It was to Laurie Johnson’s iconic TV theme tune that Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon walked onto the stage to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of CHINA CRISIS as a recording act with the ‘Classic Crisis – Greatest Hits’ show.
The location was The Stables in Wavendon, a village just on the edge of Milton Keynes; the venue had been originally established by jazz legends Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine in 1970, within the former stables block of their home, hence the name.
The entertainment began with a few anecdotes from Daly; an engaging raconteur who could probably get a spot on BBC comedy showcase ‘Live At The Apollo’, he apologised for the lack of visuals which has been seen at other shows, as the laptop containing them had been stolen from his car along with some stage clothes. But the story didn’t end there as Daly had thoughtfully placed a tracker on the computer and told of how the band gave chase and ended up at a local supermarket. They spotted the thief dumping the stage clothes into a charity recycling bin before legging it with the laptop!
It was an evening filled with laughter and music as Daly continued about how he and Lundon had met at St Kevin’s Catholic Boy School in Kirkby near Liverpool and began making music together, partly because they just about hated everyone else who attended! Similarly to OMD, the duo purchased their first synthesizer from a Kays mail order catalogue belonging to Lundon’s mother; it was familiar to Daly as he recalled, for the ladies’ underwear section, which ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK would like to add, was always easy to find as it was after the ladies shoes section!
Settling on a monophonic Yamaha CS10, Lundon used it to play just three notes on their debut single ‘African & White’.
It was at this point that the musical part of the show began with regular sidemen Jack Hymers on synth and saxophonist Eric Animan joined by a drummer, backing vocalist, bassist and another two guitarists (including Stuart Nisbet who played with CHINA CRISIS in 1986-87) to become Merseyside’s answer to BLAZIN’ SQUAD!
In true ‘This Is Your Life’ style, the setlist was primarily chronological as CHINA CRISIS ran through the highlights of their career and told the stories that behind them. Daly took joy in reminiscing about how they were signed by Virgin Records and became a “threat” to label mates and rival Merseyside duo OMD; “When Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey saw our photos, they must have thought ‘the game’s over’” Daly delightfully quipped.
But while OMD were affectionately the butt of the humour throughout the evening with the CC33 front man stating “we wrote about our girlfriends, but Andy McCluskey wrote about atomic bombs and genetics, typical pretentious sixth former…”, CHINA CRISIS were capable of haunting anti-war commentary too, as their first hit ‘Christian’ taken off the ‘Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms’ album proved. Meanwhile ‘Here Comes A Raincloud’ was an emotive observation on the plight of the working classes in Merseyside as it was ripped apart under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.
Given a slight Mexican flavour, CHINA CRISIS’ biggest UK hit ‘Wishful Thinking’ was followed by its sister song ‘It’s Never Too Late’, a rare number even in the wider Crisis Canon and deservedly given a platform on this 40th Anniversary tour.
However ‘It’s Never Too Late’ was dropped from the tracklisting for having a similar Emulator I string aesthetic and arrangement despite being of equal quality; it ended up being a bonus song on the limited edition second 12” of ‘Black Man Ray’ so was hardly heard even by CHINA CRISIS fans until it showed up on the 2017 deluxe reissue of third album ‘Flaunt The Imperfection’. “We should have released it after ‘Wishful Thinking’, we would have had another international hit and wouldn’t be here!” bantered Daly, “Like how many times have OMD played The Stables??? Like NEVER!”
‘Black Man Ray’ closed the first half of the show, with Daly recalling the excitement of working with the late Walter Becker of STEELY DAN who was bowled over by the song’s catchy simplicity. But he warned the audience that the second half would feature less hits but still lots of good songs; this was delivered with ‘It’s Everything’ from ‘What Price Paradise’ and the 1986 album’s lead single ‘Arizona Sky’, a song which today sounds like the massive hit it never actually was.
After ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’ off 1989’s ‘Diary Of A Hollow Horse’ which had been recorded in Hawaii with Walter Becker and passing over the 1994 long player ‘Warped By Success’, CHINA CRISIS quickly moved onto songs from their crowdfunded comeback record ‘Autumn In The Neighbourhood’ issued in 2015.
