthpop statement ‘Sunbursts In’ in 1984.
Outside of the music, the booklet is a bit disappointing with the photos of OMD, TEARS FOR FEARS, HEAVEN 17, B-MOVIE and a glam-bouffanted Kim Wilde all coming from the wrong eras. And while the liner notes provide helpful information on the lesser known acts, clangers such as stating Toyah’s ‘Thunder In The Mountains’ was from the album ‘The Changeling’ when it was a standalone 45, “GONG’s Mike Hewlett” and “memorable sleeve designs by Malcolm Garrett’s Altered IMaGes” do not help those who wish to discover the origins of those accumulated gems.
But these quibbles aside, overall ‘Musik Music Musique 2.0’ is a good collection, although with fewer rare jewels compared with the first 1980 volume which perhaps points to the fact that those who had the shine to breakthrough actually did… 40 years on though, many of those hit making acts (or variations of) are still performing live in some form.
Was 1981 the most important year in synth as far becoming ubiquitous in the mainstream and hitting the top of the charts internationally? With VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’ becoming a West German No1 in Spring 1981 through to SOFT CELL taking the summer topspot in the UK and culminating in THE HUMAN LEAGUE eventually taking ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ to No1 in the US, the sound of synth had done its job. Setting the scene for 1982 and 1983, further editions of ‘Musik Music Musique’ are planned.
Hailing from Orange County, PLASMIC describes herself as “your abused Barbie doll from childhood”.
Detonating infectious lo-fi synth bombs while full of femme rage fuelled by childhood anxiety, a hybrid of CRYSTAL CASTLES, DEVO, MINISTRY and DIVINE forms various parts of her artistic DNA.
Lauren Lusardi is the precocious talent behind PLASMIC. Offering a burst of delightfully odd escapism with a portable Yamaha Reface strapped round her neck, her recent appearance at at The Islington showcased her as a feisty live performer.
Displaying an energetic punk attitude like Siouxsie Sioux genetically mutated with Molly Ringwald if she was into Gothic Lolita fashion, she is already a veteran of three EPs releases.
The undoubted standout from her latest release ‘Validation Nation’ is ‘Baby Machine’, an immensely catchy feminist electropop anthem utilising a mixture of vintage Casio and Yamaha sounds that challenges the expectations of women to bear children.
And as the song’s brilliant accompanying video produced by Mental Pictures and directed by Kenneth Lui shows, she will NOT say yes to this monster of a dress!
While she was in London, PLASMIC chatted about her music and independently minded ethos…
You describe yourself as “your abused Barbie doll from childhood”, what was it like for you growing up in Orange County and how did it shape who you are?
I was born in Los Angeles where my parents met, we then moved to Mission Viejo shortly after my brother was born. Growing up in Orange County sounds like a dream, but the more south you get, the more conservative. We know what that means for anyone who is even remotely different. I learned very early on the problems with our country and violence towards women, queers and people of colour.
Where I live you see a trump sign or confederate flag every couple of houses. People protest in front of Planned Parenthood every Sunday. It’s shaped the person I am today and I will always stand up for what’s right.
You studied electronic music at a local community college, what did that involve and how did you realise this would be a good tool for your artistic expression?
I had been toying with production since I was 16 so when I arrived I had realized I taught myself everything.
I took the three only classes that applied to my interests: Ableton 1&2 and audio engineering. I had an awesome professor in my audio engineering class.
I knew being the brain power behind my art was the only way to go. I was eager to learn new recording techniques to bring to my little home studio.
It must have been quite interesting when you brought your portable Yamaha into class? And now Yamaha themselves came calling?
Yeah, I’d been tagging them on Instagram and Facebook with the Reface. Then the NAMM shows came around at the Convention Centre in California where all the musicians are seen and Yamaha asked me to demonstrate their new keytar so that was really exciting!
Which particular electronic acts drew you in and became influences on PLASMIC?
