HILTIPOP is a comparatively new name in electronic pop but the man behind it is something of a veteran in the Swedish music scene.
Magnus Johansson cut his teeth as a member of ANTON WEBER, UZIEL 33 and TOPGUN but was also a member of 101, a DEPECHE MODE tribute band with members of S.P.O.C.K which reimagined what might have happened had Vince Clarke not left. But Johansson’s best known project internationally has probably been ALISON, a duo with Karin Bolin Derne that naturally paid homage to YAZOO.
Following their album ‘Duality’, ALISON went into hiatus and Johansson began working on solo material under the HILTIPOP umbrella. A triumphant early afternoon slot at Electronic Summer 2015 in Gothenburg showed great promise, but it would be 2018 before ‘The Pattern’ emerged, showcasing Johansson’s sombre darker-tinged pop style fused to a backdrop reminiscent of KRAFTWERK circa ‘Computer World’.
Two new singles ‘For Love’ and ‘Agogo’ have just been released, so Magnus Johansson took time out to kindly chat about HILTIPOP and his influences…
You first became known to some in the UK for your YAZOO-influenced duo ALISON who released an album ‘Duality’ in 2010; so what led you down the path of HILTIPOP?
HILTIPOP started out as a wordplay of my middle name, Hilti, back in the days when I did TOPGUN. TOPGUN was initially an electroclash quartet with ‘hits’ like ‘Star’ and ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik’ ending up on different compilations in 2003-2004.
During the recording of the first album 2005, the band transformed into my own solo project and as such, the music turned a lot darker and heavier, like a mix between industrial electro and EBM maybe… and with tracks like ‘Honey’ and ‘Alive’, the ‘TopGun Vs Hiltipop Rewired’ album emerged from that. And ever since, I kept the name for myself when not doing TOPGUN stuff.
ALISON also started out during this period in time with the obvious blueprint of YAZOO, hence the name. In Spring 2015, five years after the release of ‘Duality’, Karin and me got back together with an outspoken ambition to create new songs for ALISON. I demoed instrumental versions of ‘The Pattern’ and a couple of other songs, but they didn’t really fit the ALISON-formula so I decided to finish them on my own.
The thing is, since I had Karin’s voice in my head doing some of the demos, I ended up trying to sing like her, which I obviously can’t, but I guess it kind of works…
What have been the main differences in approach for you?
The main difference is that Karin can come up with spectacular melodies and vocals to any music, and I can’t, so as a result – when I do decide to sing – my melodies and vocals are more like an extra instrument, not so much a lead singer doing what he or she does best. And the song structures are worlds apart. ALISON is classic synthpop with really catchy choruses to sing along with, HILTIPOP most definitely is not.
‘Duality’ really still stands up after 10 years though!
I’m still proud of it and listening to it now, it makes me wonder how we got it all together sound wise… obviously by listening too much to ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ but so much more to ‘Speak & Spell’, and then trying to make my Pro-One sound like Vince Clarke’s, which never happened so I did most if it by sampling my Yamaha gear 😉
Who are the main electronic pop influences in shaping HILTIPOP?
John Carpenter, without a doubt! And all the old rockers trying to make it on the disco scene in the late 1970s, like Rod Stewart with ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and EXILE with ‘How Could This Go Wrong’. Amazing stuff!
But the first track I recorded was ‘The Pattern’ and it really started out as an idea to make a dancefloor killer like ‘Jungle Love’ with Morris Day and THE TIME. Other than that, nowadays it´s not so much ‘electronic pop’ that influences the shape of HILTIPOP… it’s more about the electronics, the gear, the synths and the drum machines! That’s my main source of inspiration.
I love buying used gear, especially old drum machines. Going through the former owners’ patterns and finding completely weird and seemingly useless stuff that I can mix with the beats I want is always rewarding!
Apart from that it always comes down to one band and one track: SIMPLE MINDS and ‘Theme For Great Cities’! It´s the most perfect track ever recorded. And everything KRAFTWERK of course! In modern days, it´s still the Germans…
Without Anthony Rother, I’d still be making synthpop. And WESTBAM and the album ‘Götterstrasse’, the first time I listened to it, I was like “This is what HILTIPOP should sound like…” but at the end of the day, I’m well aware it doesn’t and I’m fine with that.
You appeared alone with just a backing track on a bright afternoon outside at Electronic Summer 2015 in Gothenburg where you impressed the crowd who also included Darrin Huss of PSYCHE. What can you remember about that performance?
I was extremely nervous! I had a frozen left shoulder and couldn’t really move and dance. So I just hopped around the stage like a moron trying to sing as well as possible.
But it was really fun! And then I met Darrin backstage and we spent hours discussing the genius of German record producer and songwriter Frank Farian and his masterpiece that is BONEY M!
So why has it taken so long to release material as HILTIPOP?
Life, haha! It’s been a while since Electronic Summer 2015 for sure. I had a couple of songs that I was proud of back then. After that I just never managed to get it right album wise… but now, with new material on the way, it’s all starting to make sense.
‘The Pattern’ was on the ‘Romo Night Records Vol1’ compilation that came out in 2018, what is the song about and why did you choose to finally make your debut release on that sampler?
The song is about me trying to find true love, as always!
My so-called lyrics have been the same in every song I’ve made since my first band ANTON WEBER back in 1985… just Google it or whatever and you’ll hear for yourself, it’s all “love love love, but it ain’t gonna happen…”; but really, ‘The Pattern’ debuted on 12” vinyl prior to the ‘Romo Night Records Vol1’ compilation.
The magnificent Luke Eargoggle released the instrumental version on his Swedish electro label Stilleben in March 2018. It sold out so fast that even I didn’t get a copy!
‘For Love’ is an octave bass driven synthpop tune which comes in classic 12 inch extended version; so you’re not a fan of that modern remix madness where the reinterpretation has very little relation to the original song? Are you quite old fashioned in that respect?
I’m not old fashioned, just old! So old that I bought the original ‘Blue Monday’ with the expensive die-cut sleeve when it was released. And that track is absolute perfection; 7 and a half minutes long! Just love it. The same with ‘Jo’s So Mean’ with THE FLOWERPOT MEN… okey, it clocks in about 5:33 or something but it’s just a perfect long song, almost. Just a minute or two longer it would have been, well even longer and better…
Modern remixes are just meaningless. I love the old extended 12” versions from the 80s! Me and my brother Jay-Jay had this discussion just a few days ago, so I have my three favourites already listed: SPK ‘Metal Dance’ is by far my number 1, THE ART OF NOISE ‘Moments in Love’, GO WEST ‘We Close Our Eyes’, DEPECHE MODE ‘Shake the Disease’ and ‘Strangelove’.
What are your synthesizers of choice for HILTIPOP? Where do you sit on the hardware versus software debate?
The Roland Juno 60, always and the Prophet Rev-2, almost always.
But all of my synthesizers are always up and running, so I play and record the same parts live on different synths and keep the ones that work.
And I don’t debate! I use the Korg iPolysix all the time and it sounds like… well, ‘The Pattern’ is more or less recorded using only just that app!
‘The Pattern’ B-side ‘Looking Up From Down Below’ has a haunting melancholic feel, like an abstract OMD instrumental.