Following the smooth ‘Fool’, a tune developing on the soulful moods of ‘You Did Cut Me’ featuring Lundon on lead vocals, the show concluded with what Daly termed “a Saturday Night Disco”.
After the mature audience stood and danced to the bouncy pop grooves of ‘King In A Catholic Style’ and ‘Tragedy & Mystery’, the final wind down came with ‘My Sweet Delight’ from ‘Autumn In The Neighbourhood’ as a poignant dedication to loved ones who have passed on…
While CHINA CRISIS didn’t achieve quite as many hits as their Virgin label mates OMD, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and SIMPLE MINDS did, they still had enough of them to enable them to work with their musical heroes, see the world and are today still popular enough to tour regularly with North America as well as their first shows in Australia and New Zealand now on the 2022 itinerary.
With a 50th Anniversary tour unlikely as Daly joked to everyone present that “half of you won’t be here!”, this was an enjoyable and entertaining celebration of possible pop songs, savouring not just the music but the enlightening and comical stories that helped to inspire them as well.
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.
Was 1981 the most important year in synth as far becoming ubiquitous in the mainstream and hitting the top of the charts internationally?
Yes, ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Oxygène’ came before, while the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer is acknowledged as being the track that changed pop music forever and still sounds like the future even in the 21st Century. French electronic disco like ‘Magic Fly’ and ‘Supernature’ also made its impact.
Meanwhile closer to home, a post-punk revolution was already permeating in the UK with the advent of affordable synthesizers from Japan being adopted by the likes of THE NORMAL, THROBBING GRISTLE, CABARET VOLTAIRE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE. But it was Gary Numan who took the sound of British synth to No1 with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and ‘Cars’ in 1979. It signalled a change in the musical landscape as the synth was considered a worthy mode of youthful expression rather than as a novelty, using one finger instead of three chords.
Despite first albums from John Foxx and OMD, 1980 was a transitional time when the synth was still the exception rather than the rule. But things were changing and there had also been the release of the first Midge Ure-fronted ULTRAVOX album ‘Vienna’ and the eponymous debut long player by VISAGE just as The Blitz Club and the New Romantic movement were making headlines. With the acclaim for the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ in early 1981 which launched the careers of DEPECHE MODE, SOFT CELL, BLANCMANGE, THE THE and B-MOVIE, a wider electronic breakthrough was now almost inevitable.
VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’ went on to be a West German No1 in Spring 1981 and this exciting period culminated in THE HUMAN LEAGUE taking ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ to the top spot in the US six months year after becoming the 1981 UK Christmas No1. It would be fair to say that after this, the purer sound of synth was never quite the same again.
For many listeners, 1981 was a formative year and had so many significant new releases that it was difficult to stretch the limited pocket money to fund album purchases. ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK even took to selling bootleg C90 cassettes on the school playground, promising a value-for-money “two albums for one” deal to support this disgusting habit!
Looking back to four decades ago when there were also albums from DEVO, EURYTHMICS, FAD GADGET, LOGIC SYSTEM, SPANDAU BALLET, SPARKS and TANGERINE DREAM, here are twenty albums which ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK sees as contributing to the electronic legacy of 1981. Listed in alphabetical order with the restriction of one album per artist moniker, this is the way it was in the past, a long long time ago…
DAF Alles Ist Gut
Under a haze of “sex, drugs and sequencer”, the late Gabi Delgado and Robert Görl released an acclaimed album trilogy produced by Conny Plank. The first ‘Alles Ist Gut’ featured their fierce breakthrough track ‘Der Mussolini’ which flirted with right wing imagery in its sardonic reflections on ideology. Causing controversy and confusing observers, DAF attracted a following which Delgado hated. Despite his parents escaping from the Franco regime in Spain, he was always unapologetic about the provocation within his lyrics.