I really love PEACHES, FEVER RAY, CRYSTAL CASTLES and Alice Glass in particular. When I was growing up, I remember I was listening to DEVO and I was like “OH MY GOD!”; it was what really made me want to make music, Mark Mothersbaugh is my favourite.
Your most recent latest release is ‘Validation Nation’, is it a concept EP of sorts?
I guess it’s conceptual. PLASMIC is super confident and fiery, but off the stage validation is what I seek to move forward. I have trouble believing in my work. That’s what sparked ‘Validation Nation’. I didn’t intend for all the themes to go hand in hand, but I guess that concept worked out! On the title song, one of the lines is “I’m gonna wear colour that once segregated me, to prove your words never meant a thing”, that’s kinda my life right there, everything is pink. I wasn’t always this pink, but I’ve embraced this femininity like a happy chaos. *laughs*
From it, ‘Baby Machine’ is catchy feminist electropop anthem… what inspired that?
The song is about the expectations upon female presenting folks to settle down, have babies and conform to the American dream of being a housewife. But where does that leave queer folks and those who cannot conceive?
‘Baby Machine’ is an anthem against pro-lifers and strict parents who have preconceived notions of what their child will do for them. It’s an anthem for anyone who feels pressured to have kids.
Does ‘Compliance’ confront the longstanding issue of patriarchy?
Actually ‘Compliance’ is about opioid use.
You’ve described ‘Revenge’ from your self-titled EP as cathartic?
Writing ‘Revenge’ was the moment I turned my life around. I never stood up for myself, I always felt like my abuse was my fault and that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t a #MeToo movement when I wrote the song. People told me I should apologize for my rapist going to jail (for only a week. Lame.) Instead of continuing to feel sorry myself, I said f*ck it. I’m aloud to be angry. I want other people to hear this and know that their feelings are valid. You need to be your own hero, you bleed when you create art, that’s how I coped.
You recently issued a delightful cover of ‘Female Trouble’ to celebrate the birthday of the late actor and HI-NRG diva DIVINE?
In LA, I perform a lot of shows but my favourites are the Lethal Amounts ones. There was this DIVINE Ball where a bunch of queens were competing to be the best DIVINE and I was invited to perform this cover. I did it differently like if it was on her ‘Jungle Jezebel’ album. It was really fun, Traci Lords was there.
On the other side of the coin, there was also a cover of ‘Every Day Is Halloween’ by MINISTRY, is there anything else you would like to have a go at reinterpreting?
I have a huge list that I want to redo, but that one was a big one for sure, I’m a huge MINISTRY fan and it was a homage to them, they helped shape my sound as I was growing up and learning about drum machines and stuff.
You opened for Marc Almond in LA at Sex Cells, what was that like?
SOFT CELL are the gods of synthpop, every song is so good. Meeting Marc Almond was a big milestone for me. I owe it all to Lethal Amounts for having me on the line-up!
There were a lot of artists on that bill and Marc was the most humble and the kindest person. He was so professional but also so down to earth, not a diva at all, so nice and awesome. I got to see his soundcheck.
It was the first time I played a set with dancers and they killed it. Vladonna and Crystal Pallace were my epic dancers. I still can’t believe I got to dance on stage with Marc when he closed out with ‘Sex Dwarf’. A bucket list moment for sure.
Is it true you are related to Linda Lusardi?
So here’s the story! I was at the airport going through customs and they looked at my name and asked “Are you related to Linda Lusardi?” and I’m like “WHAT?”, I didn’t realise she was a household name in the UK but it’s cool! All the Lusardis from Italy are related, so there’s a good chance that most likely we are. I can’t really do a DNA test! *laughs*
What are your personal hopes and fears as PLASMIC?
I think every musician is not in it for being a hobby, they really want to quit their day job and do what they love, right?
This is truly what I love, it’s my dream, touring the world and inspiring young women and queers to just be awesome.
I have a bit of social anxiety and have trouble speaking up for myself when I’m not on stage, so my biggest fear is probably convincing A&R people, but I think I’m pretty stern with what I do.