Finally someone who recognises it except me! I started out trying to make this Bowie/Eno-style ambient track and ended up with a melodic part in ‘Stanlow’-land by mistake and just went for it…
‘Hiltiheart’, the B-side of ‘For Love’ is perhaps more techno than synthpop and has some similarities in parts to ‘Blue’ by LATOUR which was used in the infamous night club scene in ‘Basic Instinct’, is that a coincidence?
In hindsight, you’re probably right… but it all started out, like so often, just playing around with the theme from ‘Theme For Great Cities’. Then I added the sampled sonar-like sound and I just went “plopp plopp plopp plopp – plop” and remembered it quite clearly from somewhere… then, boom! I re-watched ‘Basic Instinct’ the same day and felt quite guilty, in a positive way.
What’s going to happen to great songs like ‘Lick My Wounds’ which you showcased in Gothenburg and others like ‘The Man’ which have been previewed on Soundcloud? Is a long form EP or album release on the way?
‘Lick My Wounds’ is remixed and ready for release as we’re talking! But I still haven’t decided in what format… probably an album; ‘The Man’ is still a big maybe.
I kind of like the idea of releasing a ‘proper’ A-side track in two versions and a weird but reasonably susceptible ‘B-side’ on Spotify, as I’m doing now.
Like in the early 80s when bands dared to experiment with the B-sides… ULTRAVOX, DEPECHE MODE and so on… ‘Passionate Reply’, ‘I Never Wanted to Begin’ and ‘Paths & Angles’ or ‘Oberkorn (It’s a Small Town)’ and ‘The Great Outdoors!’; my life wouldn’t have been the same without these!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to HILTIPOP
For Bristol-based Finlay Shakespeare, his interest in synthesizers came from his parents’ record collection, with iconic music from the likes of JEAN-MICHEL JARRE, KRAFTWERK, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JAPAN.
An independent musical device manufacturer, he founded Future Sound Systems, building modular synthesizer components, predominantly for the Eurorack format.
But with his own music, his complex modular construction and anxious theatrics were inspired by Warp Records stalwarts AUTECHRE.
With a crystal clear modular synth sound coupled to claustrophobic vocals like they were buried in a box in the manner of FAD GADGET, among those impressed was Neil Arthur who invited Shakespeare to tour with BLANCMANGE in 2019. Live, he possessed the persona of a restless IT technician, delivering a hybrid of THE FAINT, THE KILLERS and THE BRAVERY dreaming of wires rather than guitars.
The material on his debut album ‘Domestic Economy’ was initiated by improvisation whilst being recorded live, with one of its highlights ‘Amsterdam’ being an example in modern Motorik. But ‘Solemnities’ is a definite progression, offering more shape and structure than its predecessor, but maintaining a distinct post-punk anguish.
Finlay Shakespeare said on Twitter: “Many of these tracks are becoming weirdly prescient with the current situation. I hope it’ll bring some degree of comfort, but simultaneously bring about some kind of call to arms. Things have to change and soon.”
The opening track ‘Occupation’ is superb, a metronomic squelch fest about social injustice which sees an angry and impassioned Shakespeare conduct a raucous avant noise experiment in song with penetrating noise percussion and icy retro-futuristic string machines.
The following ‘Fortune’ sounds almost synthpop in comparison; rather like Daniel Miller, Eric Random, Chris Carter, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental morphed into one, it is cold enough to be credible but melodic enough to have been in the charts back in the day alongside John Foxx, Gary Numan and Dindisc-era OMD.
‘The Information’ recalls THE HUMAN LEAGUE when Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were helming the instrumentation, particularly ‘The Path Of Least Resistance’ although with more of a percussive groove.
However, as the synths starting ringing, it steadily mutates into Da League MkII with echoes of ‘Love Action’.
Moving at a more energetic pace and with Shakespeare’s honest vocals complimenting the backdrop, ‘Second Try’ makes good use of a tight pulsating bassline and synth generated rhythms like THROBBING GRISTLE reworking KRAFTWERK’s ‘The Robots’.
The banging techno punk of ‘Crisis’ is hypnotic and poignant to the current world health emergency, embroiled in a wall of thrusting energy, electronic voice approximations and screeching synths for something oddly euphoric. Its urgent on-message vocal charge isn’t far off from being an electronic take on THE JAM; an odd comment maybe but what’s not widely known is that Paul Weller was a fan of the John Foxx-led ULTRAVOX!
‘Fantasy’ is less shouty and more haunted vocally for what could only be described as an industrial ballad. The eerie electronic texturing and a multi-tracked choir of himself then mutates into a crystalline passage driven by heavy militaristic drum samples and ending with the blast of a deep synthetic kazoo section!
The metallic shiver of the frantic ‘She Says / Nothing Ends’ closes with a sub-eight minute epic. At times, it does sound like a range of crockery is being bashed in the manner of DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Shout’, but as the track builds with layers of sequenced electronics and Shakespeare’s snarling voices, it verges on being almost trippy like a banging trance version of THE FAINT.
Wrapped in a marvellous dynamic tension with a balance of melody and freaky angst, Finlay Shakespeare delivers a fresh take on the experimental side of Synth Britannia that is strangely pop, but will satisfy those seeking more of a colder mechanised edge.
‘Solemnities’ contains a captivating mixture of flavours that work well together, capturing the intense spirit of his live performances.
There are a number of acts being hailed as the new saviours of electronic pop, but Finlay Shakespeare is the real deal, a gloriously wayward soul who simultaneously is also intriguingly disciplined.
The soundtrack of The Blitz Club was provided by its resident DJ Rusty Egan and its story is more than well documented.
This vibrant post-punk scene had a flamboyant clientele who were dubbed ‘Blitz Kids’, ‘The Cult With No Name’ and ‘New Romantics’.
It became the catalyst for several bands including VISAGE, SPANDAU BALLET and CULTURE CLUB, as well as assorted fashion designers, visual artists and writers.
Rusty Egan told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “I just played as much as I could fit in, it was not all disco. It was a bar and opened after work. I’d arrive 8.30–9.00pm and played all my faves till it was packed, then I got them dancing and at the end, I slowed down”.
The dancing style at The Blitz Club often involved the swaying of arms at a distance from the face like slow motion maraca shaking so as not to spoil any carefully hairsprayed styles. Meanwhile, feet movements were often impossible as the small dancefloor was often overcrowded!
With Steve Strange as doorman and fashion gatekeeper, the concept for what was initially a “Bowie Night” came together at Billy’s nightclub in Soho in Autumn 1978 in an effort to find something new and colourful to escape the oncoming drabness in the Winter Of Discontent. After a disagreement with the owners of Billy’s, the pair moved their venture to The Blitz Club.
Although Rusty Egan had been a soul boy and an active participant in punk through a stint rehearsing with THE CLASH and then as a member of THE RICH KIDS with Midge Ure, the two friends became fascinated with electronic dance music though the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer and KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ album which had been a surprise favourite in New York discos and whose title track referenced David Bowie.
“There was a couple of years of punk which Midge Ure and myself weren’t too impressed with in terms of the clubs and the environment in Thatcherite Britain, it was horrible in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool!” recalled Egan, “So we were just trying basically to grasp the good in life, trying to be positive in a very negative time.”
Photo by Gabor Scott
Although Egan curated an eclectic playlist of available synth works supplemented with soundtracks and relatable art rock tunes, tracks were comparatively scarce in this new innovative electronic form.