Having conceived the idea of a teenage synthpop group called SILICON TEENS, this dream of Daniel Miller became flesh and blood when he came across a young quartet from Basildon called DEPECHE MODE. Signing on a handshake 50/50 deal to his Mute Records, the group became a chart success. Despite other great songs like ‘Puppets’ and ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’, the group fragmented on the release of their 1981 debut album ‘Speak & Spell’. The remaining trio of Andy Fletcher, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore recruited Alan Wilder, while Vince Clarke formed YAZOO with Alison Moyet.
Following the ‘retirement’ of Gary Numan with his spectacular farewell shows at Wembley Arena in April 1981, four of his erstwhile backing band became DRAMATIS. RRussell Bell, Denis Haines, Chris Payne and Ced Sharpley had been instrumental in the success of Numan’s powerful live presentation and their only album showcased the band’s virtuoso abilities. While the use of four different lead vocalists (including Numan himself on the superb ‘Love Needs No Disguise’) confused the continuity of the album, musically, there was much to enjoy.
Originally released by Rocket Records, currently unavailable
It would be fair to say that the classic line-up of Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor took the arty poise of JAPAN and toned down their androgynous outré to make it more accessible But the enduring appeal of DURAN DURAN is great timeless pop songs and that was apparent on the self-titled debut album which at times sounded like an electronic band with a heavy metal guitarist bolted on, especially on ‘Careless Memories’ and ‘Friends Of Mine’. But most will just remember the two hits ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Girls on Film’.
Thawing considerably following the release of the acclaimed ‘Metamatic’, John Foxx admitted he had been “reading too much JG Ballard”. Exploring beautiful Italian gardens and taking on a more foppish appearance, his new mood was reflected in his music. ‘The Garden’ album featured acoustic guitar and piano as showcased in the Linn Drum driven single ‘Europe After The Rain’. With choral experiments like ‘Pater Noster’, a return to art rock on ‘Walk Away’ and the more pastoral climes of the lengthy title track, Foxx had now achieved his system of romance.
Fronted by the cool persona of vocalist Glenn Gregory, 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, taking in yuppie aspiration and mutually assured destruction. The first ‘Pavement’ side was a showcase of hybrid funk driven embellished by the guitar and bass of John Wilson. The second ‘Penthouse’ side was like an extension of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Travelogue’, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh’s swansong with the band.
After Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to form HEAVEN 17, vocalist Philip Oakey and Adrian Wright recruited Susanne Sulley, Joanne Catherall, Jo Callis and Ian Burden to record ‘Dare’ under the production helm of Martin Rushent. Like KRAFTWERK meeting ABBA, the dreamboat collection of worldwide hits like ‘Love Action’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ had a marvellous supporting cast in ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘I Am The Law’, ‘Seconds’ and ‘Darkness’. Only the Linn Drum rework of ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ blotted the album’s near perfection.
JAPAN took the influences of the Far East even further with the Chinese flavoured ‘Tin Drum’. A much more minimal album than its predecessor ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, there was hardly any guitar while the synths used were restricted to an Oberheim OBX, Prophet 5 and occasionally the Roland System 700. David Sylvian’s lyrical themes of ‘Tin Drum’ flirted with Chinese Communism as Brian Eno had done on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), a point highlighted by the pentatonic polyrhythmic single ‘Visions Of China’ and its less frantic sister song ‘Cantonese Boy’.
With his synthesized symphonies, Jean-Michel Jarre helped popularise the sound of electronic music. ‘Magnetic Fields’ was his first long player to utilise the Fairlight CMI which allowed him to absorb some musique concrete ideas such as water splashing and hydraulic train doors into his compositions. Featuring the klanky Korg Rhythm KR55, it was a much more percussive album than ‘Oxygène’ and ‘Equinoxe’ had been, complementing the metallic textures that featured. However, ‘The Last Rumba’ confused some who considered the home organ closer incongruous.
Having scored an unexpected UK hit with the sonic beauty of ‘I Hear You Now’, Jon Anderson and Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou presented a second album in ‘The Friends Of Mr Cairo’. Featuring ‘State Of Independence’ which was to become a hit for Donna Summer, the album was laced with spiritual overtones over symphonic synths, cinematic piano and dialogue samples from films. However, the album is now best known for the single ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ which had not been included on the original tracklisting.