What’s next for PLASMIC?
There’s a lot of music and video coming so stick around…
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to PLASMIC
From Orange County in California, PLASMIC describes herself as an “Orange County one-woman dervish” and in a vivid haze that’s pretty in pink, “your abused Barbie doll from childhood”.
Combining J-Pop with CRYSTAL CASTLES and DEVO, like a deviant West Coast cousin to the wonderful Canadian songstress MECHA MAIKO, Lauren Lusardi is the precocious talent behind PLASMIC.
It could be reasoned that PLASMIC is an artistic consequence of Lusardi reacting to her comparatively conservative surroundings. She studied electronic music at a local community college and with her knack of detonating infectious lo-fi synth bombs while full of femme rage fuelled by childhood anxiety, PLASMIC also adds some political fervour into the equation.
Already a veteran of three EPs releases, the undoubted standout from her latest release ‘Validation Nation’ is ‘Baby Machine’, an immensely catchy feminist electropop anthem utilising a mixture of vintage Casio and Yamaha sounds that challenges the expectations of women to bear children.
Meanwhile, the powerful ‘Validation Nation’ title track observes how modern society’s narcissistic desperation for “being known” has become the dominant motivator in this age of social media and online celebrity…
Also from ‘Validation Nation’, ‘Sister’ takes on a more dancefloor friendly template while ‘Compliance’ is a song confronting the continuing issue of patriarchy in the #METOO era, like BLONDIE meeting NEW ORDER at The Hacienda! Recently, there was the release of a delightful cover version of ‘Female Trouble’ to celebrate the birthday of the late actor and HI-NRG diva DIVINE.
Lusardi’s own favourite song is called ‘Revenge’, a gritty rallying cry to kill rapists from her self-titled EP released in 2017 which she describes the writing of as being “the most fun and cathartic time of my life”.
A feisty performer with a portable Yamaha strapped round her neck and an energetic punk attitude like Siouxsie Sioux genetically mutated with Molly Ringwald if she was into Gothic Lolita fashion, the independently minded art of PLASMIC offers some delightfully odd artistic escapism, but with a mission to deconstruct societies many stereotypes.
Although the label is now owned by the Universal Music Group, its colourful history is forever associated with the championing of new and unconventional music forms during its fledgling years.
Virgin founder Richard Branson started his empire in 1970 with nothing more than a mail order outlet, selling discounted records. The name Virgin came from the fact that Branson and his team of directors were all new to business. There then came a small record shop in London’s Oxford Street a year later.
Not not long after, a residential recording complex in an Oxfordshire mansion which became the now-famous Manor Studios was established. Further shops opened so with the success of the retail arm and studio, a record label was launched in 1973.
Recognising he had no real working knowledge of music, Branson appointed his second cousin Simon Draper (who had been Virgin’s buyer) as Managing Director to seek out new talent for the new A&R led company. Beginning with Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ and the catalogue number V2001, progressive acts such as GONG along with cosmic Germans FAUST and TANGERINE DREAM soon followed, all with degrees of varying success.
But with the advent of punk and keen to shake off its hippy image, Virgin gained notoriety by signing THE SEX PISTOLS in 1977 and releasing ‘God Save The Queen’ in the process. The label courted further controversy when they issued the album ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’ to great fanfare. Virgin ended up in the dock under the 1899 Indecent Advertising Act over a poster in their Nottingham record shop.
But Branson and defending QC John Mortimer had an ace up their sleeve; Reverend James Kingsley, a professor of English Studies at Nottingham University was called as a witness. Under questioning, Kingsley was asked for the derivation of the word “bollocks”. Apparently, it was used in the 19th century as a nickname for clergymen who were known to talk rubbish and the word later developed into meaning “of nonsense”.