So with studio time available following the split of THE RICH KIDS, Ure and Egan hit upon the idea of making their own electronic dance music for The Blitz Club, fronted by Steve Strange. Ure came up with the name VISAGE for the project and presented the demo to his then employers at EMI Records, but it was rejected!
Undeterred, the pair recruited Billy Currie from a then-in hiatus ULTRAVOX plus MAGAZINE’s Dave Formula, John McGeoch and Barry Adamson to record the first VISAGE album at the-then newly constructed Genetic Studios of Martin Rushent.
When Billy Currie toured with Gary Numan in 1979, he and fellow keyboardist Chris Payne composed what was to become ‘Fade To Grey’; it was included on the eventual ‘Visage’ album released by Polydor Records in 1980 and the rest is history, reaching No1 in West Germany!
VISAGE was the beauty of the synthesizer played with symphonic classical overtones fused to the electronic dance beat of Neu Europa and visually styled like a cross between the Edwardian dandies and Weimar Cabaret. Midge Ure remembered “it was a major part of my life and Steve was a major part of that period”.
The meeting of Ure and Currie in VISAGE led to the diminutive Glaswegian joining a relaunched ULTRAVOX who released the iconic ‘Vienna’ album in 1980. Co-produced by Conny Plank, the German always thought in terms of sound and on the title song, he imagined an old man at a piano in a desolate theatre who had been playing the same tune for forty years.
And when Billy Currie came to record his ivory parts, that was exactly the feel which Plank had engineered. It was to become a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the New Romantic movement when it was released as a single, stalling at No2 despite being one of the best selling singles of 1981, gracing the UK charts at the same time as ‘Fade To Grey’.
Having started as a “Bowie Night”, the man himself became fascinated by this emergent cult with no name that he had inspired. In 1980, Jacqueline Bucknell, an assistant from his label RCA who was also a Blitz Kid, had taken Bowie down to The Blitz Club to cast extras to appear in a video for his new single ‘Ashes To Ashes’; among the chosen ones was Steve Strange.
Utilising Roland guitar synths and an ARP string machine with a final burst of ARP Odyssey, David Bowie saw ‘Ashes To Ashes’ as an epitaph for his artistic past as he lyrically revisited the Major Tom character from ‘Space Oddity’ over a decade on.
With this, The Blitz Club had now become a mainstream phenomenon as the BBC’s Nationwide programme sent an investigative team in, signalling a changing of the guard in popular culture with parallel scenes going on at The Rum Runner in Birmingham, The Warehouse in Leeds and Crocs in Rayleigh from which DURAN DURAN, SOFT CELL and DEPECHE MODE were to respectively gain their fledgling followings.
The perceived elitist exclusivity of The Blitz Club had partly become legend as a result of Steve Strange refusing entry to Mick Jagger for his sporting of blue jeans. Playing on this and adopting its electronic aesthetic to attract attention, five lads from Islington formed SPANDAU BALLET and initially only performed at special events which were by invitation only. Essentially becoming The Blitz Club’s house band, the quintet later scored worldwide success with a less radical sanitised pop soul sound.
Singer Tony Hadley said to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “Our first album The ‘Journeys To Glory’ will always be one of my favourite Spandau albums, we were just young excited lads trying to make our mark on the world. There’s a rawness and energy on that album that is impossible to recreate. I love synthpop and still one of my favourite songs is SPANDAU BALLET’s first release ‘ To Cut A Long Story Short’.”
Not all enjoyed their visits to The Blitz Club; Billy MacKenzie notably highlighted the vapid nature of the scene in ASSOCIATES’ second hit single ‘Club Country’. But buoyed by its success, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan eventually vacated The Blitz Club and took over The Music Machine in 1982 and relaunched it as The Camden Palace, making it one of the UK’s first modern superclubs.
But the spirit of The Blitz Club still lives on and recently, there came the surprise announcement that Zaine Griff was to join Rusty Egan and ‘Fade To Grey’ co-writer Chris Payne to perform the songs of VISAGE in an audio-visual presentation at a number of events across Europe including W-Festival in Belgium.
Using Dave Rimmer’s 2003 book ‘New Romantics: The Look’ as an initial reference point and calling on the memories of Rusty Egan himself to verify whether he had actually played these songs in his DJ sets, here are 25 Songs Of The Blitz Club selected by ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK to celebrate the flamboyant legacy of that Blitz Spirit.
ROXY MUSIC Both Ends Burning (1975)
Following-up the hit single ‘Love In The Drug’, ‘Both Ends Burning’ was ROXY MUSIC’s second ‘Siren’ call. With Bryan Ferry’s stylised but anguished vocals, it was a track which laid down the sophisticated art pop trail that JAPAN and DURAN DURAN would later be pursuing. Featuring a prominent coating of ARP Solina string machine sweetened by hypnotic bass and squawky sax, ‘Both Ends Burning’ is probably the most under rated single in the Roxy canon.
Available on the ROXY MUSIC album ‘The Best Of’ via Virgin Records
With a title that was an anagram of TALKING HEADS, the New York art school combo were the inspiration for the frantic metallic romp of ‘Kings Lead Hat’ which became a favourite at The Blitz Club. Brian Eno aped David Byrne in his vocal delivery, while he was later to produce three of the band’s albums as he moved further away from art rock as a solo artist. The song was later covered by ULTRAVOX in their live sets during the early phase their Midge Ure-fronted incarnation.
KRAFTWERK reacted as they generally did to negative criticism by writing a song. A response to a review that said their motionless persona at live performances was like ‘Showroom Dummies’, the sparse eerie atmosphere was punctuated by a tight and rigid electronic drum sound that was completely new and alien, something Rusty Egan was looking to emulate. Incidentally, the count-in of “eins zwei drei vier” was a deadpan Germanic parody of THE RAMONES!
An Iggy Pop collaboration with David Bowie, the Vampiric glam of ‘Nightclubbing’ was the former James Osterberg’s commentary on what it was like hanging out with him every night. Utilising a simple piano melody and a cold Schaffel rhythm via the mechanical precision of a Roland drum machine, legend has it that Iggy insisted on keeping it, saying “it kicks ass, it’s better than a drummer”. Alongside ‘Lust For Life’, ‘Nightclubbing’ also featured in the soundtrack of ‘Trainspotting’.
Available on the IGGY POP album ‘The Idiot’ via Virgin Records
Utilising Warren Cann’s modified Roland TR77 rhythm machine, this was John Foxx moving ULTRAVOX! into the moody ambience pioneered by CLUSTER, away from the art rock of the self-titled first album and the punky interim single ‘Young Savage’. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ had initially been premiered as a far spikier uptempo number for the B-side of ‘ROckWrok’. Incidentally, the ‘CC’ credited on saxophone is not Chris Cross, but a member of the art collective GLORIA MUNDI.
Available on the ULTRAVOX! album ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ via Island Records
LA DÜSSELDORF’s second long player ‘Viva’ was their most successful album and the title track was a regular staple at The Blitz Club. An oddball slice of cosmic space rock sung in French and German by Klaus Dinger, proceedings were aided by the dual motorik thud of Hans Lampe and Thomas Dinger. Performed with the same group of musicians, ‘E-Musik’ by Dinger’s previous band NEU! had also been a favourite at The Blitz Club, influencing the intro of the ULTRAVOX B-side ‘Face To Face’.