‘Computer World’ could be considered one of the most prophetic albums of its time. KRAFTWERK forsaw the cultural impact of internet dating on ‘Computer Love’, but the title track highlighted the more sinister implications of surveillance by “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard” with the consequences of its prophecy still very relevant discussion points today. But the dynamic rhythmic template of ‘Numbers’ was to have a major impact on Urban America as it was mutated into hip-hop, rap and techno.
LANDSCAPE From The Tea Rooms Of Mars To The Hell-holes Of Uranus
Jazz fusion combo LANDSCAPE were led by producer Richard James Burgess who co-designed the Simmons SDSV with Dave Simmons as the first standalone electronic drum kit, with circuitry based on the ARP 2600. Using a Lyricon, the first wind-controlled synth played by John Waters as its lead hook, ‘Einstein A-Go-Go’ was a fabulously cartoon-like tune about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of theocratic dictators and religious extremists! Meanwhile, ‘European Man’ predated EDM by having the phrase “electronic dance music” emblazoned on its single sleeve.
Rising from the ashes of JOY DIVISION and reconvening in late 1980, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris chose the name NEW ORDER as a symbol of their fresh start and after deciding against recruiting a new vocalist, Morris’ girlfriend and later wife, Gillian Gilbert was recruited. Despite Martin Hannett still producing, recording sessions were fraught although synths were taking greater prominence while Morris used a Doctor Rhythm DR55 drum machine on ‘Truth’ and ‘Doubts Even Here’. ‘Movement’ may not have been a great debut album, but it was an important one.
Following his much-publicised retirement from live performance, the last thing Numanoids expected from their hero was an understated Brian Eno homage. At nearly an hour’s playing time, ‘Dance’ outstayed its welcome and despite the title, these were mostly downtempo pieces with ‘Slowcar To China’ and ‘Cry The Clock Said’ stretching to 10 minutes. Much was made of JAPAN’s Mick Karn playing fretless bass although he was only on five of the eleven tracks. It was the wrong album at the wrong time but in ‘A Subway Called You’ and ‘Crash’, there were some great moments.
‘Dance’ is still available via Beggars Banquet Records
”I think ‘Architecture & Morality’ was a complete album, it was just so whole” said Paul Humphreys in 2010. The big booming ambience of the album next to big blocks of Mellotron choir gave OMD their masterpiece, tinged more with the spectre of LA DÜSSELDORF rather than KRAFTWERK. Featuring two spirited songs about ‘Joan Of Arc’, these were to become another pair of UK Top 5 hits with the ‘Maid of Orleans’ variant also becoming 1982’s biggest selling single in West Germany.
SIMPLE MINDS Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call
A generally overlooked ‘double’ opus, ‘Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call’ exploited the KRAFTWERK, NEU! and LA DÜSSELDORF influences of SIMPLE MINDS to the full, under the production auspices of Steve Hillage. From the singles ‘The American’ and ‘Love Song’ to the mighty instrumental ‘Theme For Great Cities’ and the unsettling dentist drill menace of ‘70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall’, with basslines articulating alongside synths and guitars layered in effects that when harmonised together were almost as one, this was SIMPLE MINDS at close to their very best.
In their cover of Northern Soul favourite ‘Tainted Love’, SOFT CELL provided the first true Synth Britannia crossover record. Possibly one of the best albums of 1981, ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ captured the edginess of minimal synth arrangements while married to an actual tune. At the time, art school boys Marc Almond and Dave Ball were rated higher than DEPECHE MODE. But with the follow-up success of the Top5 singles ‘Bedsitter’ and ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, the pair became reluctant popstars, chased around by both teenagers and paparazzi.