Wearing his clerical collar in court, Kingsley confirmed: “They became known for talking a great deal of bollocks, just as old balls or baloney also come to mean testicles, so it has twin uses in the dictionary”. The case was thrown out by the judge… after that, the label reinvented itself as a centre of post-punk and new wave creativity, signing bands such as THE RUTS, XTC, PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED, MAGAZINE, THE SKIDS, DEVO and PENETRATION.
When David Bowie declared THE HUMAN LEAGUE as “the future of pop music” after seeing them at the Nashville in 1978, Virgin Records were quick to snap them up. Meanwhile, OMD were initially signed to Virgin’s Factory styled subsidiary Dindisc Records under the directorship of Carol Wilson; but their success had been an embarrassment to Richard Branson, particularly in 1980 when following the international success of ‘Enola Gay’, OMD had outsold every act in the parent group!
Despite massive sales of ‘Architecture & Morality’ in 1981, the Dindisc ran into difficulties and was closed by Branson with OMD gleefully absorbed into the Virgin fold. The label threw in its lot with the synthesizer revolution and gave homes to SPARKS, JAPAN, SIMPLE MINDS, JOHN FOXX, HEAVEN 17 and CHINA CRISIS as well as more conventional acts of the period such as PHIL COLLINS, BRYAN FERRY and CULTURE CLUB.
In 1982, on the back of ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ having been a No 1 in the UK and USA, Virgin had made a profit of £2 million but by 1983, this had leaped to £11 million! Virgin Records was sold by Branson to Thorn EMI in 1992 reportedly for around £560 million to fund Virgin Atlantic Airways.
Under new management, the label became less visionary and more corporate with SPICE GIRLS, LENNY KRAVITZ, THE ROLLING STONES, MEAT LOAF and JANET JACKSON being examples of the brand’s continued global success, while many of the innovative acts who had helped build the label were surplus to requirements. Despite this, Virgin Records still maintains a tremendous back catalogue.
Over the years, Virgin Records have been in the fortunate position of having a critically acclaimed act on its roster at each key stage of electronic music’s development and its electronic legacy continues today with the recent signing of Glaswegian synth trio CHVRCHES.
So here are twenty albums from the iconic label which ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK considers significant in the development of electronic music. Restricted to one album per artist moniker and featuring only UK releases initially issued on or licensed to the Virgin label, they are presented in chronological order…
TANGERINE DREAM Rubycon (1975)
‘Phaedra’ may have been the breakthrough album but the much under rated ‘Rubycon’ consolidated TANGERINE DREAM’s position as leaders in the field of meditative electronic music with a wider palette and more focussed direction. Featuring the classic line-up of Edgar Froese, Peter Baumann and Chris Franke, the hypnotic noodles of VCS3 and Moogs dominated proceedings while Mellotrons and organic lines added to the trancey impressionism.
Guitarist Manuel Göttsching had been a member of ASH RA TEMPEL but looking to explore more progressive voxless territory on ‘New Age Of Earth’, he armed himself with an Eko Rhythm Computer, ARP Odyssey and his signature keyboard, a Farfisa Synthorchestra. An exponent of a more transient soloing style, he used the guitar for texture as much as for melody. The wonderful 20 minute ‘Nightdust’ and the gently percussive ‘Sunrain’ were just two of the jewels in this beautiful treasure trove of an album.
Already an established member of the Virgin family as a member of GONG, solo artist and in-house producer, 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.
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 TUBEWAY ARMY’s seminal ‘Are Friends Electric?’ while the follow-up ‘Beat The Clock’ actually got into the Top 10. However ‘No1 in Heaven’ overshadowed by the success of Gary Numan.
“I want to be a machine” snarled John Foxx on ULTRAVOX’s eponymous debut and after he left the band in 1979, he virtually went the full hog with this JG Ballard inspired seminal recording. ‘Underpass’ and ‘No-One Driving’ were surprising hit singles that underlined the dystopian nature of Foxx’s mindset at the time while the fabulous ‘A New Kind Of Man’ and the deviant ‘He’s A Liquid’ were pure unadulterated Sci-Fi driven by the cold mechanics of a Roland CR78 Compurhythm.