Commissioned by Alan Parker for the graphic prison drama ‘Midnight Express’, the noted director wanted some electronic accompaniment to the crucial chase scene of the film in the style of ‘I Feel Love’. The bassline from Giorgio Moroder’s own 1976 cover of ‘Knights In White Satin’ was reappropriated. The fruit of their labours was this Oscar winning Hi-NRG romp bursting with VANGELIS-like keyboard melodies, driven by an intense slamming and syncopated by popping pulses.
Already a fan of German music and ‘Autobahn’ by KRAFTWERK in particular, Daniel Miller’s sense of experimentation and an adoption of punk’s DIY ethic led him to buying a Korg 700s synthesizer. Wanting to make a punk single with electronics, he wrote and recorded the stark JG Ballard influenced ‘Warm Leatherette’ as an independent single release on his own Mute Records. Meanwhile, The Blitz Kids came up with their own bizarre twisting and turning dance entering a human arch to accompany it…
The late Wolfgang Riechmann is the forgotten man in the Düsseldorf axis having been in SPIRITS OF SOUND with Michael Rother and Wolfgang Flür; had his life not been tragically cut short, he certainly had the potential to become a revered and respected cult musical figure. The opening title track of his only album chimed like a Cold War spy drama before the beautifully almost oriental melodic piece imagined PINK FLOYD meeting CLUSTER over a delicate Schaffel beat.
ZAGER & EVANS’ pessimistic ditty was perfect fodder for the first VISAGE demo. Steered by Midge Ure using his freshly acquired Yamaha synths and punctuated by Rusty Egan’s incessant Roland drum machine and synthetic percussion, ‘In The Year 2525’ was perfectly resigned aural dystopia from its vocodered intro onwards. Steve Strange’s deadpan fronted the sombre tone perfectly but Ure’s vocal backing and counterpoints added that extra slice of musicality.
Available on the VISAGE album ‘The Face’ via Universal Records
One of first Japanese bands to have a Top 20 hit single in the UK was YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA in 1980. ‘Firecracker’ was a cover of a 1959 composition by Martin Denny but actually released as ‘Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)’. Recorded in 1978, the parent self-titled album was noted for its use of the then brand new Roland MC8 Micro-Composer to control the synthesizers. The result was a clean, exotic pop sound that was unusual, even in the synthpop heartland of Europe.
Produced by Zeus B Held, ‘No GDM’ was written by androgynous art history student Gina Kikoine in honour of the “great dark man” Quentin Crisp and featured an array of ARP and Moog synths to signal the birth of a new European Underground. Unsurprisingly, the song gained heavy rotation at The Blitz Club. The nonchalant, detached vocal influence of GINA X PERFORMANCE went on to be heard in the music of LADYTRON, CLIENT and MISS KITTIN.
Working with Giorgio Moroder, David Sylvian submitted ‘European Son’ for the session in Los Angeles but it was rejected by the producer. Instead, the Italian offered several of his demos, of which, Sylvian picked the one he considered to be the worst so that he could stamp more of his own vision for the developing synthesized sound of JAPAN. Considered to be too avant-garde at its inception but ahead of its time, unbeknown to Moroder and Sylvian, they had just conceived DURAN DURAN!
Available on the JAPAN album ‘Assemblage’ via Sony BMG Records
THOMAS LEER & ROBERT RENTAL Day Breaks Night Heals (1979)
Originally released on THROBBING GRISTLE’s Industrial Records, ‘The Bridge’ album saw Scottish duo Thomas Leer and Robert Rental trading vocal and instrumental duties. With an air of FAD GADGET, ‘Day Breaks Night Heals’ showcased some of Leer’s pop sensibility that was later apparent in his Arista solo period and in ACT with Claudia Brücken, while Rental maintained a dark experimental presence in this slice of artful electronic blues. Robert Rental sadly passed away in 2000.
Available on the album ‘The Bridge’ via The Grey Area
Manipulating their influences like SPARKS and MAGAZINE with a very European austere, Glasgow’s SIMPLE MINDS were “underground, pulsating through” thanks to the rhythmic interplay of Derek Forbes’ bass with Mick McNeil’s synths. Charlie Burchill was now thinking beyond the sound of a conventional electric guitar while the precision of under rated drummer Brian McGee locked the glue. That just left Jim Kerr to throw his bizarre shapes and pontificate over this dark avant disco.
Having graced the UK Top 20 again with the tremendous ‘No1 Song In Heaven’, SPARKS continued their Giorgio Moroder produced rejuvenation and had an even bigger hit with ‘Beat The Clock’. Percussively augmented by Keith Forsey who was later to produce Billy Idol, Russell Mael’s flamboyant falsetto more than suited the electronic disco sound while the programmed backing meant that Ron Mael could stoically maintain his image of doing nothing.
Belgian trio TELEX comprised of Marc Moulin, Dan Lacksman and Michel Moers, with the intention of “making something really European, different from rock, without guitar”. Opening their debut album ‘Looking for Saint Tropez’ which also contained their funeral robotic cover of ‘Rock Around The Clock’, ‘Moscow Diskow’ took the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow, adding a funkier groove compared with KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ excursion for what was to become a cult international club favourite.
From their third album ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’, the uncompromising THROBBING GRISTLE led by the late Genesis P-Orridge were neither jazzy or funky! Gloriously sequenced by Chris Carter via a Roland System-100M modular, ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ was mutant dystopian disco lento with a hypnotic rhythm punctuated by a synthetic whip-crack for that S&M twist as Cosey Fanni Tutti’s whispered vocals competed with pentatonic melodies and electronic drill noises!
Zaine Griff had a Bowie-esque poise was tailor made for The Blitz Club and Tony Visconti saw enough in him to produce his debut solo album ‘Ashes & Diamonds’. Featuring Hans Zimmer on synths, the title song was sitting just outside the Top 40 and earned a performance on Top Of The Pops but the episode was pulled thanks to a Musicians Union strike. Demonstrating the song’s longevity despite it not being a major hit, it was recently covered live by American alternative rockers MGMT.
‘Being Boiled’ was the first song Philip Oakey wrote with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh for THE HUMAN LEAGUE, his bizarre lyrics being the result of a confusion between Buddhism and Hinduism while highlighting the plight of silk worms. Intended to reimagine FUNKADELIC’s funky overtones as synthetic horns, this brassier re-recorded version with fatter electronic beats was included on the ‘Holiday 80’ EP and the ‘Travelogue’ album, becoming a dance staple of The Blitz Club.
Available as a bonus track on THE HUMAN LEAGUE album ‘Travelogue’ via Virgin Records
Didier Marouani wrote the worldwide hit ‘Magic Fly’ but having left the band, Roland Romanelli and Jannick Top continued as SPACE. The rousing thrust of ‘Tender Force’ was, like ‘Magic Fly’, produced by Jean-Philippe Iliesco who later invited Rusty Egan to contribute a timbale heavy remix of this synth disco tune ; he was later to begin an ill-fated business relationship with Iliesco who was named by Midge Ure in his ‘If I Was’ autobiography as responsible for putting a wedge between him and Egan in VISAGE…
Although now known as a duo, eccentric Swiss pioneers YELLO actually began as a trio of Dieter Meier, Boris Blank and Carlos Peron. Later remixed and extended, the military drum tattoo at the start of ‘Bostich’ was deceiving as an electronic throb quickly set in. This was perfect avant garde disco for The Blitz Club with a quirky range of vocal pitches from Meier while the track also included a style of speedy European rap later that was repeated on their only major UK hit ‘The Race’ in 1988.