‘Sex’ was Belgian trio TELEX’s third album and a collaboration with SPARKS that saw the Mael brothers contribute lyrics to all nine tracks. Experiments in swing on ‘Sigmund Freud’s Party’ displayed a sophisticated vintage musicality and ‘Haven’t We Met Somewhere Before?’ was the hit single that never was. Meanwhile, like KRAFTWERK meeting YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, ‘Brainwash’ was quite obviously the blueprint for LCD SOUNDSYSTEM’s ‘Get Innocuous!’. However, the tracklisting was considerably revamped for the UK release in 1982 as ‘Birds & Bees’.
‘Sex’ was released by Ariola, currently unavailable
‘Rage in Eden’ began with the optimistic spark of ‘The Voice’ but it was something of a paranoia ridden affair having been created from the bottom up at Conny Plank’s remote countryside studio near Cologne. There was synthetic bass power on tracks like ‘The Thin Wall’, ‘We Stand Alone’ and ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’, but there was also the tape experimentation of the title track which used the chorus of ‘I Remember’ played backwards to give an eerie Arabic toned “noonretfa eht ni htaed… rebmemer i ho” vocal effect.
‘BGM’, the third full length album from YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA was the first recording to feature the now iconic Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer and was also made using a digital 3M 32-track machine. Following the technopop of the self-titled debut and ‘Solid State Survivor’ albums, ‘BGM’ included reworked pieces such as ‘Loom’ and ‘1000 Knives’. The best song ‘Camouflage’ was a curious beat laden blend of Eastern pentatonics and Western metallics from which the German synth band CAMOUFLAGE took their name.
The origin of the BBC radio session came about due to restrictions imposed on the corporation by the Musicians Union and Phonographic Performance Limited with regards the airing of recorded music.
The thinking behind this was to create employment, as well as force people to buy records and not listen to them free of charge on the air. As a result, the BBC had to hire bands and orchestras to perform cover versions of recorded music to make up for the shortfall.
When the policy evolved with the advent of the more pop and rock oriented station Radio1, bands ventured into BBC’s Maida Vale studios to lay down between 3 to 5 tracks, with in-house personnel such as John Walters, Dale Griffin, Jeff Griffin, Chris Lycett, Mike Robinson, John Owen Williams and (not that) Tony Wilson helming the sessions.
The most celebrated of these BBC sessions were recorded for John Peel, but equally of merit and perhaps more of an indicator to potential breakthroughs into the mainstream were those produced for Richard Skinner and Kid Jensen.
Sessions were usually recorded and mixed in a single day, so had a rougher feel that lay somewhere between a live performance and a studio recording, sounding almost like a polished demo.
While acts would often use the opportunity to promote their latest single or album, others would premiere recently written compositions, try out different arrangements on established songs or perform cover versions. A number of these session recordings were even superior to their eventual officially released versions.
So ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK presents its favourite 25 BBC Radio1 session tracks with other selection criteria including rare songs or tracks capturing the zeitgeist and signalling a change in the course of music. Presented in chronological and then alphabetical order within each year with a restriction of one track per artist moniker, here are some special moments from our beloved Auntie Beeb.
THE HUMAN LEAGUE Blind Youth (John Peel 1978)
In Summer 1978, THE HUMAN LEAGUE perhaps surprisingly recorded their only session for the BBC which included ‘Being Boiled’, ‘No Time’ (which became ‘The Word Before Last’), a cover of ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ and ‘Blind Youth’. The latter was the frantic percussive highlight of the four, a wonderfully shambolic slice of synth punk with bum bleeps and avant waves of white noise, all held together by the metallic rhythmic bed of a sequenced Roland System 100.
TUBEWAY ARMY I Nearly Married A Human (John Peel 1979)
Although only comprising of three tracks, Gary Numan’s session as TUBEWAY ARMY for John Peel in early 1979 captured an artist in transition. From the comparatively punky ‘Me! I Disconnect From You’ to the dystopian synthpop of ‘Down In The Park’, the electronics were gaining more prominence to suit his increasingly unsettling lyrical themes. And on the mostly instrumental ‘I Nearly Married A Human’, the machines launched a coup d’etat and took over like an army of replicants with the murmurs of the title being the only sign of flesh and blood.