Dropped in 1980 by Ariola Hansa despite the Roxy-ish sound on their third album ‘Quiet Life’ being palatable with the emerging New Romantic scene, JAPAN found a refuge at Virgin. As one of the best numbers, ‘Swing’ succeeded in out Roxy-ing ROXY MUSIC while the haunting ‘Nightporter’ was the ultimate Erik Satie tribute. A new found interest in Japanese technopop saw Sylvian collaborate with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA’s Ryuichi Sakamoto on the splendid closer ‘Taking Islands In Africa’.
BRITISH ELECTRIC FOUNDATION Music For Stowaways (1981)
When they left THE HUMAN LEAGUE in Autumn 1980, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh formed BEF, releasing ‘Music For Stowaways’, an instrumental album only available on cassette to accessorise Sony’s brand new Stowaway portable tape player. However, the name of the new device was changed to Walkman! With economic recession decimating the industrial heartland of Sheffield, the futurist horror of ‘Music To Kill Your Parents By’ and the doom laden ‘Uptown Apocalypse’ connected with the album’s concept of a walking soundtrack to life.
After two albums ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Travelogue’ containing “synthesizers and vocals only” failed to set the world alight, manager Bob Last played a game of divide and rule on the original line-up. Vocalist Philip Oakey and Director of Visuals Adrian Wright would recruit Ian Burden, Jo Callis, Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall to record the now classic ‘Dare’ album under the auspices of producer Martin Rushent. Like KRAFTWERK with the heart of ABBA, it was a dreamboat collection of worldwide hits.
HEAVEN 17’s debut ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ was a landmark achievement, combining electronics with pop hooks and disco sounds while adding witty social and political commentary about yuppie aspiration and mutually assured destruction. The ‘Pavement’ side was a showcase of hybrid funk driven by the then new Linn Drum Computer and embellished by the guitar and bass skills of youngster John Wilson while the ‘Penthouse’ side was more like an extension of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Travelogue’.
“You want to be with Virgin so bad that you’ll sign anyway” said Richard Branson to SIMPLE MINDS when they wanted to defect from Arista Records. And sign they did after the promise of US tour support. SIMPLE MINDS lost their intensity and recorded a great album filled with pretty synthesized melodies, textural guitar and driving lead bass runs. The titles like ‘Someone Somewhere In Summertime’, ‘Colours Fly & Catherine Wheel’ and ‘Hunter & The Hunted’ made investigation essential.
By 1982, DEVO had become much more of a synth based act with programmed percussion to boot. Under the helm of producer Roy Thomas Baker who had worked with both QUEEN and THE CARS, their sound moved away from the guitar dominated art rock of their Eno produced debut ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’ As quirky as ever, the album’s concept was a response to criticism from the press about their imagery… thus they asked “what would an album by fascist clowns sound like?”
For OMD’s first album for Virgin, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys delivered ‘Dazzle Ships’, a brave sonic exploration of Cold War tensions and economic corruption. Although it featured some of the band’s best work like ‘The Romance Of The Telescope’, ‘International’ and ‘Radio Waves’, ‘Dazzle Ships’ sold poorly on release. The band were strictly A&R’ed after that and never the same again, but this fractured nautical journey has since been vindicated as an experimental landmark.
RYUICHI SAKAMOTO Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
Being the best looking member of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, it was almost inevitable that Sakamoto San would turn to acting. His first role was alongside none other than David Bowie in ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and with it came his soundtrack. The main title theme tune resonated with emotion and traditional melody, even without the voice of David Sylvian whose dulcet tones featured on the single version retitled ‘Forbidden Colours’ while ‘The Seed & the Sower’ was also a highlight.