Available on the YELLO album ‘Essential’ via Mercury Records
Electronic pop music was often seen as pretentious, LANDSCAPE had their tongues firmly in their cheeks as evidenced by ‘Einstein A Go-Go’. “The song is a cautionary tale about the apocalyptic possibilities of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of theocratic dictators and religious extremists.” said the band’s Richard Burgess, “We talked about the track conceptually before we wrote it and our objective was to make a very simple, cartoon-like track with a strong hook that would belie the meaning of the lyrics!”
Written as a B-side instrumental for The Blitz Club’s resident dance troupe SHOCK to work a routine to, ‘R.E.R.B.’ was constructed by Rusty Egan and Richard Burgess, hence the title. Burgess had been doing the linking interludes with a Fairlight on the first VISAGE album and brought in Roland System 700 modular driven by the Micro-composer while Egan triggered the brain of the synthesized drum system that Burgess had been working on with Dave Simmons for its punchy drum fills.
Available on the SHOCK single ‘R.E.R.B.’ via Blitz Club Records
Produced by Daniel Miller, one of the first SOFT CELL recordings on signing to Phonogram was the seminal ‘Memorabilia’. While not a hit, it was critically acclaimed and become a favourite at The Blitz Club. Dave Ball’s deep Roland Synthe-Bass and klanky Korg Rhythm KR55 provided a distinctive danceable backbone to accompany Marc Almond’s souvenir collecting metaphors about sexual promiscuity. After this, SOFT CELL were signed by Rusty Egan to Metropolis Music for publishing.
So how did ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK arrive at its discerning musical ethos?
It probably all began with a very liberal and Bohemian junior school teacher named Miss Nielsen who played KRAFTWERK’s ‘Autobahn’, PINK FLOYD’s ‘Echoes’ and the soundtrack of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to the class, with the unusual sound of all three providing an otherworldly, yet captivating listen.
Later on, various parts of the 22 minute ‘Autobahn’ track appeared on the end credits of BBC children’s drama ‘Out Of Bounds’ and opened ‘Newsround Extra’, but 1977 was to become the true Year Zero in electronic pop. With ‘Oxygène’, ‘Sound & Vision’, ‘Magic Fly’ and ‘I Feel Love’ all hitting the UK Top 3 within months of each other, this was effectively the beginning of synths designing the future.
To celebrate the 10th birthday of the site, here is a very personal list of 30 tracks that shaped the site. These are primarily songs that solidified and expanded the interest in synth or later provided hope in the face of real music snobbery and the return of the guitar in the wake of Britpop.
There will be grumbles that the likes of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, HEAVEN 17, YAZOO, DURAN DURAN, TALK TALK, PROPAGANDA, CLIENT, RÖYKSOPP and others are not featured, and certainly if this list was a 40, they would all be included. But this list is an impulsive snapshot of ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s own journey in music, as opposed to being a history of electronic pop or a best of.
What? No industrial, acid house, techno or dubstep you ask? Well, that’s because ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK disliked the majority of it. While this is not always the case, the site has generally about synthpop ie pop music using synthesizers, as can be seen from this rather esteemed electronic roll of honour 😉
This is the history that the too cool for school media, who think everything jumped from KRAFTWERK to Detroit Techno in one fell swoop, don’t like to mention…
With a restriction of one track per artist moniker and presented in yearly and then alphabetical order featuring music from before the site came into being, here is why is it how it is…
JEAN-MICHEL JARRE Oxygène (1976)
For many including Jean-Michel Jarre, ‘Popcorn’ for their first experience of a synthpop hit and he released his own version under the moniker of THE POPCORN ORCHESTRA in 1972. But while working on his first proper full length electronic album in 1976, Jarre adapted a melodic phrase from the late Gershon Kingsley’s composition as the main theme of what was to become the project’s lead single. That composition was ‘Oxygène IV’ and the rest is history.
Exploring a “whole new school of pretension” with his new creative muse Brian Eno, ‘Sound & Vision’ saw David Bowie capture a tense European aesthetic. Utilising an uplifting rhythm guitar hook and an ARP Solina string machine, the most distinctive feature was the pitch shifted percussion, produced by Tony Visconti feeding the snare drum though an Eventide H910 Harmonizer. The half instrumental track was a taster of the approach that was to come with the half instrumental parent album ‘Low’.
SPACE was the brainchild of Didier Marouani who went under the pseudonym of Ecama and formed the collective in 1977 with Roland Romanelli and Jannick Top. Together with compatriot Jean-Michel Jarre and a certain Giorgio Moroder also in the charts, the space disco of the iconic ‘Magic Fly’ heralded the start of a new European electronic sound within the mainstream. With its catchy melody and lush accessible futurism, ‘Magic Fly’ sold millions all over the world.
Working with Donna Summer on an album called ‘I Remember Yesterday’, producer Giorgio Moroder wanted to feature a track that represented “the sound of the future”. Employing the Moog Modular system with an 8-step analogue sequencer plus a triplet delay to create the pulsing synthesizer lines and metronomic beat, ‘I Feel Love’ changed the course of music. Summer’s hypnotic Middle Eastern falsetto was an accident, coming as a result of the track being laid down outside of her usual vocal range.
Using a Micromoog for its iconic hook, ‘The Model’ was inspired by KRAFTWERK’s visits to night clubs in the more vibrant city of Cologne 30km down the road from Düsseldorf where their iconic Kling Klang studio was based. There, they would observe beautiful models drinking champagne and seek their company. It was quite the antithesis of the robot image that the quartet were portraying. Sonically ahead of its time, it became a UK No1 four years after its initial release in 1982.
In a creative rut following their massive UK success in the glam-era, the Mael Brothers had found ‘I Feel Love’ awe inspiring. A journalist friend put SPARKS into contact with Giorgio Moroder who had aspirations to work with a band and set to work with them immediately. The first result was the tremendous ‘No1 Song In Heaven’ where Russell Mael’s flamboyant falsetto fitted well with the electro-disco sound, while the programmed backing meant Ron Mael could maintain his image of doing nothing.
Still using the group name of TUBEWAY ARMY at the behest of Beggars Banquet, the astoundingly long ‘Are Friends Electric?’ with its diabolus in musica structure became the entry point for many into electronic music. It was Synth Britannia’s ‘Starman’ moment when it was featured on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and Old Grey Whistle Test’ during the same week. When it reached No1 in the UK, life was never the same for Gary Numan, the pale-faced front man of what turned out to be a phantom band.
Available on the album ‘Replicas’ via Beggars Banquet
Departing ULTRAVOX after the ‘Systems Of Romance’ album and now making music along with an ARP Odyssey, Elka Rhapsody and a Roland CR78 Compurhythm, John Foxx realised his own starker vision of electronic music. Engineered by Gareth Jones who was to later notably work with DEPECHE MODE, ‘Underpass’ channelled the dystopian writings of JG Ballard in his lyrical imagery, with Foxx added that the English novelist was “addressing what I’d come to call ‘the unrecognised present’.”