Several months after the release of their self-titled debut long player, OMD returned for their second of their four John Peel sessions with Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey accompanied by drummer Malcolm Holmes and keyboardist Dave Hughes. By now, their live sound had expanded and this change was captured on this session with the version of ‘Pretending To See The Future’ having more presence and a looser percussive edge compared with the underwhelming drum machine-led album version.
One of the bands alongside SOFT CELL, DEPECHE MODE and BLANCMANGE who got a profile boost from their inclusion on the ‘Some Bizzare Album’, although they were signed by Phonogram to take on DURAN DURAN, B-MOVIE had more of a psychedelic vibe as reflected by songs like ‘Welcome To The Shrink’ and ‘All Fall Down’ on their first John Peel session in March 1981. But the highlight was ‘Polar Opposites’ with its mighty ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ synth line. It would have made a great single, but never properly was!
Broadcast in Summer 1981, this session captured the original DEPECHE MODE line-up of Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher and Vince Clarke several months before the release of debut album ‘Speak & Spell’. Refining into a pop band but still retaining much of the synthetic rawness that linked them artistically to acts like FAD GADGET, the session was characterised by use of the Korg Rhythm KR55 drum machine with its charming klanky metallics. This version of ‘Boys Say Go’ possessed an aggression that was lost on the eventual album cut.
Like THE HUMAN LEAGUE, DURAN DURAN only did the one BBC session for their biggest champion Peter Powell. Broadcast in June 1981 to coincide with the release of their self-titled debut, they recorded near-facsimile versions of ‘Girls On Film’, ‘Anyone Out There’ and ‘Night Boat’. But a surprise came with ‘Like An Angel’, a sprightly love song unreleased at the time which pointed away from the New Romantics to the more mainstream pop ambition of the ‘Rio’ opus that was to come just a year later.
Available on the DURAN DURAN boxed set ‘Duran Duran’ via EMI Records
Contributing five songs to their first BBC session as ‘Tainted Love’ was rising up the UK chart, brilliant songs like ‘Bedsitter’, ‘Entertain Me’, ‘Chips On My Shoulder’ and ‘Youth’ demonstrated the potential of Marc Almond and Dave Ball, even in basic form. While ‘Seedy Films’ was faster paced and a bit “snap, crackle and pop” compared to the more sophisticated and laid-back clarinet-laden ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ album version, it outlined why at the time, SOFT CELL were rated higher than DEPECHE MODE.
‘Studio B15’ was a short-lived Sunday afternoon magazine show presented by the late Adrian Love that often invited their guests to perform live. SPANDAU BALLET had just released their debut album ‘Journeys To Glory’ and as a band that didn’t tour and rarely played live, this was an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. ‘Mandolin’ featured a prominent Yamaha CS10 synth line while this version featured Simmons drums and a much clearer vocal with a more pronounced diction from Tony Hadley compared to the oddly smothered album version.
Aired in February 1982, BLANCMANGE were captured in their only John Peel session as a much darker proposition than was later perceived by their UK chart success. It included an early take on ‘Living On The Ceiling’ without its Indian embellishments but the session was notable for ‘I Would’ and ‘Running Thin’, two songs that would not make it onto the ‘Happily Families’ tracklisting. ‘Running Thin’ in particular saw Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe trapped in a stark state of gloomy resignation.
Recorded nearly six months before the release of their debut album, CHINA CRISIS’ first John Peel session saw the duo exploring territory that sat between electronic and traditional pop. ‘Seven Sports For All’ and ‘Some People I Know To Lead Fantastic Lives’ ended up on the album while the more moody ‘Be Suspicious’ was already a B-side. But this version of ‘This Occupation’ was pure machine-propelled synthpop complete with sequencing and strong lead lines; later recordings that appeared on the B-sides of ‘Wishful Thinking’ were never as good.
After their 1981 German-inspired debut ‘In The Garden’, Annie Lennox and David A Stewart explored the possibilities of the synthesizer and acquired a Movement Drum Computer to live up to their moniker. In a BBC session that also included ‘Love Is A Stranger’ which was soon to be issued as a single , ‘I’ve Got An Angel’ was an unusual hybrid of synths, electronic drums and wah-wah guitar, with flute by the front woman alongside her particularly intense and raw vocal. By comparison, the released version on the ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ album was more restrained.