CHINA CRISIS Working With Fire & Steel – Possible Pop Songs Volume 2 (1983)
Produced by Mike Howlett, ‘Working With Fire & Steel – Possible Pop Songs Volume 2’ allowed CHINA CRISIS to deliver a more cohesive album following the four producers who steered their debut ‘Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms – Some People Think It’s Fun To Entertain’! Best known for the brilliant Emulator laced hit single ‘Wishful Thinking’, the album is much more than that with melancholic synth melodies and woodwind counterpoints over a combination of real and programmed rhythm sections.
By 1984, Sylvian had a lucrative solo deal that gave him total artistic control. Side one of his debut solo offering adopted more of a laid back jazz feel as on ‘The Ink in the Well’ and ‘Red Guitar’. Meanwhile the second side had synthetic Fourth World overtones with avant garde trumpetist Jon Hassell and sound painter Holger Czukay as willing conspirators, with echoes of Sylvian’s previous work with JAPAN in the funky ‘Pulling Punches’ and the emotive ‘Weathered Wall’.
When CD was launched, Brian Eno’s inquisitivity asked: “what can be done now that could not be done before? What kinds of music does that suggest?”. ‘Thursday Afternoon’ was a 61 minute ambient journey that could be listened to uninterrupted on CD and the lack of surface noise meant it could also be very quiet. Using a Yamaha DX7 and minimal sustained piano, it soundtracked video paintings of the model Christine Alicino in vertical portrait format, so the TV had to be turned on its side to view it!
PHILIP OAKEY & GIORGIO MORODER Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder (1985)
‘Together in Electric Dreams’ did better than any singles from THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s lukewarm ‘Hysteria’ album. So Virgin swiftly dispatched Oakey to record an album with Moroder and it remains one of the most under rated pieces of work that either party has been involved in. The segued first side was a total delight featuring the rousing ‘Why Must The Show Go On?’ while the Donna Summer aping ‘Brand New Love (Take A Chance)’ was another highlight, along with the stupendous ‘Now’ on side two.
Whenever THE BLUE NILE are mentioned, it’s their 1983 album ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ that is always discussed in breathless awe. But actually, the follow-up ‘Hats’ is the trio’s crowning glory. Both albums were licensed to Virgin Records through a deal with Linn, the high quality Hi-Fi manufacturer. ‘Hats’ featured more synthesizers and drum machines. With hopeless romanticism and rainy drama, the glorious centrepieces were ‘Headlights On The Parade’ and ‘The Downtown Lights’.
THE FUTURE SOUND OF LONDON became flag bearers of avant garde electronic music and seen as successors to TANGERINE DREAM and Eno. Signing to Virgin in 1992, the duo invested in some Akai S9000 samplers and given free rein to experiment, resulting in the complex sweeps and rhythmical collages of ‘Lifeforms’. A double opus of downtempo electronic soundscapes, the influence of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop loomed heavy in the sonic playground.
Despite band relations being at an all-time low, MASSIVE ATTACK produced some of their finest work on ‘Mezzanine’. With dark undercurrents and eerie atmospherics, the album’s highpoints featured the vocals of COCTEAU TWINS’ Elizabeth Fraser on the hit single ‘Teardrop’ and the spy drama magnificence of ‘Black Milk’… Heavy on samples, the collective were sued for the unauthorised use of MANFRED MANN’S EARTH BAND’s 1972 song ‘Tribute’ on ‘Black Milk’!
“Living in a dream since 1983”, MAISON VAGUE’s ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was one of the surprise albums of 2011 and possibly the best wholly independent release of that year.
Paying homage to Synth Britannia and in particular, Gary Numan, it was the work of Clark Stiefel, an Essen domiciled American musician based in a modern day Neudeutsche Schule.
A classically trained virtuoso who studied piano and electronic music at a conservatoire, it was there that where he got to grips with both the Moog and Buchla modular systems that lit his passion.
With the eccentric demeanour of Hungarian 19th Century composer Franz Liszt, Stiefel added some quality musicianship and a wry sense of humour to the quirkily authentic proceedings. ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was very much an album with air synth potential. The title track with its arching battlecry was initially a reaction to a YouTube video entitled ‘Synthpop Is Dead’. Totally disagreeing with its creator, Clark responded but instead of protesting via the comments section, he composed a song in a classic synthpop style.