Available on the album ‘Metamatic’ via Metamatic Records
A track that “weighed more than Saturn”, ‘The Black Hit Of Space’ sounded extraordinary when it opened the second album by THE HUMAN LEAGUE. The Sci-Fi lyrics about an infinite pop hit were strangely out there while harsh screeching frequencies from overdriving the mixing desk; “We were also experimenting with guitar pedals” Martyn Ware told The Electricity Club, “All that was a reaction to the cleanness of the previous album so we overcompensated.”
The resonant heart of ‘Quiet Life’ was a Roland System 700 driven by Richard Barbieri’s snappy eight step Oberheim Mini-sequencer. Complimented by Mick Karn’s distinctively fluid fretless bass, Rob Dean’s clean guitar lines and David Sylvian’s lyrical conclusion that the band were outsiders in the environment they were born into, it was a sure-fire hit… but not yet as Ariola Hansa release it as a single in the UK until 1981. But meanwhile, JAPAN had invented DURAN DURAN!
Within the environment of colder electronic pioneers such as Gary Numan and John Foxx, OMD were perhaps the first of the warmer synthesizer bands. ‘Messages’ utilised a pulsing ‘Repeat’ function on a Korg Micro-Preset shaped by hand twisting the octave knob. Re-recorded from the original album version under the helm of producer Mike Howlett, he harnessed a template of basic primary chord structures and one fingered melodies, netting a No13 UK chart hit.
Of ‘Astradyne’, Billy Currie told The Electricity Club: “Midge started with that strong melody, Chris’ bass was also a very strong feature. I played a piano counter melody behind. The track was so strong that we felt at ease to lengthen it with a long textural piano bit that is sort of bell-like with the metronomic bass drum beats and the violin tremolo solo… Midge came up with that final section lift taking it out of the long ARP solo. I double it! It is very celebratory at the end…”
Available on the album ‘Vienna’ via Chrysalis/EMI Records
Conceived during soundchecks under the working title of ‘Toot City’ while they were playing on Gary Numan’s first concert tour, Chris Payne, Billy Currie and Ced Sharpley had recorded the track at Genetic Studios as a souvenir keepsake. Midge Ure later came up lyrics and a melody when the track was added to the debut VISAGE album and the rest was history. Capturing the cinematic pomp of the New Romantic movement in all its glory, ‘Fade To Grey’ became a No1 hit in West Germany.
Available on the album ‘Visage’ via Polydor Records
Written by Vince Clarke and produced by Daniel Miller, DEPECHE MODE fulfilled the Mute label founder’s vision of a teenage pop group with synthesizers that he had imagined and conceived for SILICON TEENS. Despite its danceable bubblegum appeal and catchy synthesizer hooks, ‘New Life’ also featured some intricate folk vocal harmonies which made it quite distinct from the chanty nature of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ which was also out at the same time.
The expansive instrumental ‘Theme for Great Cities’ was initially been given away as a freebie having initially been part of ‘Sister Feelings Call’, a seven track EP given gratis to early purchasers of SIMPLE MINDS’ breakthrough fourth album ‘Sons & Fascination’. Starting with some haunting vox humana before a combination of CAN and TANGERINE DREAM takes hold, the rhythm section covered in dub echo drove what is possibly one of the greatest synth signatures ever!
SOFT CELL’s cover of ‘Tainted Love’ became ubiquitous as Synth Britannia’s first true crossover record, reaching No1 in UK, Germany, Australia and Canada while also breaking the US Top 10 a year later. Written by Ed Cobb, ‘Tainted Love’ was recorded by Gloria Jones and became a Wigan Casino favourite on the Northern Soul scene. As a fan of that scene, David Ball knew the song and took it into haunting electronic torch territory, while Marc Almond added an honestly spirited vocal.
With its iconic honky tonk piano line and sophisticated arrangement, ‘Party Fears Two’ was a magnificent song about dealing with the perils of schizophrenia, made all the more resonant by Billy Mackenzie’s operatic prowess. It also kick started a brief period when ASSOCIATES subverted the UK charts with an avant pop approach that fitted in with the Synth Britannia template of the times. A Top10 hit and emotive to the nth degree, the original single version is still the best and total perfection.
Harrow College of Art students Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe were unlikely pop stars, but an appearance on the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ led to a deal with London Records as well as support slots with DEPECHE MODE and JAPAN. Using a Korg MS20 synched to a Linn Drum Computer as its rhythmic backbone, the haunting melancholy of ‘I’ve Seen The Word’ fused the sombre lyricism of JOY DIVISION with the melodies and textures of OMD via a Roland Jupiter 8.
Merseyside duo CHINA CRISIS are probably the most under rated band of their generation. The haunting ‘Christian’ was a song about the fate of soldiers in the trenches during World War One. Slow and melancholic, ‘Christian’ was as unlikely a hit single as ‘Ghosts’ by JAPAN was, but in a far more open-minded and diverse period in pop music than today, acts with a less obvious rock ‘n’ roll outlook were generally in with a chance; it reached No12 in the UK singles charts.
‘Temptation’ was NEW ORDER’s self-produced electronic breakthrough away from the haunting legacy of JOY DIVISION. The recording itself was marvellously flawed, with Stephen Morris’ overdriven Simmons snare panned too far to the right while band members could also be heard calling instructions and tutting. The pulsing hypnotism of the triggered ARP Quadra and the iconic “oooh-oo-ooh” vocal refrain made ‘Temptation’ rather joyous and magical.
When Jimmy Somerville, Steve Bronski and the late Larry Steinbachek made their first ever TV appearance performing on BBC2’s ‘ORS’, BRONSKI BEAT were nothing short of startling, thanks to their look, their minimal synth sound and Somerville’s lonely earth shattering falsetto. The trio had sought to be more outspoken and political in their position as openly gay performers and the tale of ‘Smalltown Boy’ about a gay teenager leaving his family and fleeing his hometown made an important statement.
It was with the re-recorded Stephen Hague version of ‘West End Girls’ that PET SHOP BOYS hit No1 in both the UK and US in 1986. Interestingly, the character of its distinctive bass synth was achieved by Hague coercing a reluctant Chris Lowe into hand playing the riff. Meanwhile, the track fulfilled Neil Tennant’s concept of the duo sounding “like an English rap group” with a dour demeanour that was the antithesis of WHAM! It started an imperial phase for PET SHOP BOYS which included three more No1s.
In today’s world, DEPECHE MODE influenced acts are common place but in 1988, this was highly unusual. Taking ‘Some Great Reward’ as their template, CAMOUFLAGE developed on the industrial flavoured synthpop of ‘Master & Servant’ and ‘People Are People’ which the Basildon boys had all but abandoned from ‘Black Celebration’ onwards. Probably the best single DM never recorded. while ‘The Great Commandment’ was a hit in Europe and the US, it made no impression in Britain.
Available on the CAMOUFLAGE album ‘The Singles’ via Polydor Records / Universal Music
Produced by Stephen Hague, ‘A Little Respect’ was perfection from the off with its lively combination of Vince Clarke’s pulsing programming and strummed acoustic guitar. As the busy rhythmical engine kicked in, Andy Bell went from a tenor to a piercing falsetto to provide the dynamic highs and lows that are always omnipresent in all the great pop songs like ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Careless Whisper’. Something of a crossover record for ERASURE, ‘A Little Respect’ was covered by WHEATUS in 2000.