Not actually recorded at the BBC, NEW ORDER’s second self-produced John Peel session was a fascinating document of the Mancunian’s transitioning sound with the throbbing sequences of ‘586’ highlighting a future proto-dance direction. Meanwhile ‘Turn The Heater On’ was a cover of the Keith Hudson reggae song in tribute to Ian Curtis and ‘We All Stand’ had avant jazz overtones. But ‘Too Late’ was significant, sounding like it could have come off debut album ‘Movement’ with its lingering gothic doom but also remaining unreleased, discarded as if a relic from another era.
Featuring ‘The Prisoner’, ‘The Hurting’, ‘Start Of The Breakdown’ and ‘Memories Fade’, the arrangements for this BBC session aired after TEARS FOR FEARS’ success with ‘Mad World’ differed significantly from the versions on their debut album. Featuring Linn Drum programming and Banshees-like guitar instead of sax, this version of ‘Memories Fade’ was far superior, utilising a much more powerful mechanised rhythmic tension that reflected the fraught paranoia and resignation of Roland Orzabal’s lyrical angst.
Available on the TEARS FOR FEARS boxed set ‘The Hurting’ via Mercury Records
Reshaped with a Fairlight and Linn Drum Computer, this version of ‘In My Room’ recorded in session for Kid Jensen was far superior to the irritating album version on ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’. Forming the basis for the live interpretation, it was now free of Vince Clarke’s “Our Father” tape loop monologue and allowed Alison Moyet space to express her emotive frustration to reveal a fantastic song free of distractions. Other songs in the session included beefed up takes on ‘Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I)’, ‘Situation’ and ‘Too Pieces’.
Co-written with Wayne Hussey, ‘Give It To Me’ was Pete Burns at his filthy lyrical best, declaring that “Apart from all your obvious attractions, I’ve got the bullets, you’ve got the gun, bang me into action, let’s make this obvious distraction, physically you are just what I wanted!”. Although this slice of Middle Eastern favoured HI-NRG later surfaced as a bonus track on the 12 inch single of ‘I’d Do Anything’, it seems almost unbelievable now that this potential hit single was never developed further in the studio.
Available on the DEAD OR ALIVE boxed set ‘Sophisticated Boom Box MMXVI’ via Edsel Records
JOHN FOXX Hiroshima Mon Amour (Saturday Live 1983)
‘Saturday Live’ was a show that featured interviews and live sessions. Having ventured out touring for the first time since his ULTRAVOX days in support of his third solo album ‘The Golden Section’, John Foxx eschewed material from ‘Metamatic’ but perhaps more surprisingly, mined his former band’s catalogue. Backed by Robin Simon, Peter Oxdendale, David Levy and Barry Watts, Foxx performed an interesting arrangement of ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ sans rhythm machine but with guitars, ARP Odyssey and the ubiquitous thud of Simmons drums.
Available on the JOHN FOXX album ‘Metadelic’ via Edsel Records
HOWARD JONES Don’t Put These Curses On Me (Kid Jensen 1983)
Having triumphed opening for CHINA CRISIS in Spring 1983, Howard Jones impressed with his first BBC session featuring songs like ‘New Song’ and ‘Natural’ which would be included on his debut album ‘Human’s Lib’. The album title track also featured on the session with its original love triangle monologue intro. But ‘Don’t Put These Curses On Me’ would not be released until 2003, thanks to Jones considering the song unlucky following an equipment breakdown while attempting to perform it on the live Channel 4 TV show ‘Loose Talk’.