Like the result of coitus between DEVO and PLACEBO, the opening Sci-Fi synth salvo and the line “Everyone’s entitled to opinion…you have yours and well, I have mine” was wryly countered with a retort of “And though it seems that our opinions differ… you’ll agree in time!” The blistering solo using an Oberheim OBXa is a total delight: “The OBXa has more of a rock’n’roll tone to it. I like that!” Stiefel told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK
Another familiar, stirring sound came courtesy of the Arturia Virtual Minimoog and its meaty octave bass drive. “One of the most brilliant pieces of software ever” added Stiefel. That particular VST dominated many of the album’s chunky riff laden tracks such as the immediately enjoyable ‘Pixelated Lover’. The combination of OBXa and Moog colours effectively revived The Gary Numan Principle and on the bouncily brilliant ‘Give Them Away’, ‘Observer’ from ‘The Pleasure Principle’ was developed into a far more complete composition. It also climaxed with a simulated violin solo that recalled ULTRAVOX’s Billy Currie who incidentally played on that same album.
Its more steadfast cousin ‘Buried In Sandstone’ was also decidedly Numan-esque in a ‘Conversation’ style while ‘My Situation’ took its inspiration from THE HUMAN LEAGUE but presented itself with a more symphonic overlay.
Voiced by Stiefel’s snarling mid-Atlantic tone, it was as if PLACEBO had come from industrialised Sheffield.
Slightly punkier, ‘We’re Not Human’ was also cut from a similar cloth. The album however was not all Numanoid pastiche.
Changing the rhythm stance slightly, the superb reggae inflected electro of ‘Tunnel Vision’ featured a terrific chorus high which was punctuated by lovely string layers and some fluid bass guitar. Meanwhile, ‘Colored Glasses’ journeyed into more cerebral depths via some terrific classical interludes in the muse of Beethoven but using multi-tracked Roland Jupiter 4s.
Affirming the multi-dimensional aspirations of the album, the hilarious and appropriately titled ‘No Show’ was a fine example of Bette Midler gone electro or even ‘Bugsy Malone’ with lasers instead of splurge guns… inspired by death of Michael Jackson, its sense of irony was an amusing musical diversion and wholly fitting in the context of MAISON VAGUE.
But to bookend ‘Synthpop’s Alive’, album closer ‘Living On Ice Cream’ returned to the former Gary Webb and looked back at his TUBEWAY ARMY days to ape ‘Replicas’ outtake ‘We Have A Technical’. As icy and surreal as the title, ‘Living On Ice Cream’ was a terrific closer that was both exhilarating and fun. As a whole, ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ combined midlife paranoia with fish-out-of-water eccentricity but a tongue-in-cheek slyness allowed the listener not to take it all too seriously…
The future could be seen though ‘Colored Glasses’ but for the follow-up, there may be some other plans as Stiefel has surmised: “I definitely feel musically I’m heading in a more minimal and transparent direction. This is an extreme example but if you could imagine Leonard Cohen playing synths. When one thinks of singer/songwriters, the first thing that comes to people’s heads is a guitar. You don’t really think of a singer/songwriter with a synth. But if the song is strong enough, then maybe you could just have a minimal accompaniment – perhaps only a Jupiter 4 and TR 606 drum machine? It’s only a dream at this point but this is definitely brewing in the back of my head.”
MAISON VAGUE ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ uses the following synthesizers and drum machines: Oberheim OBXa, Roland Jupiter 4, Roland Promars CompuPhonic (MRS 2), Roland MKS 50, Roland JP8000, Roland XP60, Arturia MinimoogV, Digidesign Xpand, Roland CR8000 CompuRhythm, Roland TR606 Drumatix, Native Instruments Battery and Submersible Kitcore Deluxe.