DUBSTAR straddled Britpop with a twist of Synth Britannia. ‘Not So Manic Now’ was a song by Wakefield indie band BRICK SUPPLY, but the trio made it their own with the Northern lass earthiness of Sarah Blackwood providing the chilling commentary of an attack on a helpless pensioner. Stephen Hague’s wonderful production fused programmed electronics with guitars and cello in fine fashion, while the incessant programmed rhythms drove the song along without being obtrusive to the horrifying story.
It is interesting to think that GOLDFRAPP were initially labelled as a trip-hop act. Their superb stratospheric debut ‘Felt Mountain’ had Ennio Morricone’s widescreen inflections but to accompany an ascent to the Matterhorn rather than a trek through a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. The opening song ‘Lovely Head’ was laced with deviant sexual tension. Will Gregory’s mad Korg MS20 treatments on Alison Goldfrapp’s operatic screaming produced some thrilling musical moments.
Describing the relationship between artist and fan, this was another throbbing Moroder-inspired cacophony of electronic dance from Michel Amato with a dirty clanking Korg KR55 Rhythm used to great effect. Deliciously hypnotic, the swimmy ARP synths drowned any sorrows as the pulsing euphoria took a hold. Miss Kittin didn’t sing as much as deadpan her thoughts, but her sexy Grenoble charm carried off what was a rather superb Electroclash anthem.
LADYTRON became one of the first bands for many years to primarily use synthesizers as their tools of expression and attain critical acclaim. Their debut ‘604’showed electro potential in their initial quest to find ‘yesterday’s tomorrow’. With octave shifts galore to satirical lyrics about the X-Factor/Next Year’s Top Model generation, ‘Seventeen’ demonstrated the tactile nature of analogue synthesis that was key to a revival in fortunes for electronic pop in the 21st Century.
Probably the most influential electronic act to come out of Sweden are THE KNIFE. Those long winter nights certainly had their effect on siblings Karin and Olof Dreijer. ‘Silent Shout’ was hypnotic understated rave with the a quota of creepy Nordic eccentricity. The sharp appregiator and ambient percussion melted with Karin Dreijer’s heavily pitch-shifted low register vocals providing a menacing counterpoint to her younger brother’s vibrant electronic lattice.
Is a cover or is it Memorex? This interpolation of ‘Space Age Love Song’ by A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS provided MARSHEAUX with their most immediate number yet. Borrowing the uniformed look of CLIENT but applying a pure synthpop template, Marianthi Melitsi and Sophie Sarigiannidou became notable for their marketing masterstrokes. The parent ‘Peek-A-Boo’ CD included a paper bag ghost mask. Fans wore it, took pictures and sent them to the duo… around 3,500 pictures were gathered!
Uwe Schütte is a noted KRAFTWERK scholar who curated the first ever conference on the iconic German pioneers in 2015.
A Reader in German at Aston University in Birmingham where he teaches and researches contemporary Austrian and German literature, the writer W.G. Sebald and German popular music, in 2017 he compiled ‘German Pop Music: A Companion’, a 270 page book discussing the post-war musical landscape of the country and its influence internationally.
This is the story of Die Mensch-Maschinen as a cultural phenomenon told crucially from a local point of view. Of particular significance in Schütte’s premise is the context of how after the Second World War, Germany was divided in two with the atrocities it committed very much in the minds of its population. Frankfurt and Nuremberg were occupied by the US Army while in Der Rheinland, Düsseldorf itself had the presence of the British Army; it was within this context that KRAFTWERK emerged.
Schütte discusses how since the Second World War, young Germans are educated about the Nazi atrocities and The Holocaust with the emphasis on peace and prevention of further conflict. Compare that to the British attitude to recent history where heroism and bravado are celebrated with war monuments, where Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists is considered a flawed man of the people (see the ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ song sketch from 1980), Edward VIII is seen as the king who gave up his throne for love rather than as the spying Nazi sympathiser he actually was and British Empire inventions such as the concentration camp are conveniently glossed over.
With a desire for a new Germanic cultural identity ignoring Trans-Atlantic rock traditions, KRAFTWERK fused sound and technology, graphic design and performance, modernist Bauhaus aesthetics and Rhineland industrialisation to conceive a Gesamtkunstwerk or “synthesis of the arts” that was to change the course of modern music.
Düsseldorf is just half an hour to Belgium and The Netherlands, and an hour to Paris so an accessible spirit of cultural adventure was to manifest itself in the creative minds of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, thanks to their location and education. ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ were deep inside their psyche, while ‘Europe Endless’ was forward thinking despite its nostalgic romanticism and dreamt of a continent without borders that supported a vision of peace and unity.
KRAFTWERK’s role as cross-cultural ambassadors was not just restricted to Europe, as urban America in particular embraced their vision and adapted it to their own forms as they became the bridge between electronic pop and dance music, having already straddled a line between improvisation and pop.
But while KRAFTWERK had been assertive in confronting and reclaiming aspects of Germany’s past, they could be vague when looking at their country’s more immediate future. One interesting aspect is Schütte’s account of how KRAFTWERK upset the powerful anti-nuclear lobby in Germany with their ambiguous lyricism on the song ‘Radio-Activity’ when originally released in 1975. The band did not help their situation by having promotional images photographed in atomic power installations.
But in 1991, KRAFTWERK reworked the track for ‘The Mix’ to contain an explicit anti-nuclear message to “STOP RADIOACTIVITY” while also highlighting the tragedies and disasters in Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield and Hiroshima; it was then updated in 2012 to mention Fukushima as part of the ‘No Nukes’ event in Japan put together by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The artistic tensions that have led to Ralf Hütter remaining as the sole member from the classic RFWK line-up and KRAFTWERK effectively stalling as a creative force musically are given a positive slant by Schütte, despite only one album of new material appearing since 1986’s ‘Electric Café’ / ‘Techno Pop’ adventure.
A music paper once wrote about KRAFTWERK’s music “it’s good but is it rock and roll?” – well, of course it isn’t, THAT’S THE POINT! While KRAFTWERK have been less than productive on the new material front, they have continued their pursuit of modernism in the spirit of the Bauhaus movement, unifying art and technology, pushing forward innovations in 3D visuals and surround sound.
KRAFTWERK have certainly not done anything like going backwards to allow the turgid interference of drums and guitars to dominate their live sound in the way DEPECHE MODE have in their desperate attempts at validation from the predictable narrow-minded standpoint of the rock community. When Ralf Hütter was once asked by a British journalist whether KRAFTWERK songs could be played on an acoustic guitar, he gave the question the disdain it deserved and wryly replied “I play keyboards!”🎹
KRAFTWERK are the ultimate anti-rock icons. To that end, if they were to be inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, it would destroy everything their cultural legacy as pioneers of electronic music has established and make them just another boring rock band.
Uwe Schütte talked about what makes ‘KRAFTWERK Future Music from Germany’ unique, as well as how he believes the band’s legacy and future will play out.
There are already books on the history of KRAFTWERK, by Pascal Bussy, Tim Barr and David Buckley, among others, why does the world need another?
Yes, the three KRAFTWERK B-boys, as I call them in my book… Well, the books might share the same topic, but are all very different. Barr’s book is outdated, Bussy’s too. Buckley’s book does not use the many available sources in German, for example. And he focuses less on the performance history aspect. It is a very good book, but written by a British person for a British reading audience. My book translates the German cultural phenomena that is KRAFTWERK for an Anglophone readership.
Your book has a focus on design and image?
That is another distinguishing feature of ‘Future Music from Germany’. I treat KRAFTWERK as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that exceeds music and performance and also incorporates the visual dimension: from the cover designs to today’s complete audio-visual package at the 3D concerts.
As borne out by the back photo on the original German Philips release of ‘Autobahn’, KRAFTWERK had long hair but had it cut short for the concert tour. How and why did this come about?
Ralf Hütter wanted to give KRAFTWERK a more sober, cleaner image, to distance the band from received notions of how a rock band should look and sound.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK rather likes the vintage suit look of ‘Trans Europe Express’. Which image was your favourite?
I love it, too, and discuss how I first saw the poster of the band members sitting at an outdoor café in their conservative attire in the book. I found it truly odd.
How important was Emil Schult’s graphical and musical contributions to the band?
Very, very important. And much underrated. I try to put the record straight.
You make an interesting observation as to how the original German lyrics to the ‘Computerwelt’ title track are more complex and sinister in their now timely observation of how data is being used and manipulated, compared with the simplified almost nursery rhyme take in English?
Yes, it is important to me to alert English-language readers to the differences between the two languages. I listened to KRAFTWERK singing in German for almost 40 years. They were essentially the only band using my native language – as a German, I equated pop music with English lyrics.
The reissues that made up ‘Der Katalog’ boxed set were quite revisionist on many levels. Was this necessary or an enhancement of the legend in your eyes?
Very necessary, albeit not perfectly done. I discuss KRAFTWERK as an ongoing, evolving art project, and the design changes were an important update of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
There were all the stories of Wolfgang Flür being written out of ‘Der Katalog’, but of course the irony is that Wolfgang’s face was cropped onto the face of Emil Schult for the back photo on the original German Philips release of ‘Autobahn’…
Yes, nothing new there. Karl Bartos was essentially eliminated from the oeuvre, too. But, although this is a dubious move on a moral level, it is a great improvement on an artistic level: the KRAFTWERK concept is all about eliminating personal, individual factors and foregrounding man-machine qualities.
If you read between the lines though, it would appear that Wolfgang Flür hasn’t actually contributed to a KRAFTWERK recording since 1978?
True, but he was important, as was Emil Schult, in various aspects that contributed to the success of the band project. My book, however, is little concerned with gossip or the human frailties or personalities issues at stake. The other books take care if that. As an academic, my interest lies in the conceptual ideas that dominate KRAFTWERK: the notion of the man-machine, the idea of the robot as its avatar, the Gesamtkunstwerk concept and such like.
What was your take on how Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür approached their autobiographies?
Well, I took next to no info from Flür’s book and quoted Bartos’ a few times concerning technical and musical info, on which he is very good indeed. I definitely preferred Bartos’ book.
As far as maintaining their own parts of the KRAFTWERK legacy, Karl Bartos at least performs his KRAFTWERK co-writes alongside his new compositions live, but Wolfgang Flür peddles that rather tedious ‘Musik Soldat’ DJ set accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation. Do you agree?
To be honest, I haven’t seen either show so far. I prefer to go to KRAFTWERK concerts, to be honest. I liked the ‘Off The Record’ album, though.
Karl Bartos was KRAFTWERK’s Alan Wilder, discuss…
True. Next question.
Do you think KRAFTWERK’s refusal to collaborate with other musicians (eg Michael Jackson) has been a hindrance or help to the band?
Provided the rumour re Michael Jackson is true at all… Bowie certainly looked for cooperation, and I am pretty curious about how the music they would have made would have sounded… but ultimately it was of course the right decision to turn down all offers and stay strictly true to the concept.
How much longer do you think KRAFTWERK can continue with their 3D / graphics based show? The template for this has been in place for over 15 years now…
Hopefully still for many, many years. As soon as Hütter won’t be able to perform for health reasons, the game will be over anyway. What I am truly curious about is which, if any, precautions he has taken to ensure the KRAFTWERK project continues beyond that point. Maybe a permanent exhibition of the “musical paintings” at a museum?
What still drives Ralf? Surely he could rest on his laurels and appreciate the band’s legacy?
Florian Schneider’s departure in 2008 was the best thing that could have happened to KRAFTWERK. It gave Ralf Hütter the opportunity to start touring extensively and to take their amazing show to as many people as possible. The man-machine concept only comes alive if KRAFTWERK perform their shows on stage. Admittedly, I begin to tire of it a little, having now seen it some 15 times or more, but everyone who sees it for the first time is blown away, and rightly so!
We now live in a technological era of the virtual pop star eg HATSUNE MIKU + GORILLAZ… can you see a time when Ralf and co “retire” and send robots out on tour instead of them?
No, not really. Though I would go and see it, for “professional reasons”, as it were, it would not really interest me.
KRAFTWERK were left behind musically and technologically a long time ago. Is there anything you can see the band doing to help reclaim their crown in this era or has that time come and gone now?
This question excludes the crucial and decisive visual aspect. KRAFTWERK are still at the forefront of music: There is hardly a better electronic music concert experience around than their 3D audio-visual package with the full wave-field synthesis sound system. I went to see MODEL 500 recently in Berlin. They are proof that Detroit techno is well past its prime. And a cheap KRAFTWERK performance imitation.
If KRAFTWERK did release an album, what concepts could they possibly use in it? There was a rumour a few years ago about a bio-fuels theme…
Ah, interesting, I hadn’t heard that rumour. I speculate about themes such as AI, genetic manipulation and other post-humanist ideas that would fit with the robot and man-machine concept. But all of this is idle speculation. What I hope for, though, is another EP in the vein of ‘Expo 2000’… Or some officially approved remixes, like the ones by HOT CHIP.
You have this theory in the book that there will never be a new KRAFTWERK album because of the magic number 8?
And it is very convincing, don’t you agree? And what is even more convincing is the fact that Hütter, even if aided by Fritz Hilpert, would not be able to pull off the feat of making an album full of exciting new tracks that would exceed, or even match the existing ones.
Why do you think Ralf appears to distance himself from the first three KRAFTWERK albums so much, to the point where he sees ‘Autobahn’ as a “year zero” for the band?
Yes, of course, it is part of the myth, though Florian Schneider was no different.
What are your opinions on RAMMSTEIN’s version of ‘The Model’?
Don’t get me started. I hate it, and I hate RAMMSTEIN, not because of their sh*tty music, which I am not bothered about, but because their records and videos promote nationalist political thinking in Germany. The band purposely encourages right-wing agendas.
I am not fussed about people abroad liking the music, or even thinking that the Teutonic clichés these millionaire musicians peddle have anything to do with Germany or German culture.
KRAFTWERK have once again been overlooked at not inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Do you have an opinion on this?
Yes, I do: It is a disgrace.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Uwe Schütte
Special thanks to Matt Hutchinson at Penguin Music