Available on the HOWARD JONES boxed set ‘Human’s Lib’ via Cherry Red Records
SIMPLE MINDS The Kick Inside Of Me (Kid Jensen 1983)
By the end of 1983, SIMPLE MINDS were leaning heavily towards more rockist climes with songs like ‘Waterfront’. But for a three song BBC session which also featured a reprise of ‘New Gold Dream’, there was the debut of ‘The Kick Inside Of Me’, a lively track with catchy synth riffs, an infectious bassline and minimal guitar. But come the released version for the Steve Lillywhite produced ‘Sparkle In The Rain’, it had totally been ruined with distorted guitar, overblown drums and yobbish shouting in a pointless attempt to emulate THE SEX PISTOLS!
This session captured TALK TALK after the departure of keyboardist Simon Brenner but before producer Tim Friese-Greene came on board as Mark Hollis’ writing partner. Showcasing at the time four brand new songs, only ‘Call In The Night Boy’ ended up on the next album ‘It’s My Life’ while ‘For What It’s Worth’ and ‘Again A Game Again’ became B-sides. But most interesting was ‘Why Is It So Hard?’ which was only released in Canada on the ‘It’s My Mix’ EP as an Extended Version and didn’t get a UK release until 1998 on the ‘Asides Bsides’ collection.
With only Steve Strange and Rusty Egan now remaining, VISAGE surprised all by recording a BBC session with new members Steve Barnacle and Andy Barnett, featuring previously unheard songs ‘Can You Hear Me?’, ‘Only The Good Die Young’, ‘The Promise’ and the funky standout ‘Questions’. With a more live feel, there was hope that VISAGE would be able to sustain some creative momentum despite the departure of Midge Ure, Billy Currie and Dave Formula but the eventual over-produced ‘Beat Boy’ album was rotten, marred by heavy metal guitar and hopelessly off-key singing!
Despite the patronage of Rusty Egan, Daniel Miller and Martin Rushent as well as a tour opening for DEPECHE MODE, the industrial pop of HARD CORPS did not breakthrough and by the time their only album ‘Metal + Flesh’ was released in 1990, all momentum had been lost. But the gothic tension and edgy energy of their music was perhaps best represented by their BBC sessions for John Peel and Richard Skinner, with ‘Metal + Flesh’ from the 1984 Peel session far outstripping the eventual album title track studio incarnation.
For an Autumn session before the release of their debut album ‘The Age Of Consent’, BRONSKI BEAT took the unusual step of recording three solo tracks, with the only band offering being a take on ‘Why?’ B-side ‘Close To the Edge’. Larry Steinbachek presented a HI-NRG instrumental ‘Ultraclone’ while Jimmy Somerville offered the acapella ‘Puit D’amour’. But Steve Bronski contributed the most unusual track, a beautifully new age piece called ‘The Potato Fields’ which took its lead from the Japanese composer Kitaro, a version of which ended up as a bonus on the ‘I Feel Love’ 12 inch.
From Spring 1984 to coincide with the release of their new single ‘Blue Emotion’, FIAT LUX stepped into BBC Maida Vale for a session to demonstrate their diversity and musicality as more than just a synth act. As well as ‘Blue Emotion’, there was its Brechtean B-side ‘Sleepless Nightmare’ and an acoustic version of ‘Secrets’. But best of all was ‘Breaking The Boundary’, a glorious burst of uptempo North European melancholy that did not officially see the light of day until the shelved FIAT LUX album ‘Ark Of Embers was finally released by Cherry Red Records in 2019.
ERASURE Who Needs Love Like That? (Bruno Brookes 1985)
With ERASURE, Vince Clarke had found himself back to square one after YAZOO and THE ASSEMBLY. Recruiting Andy Bell as the flamboyant front man capable of falsetto and creating the vocal tones of Alison Moyet, ‘Who Needs Love Like That?’ did sound like a YAZOO outtake and in this BBC session recording, was busier and more percussive than the already released single version. While ERASURE were not an instant success, the song did eventually chart on its remixed re-release in 1992.
Available on the ERASURE deluxe album ‘Wonderland’ via Mute Records
John Peel was not a fan of PET SHOP BOYS or much synthpop for that matter, so it was a surprise when Neil Tennant and Chris Love did a session for him using the back to basics approach that they had adopted for the ‘Release’ tour with guitars, bass and percussion in the line-up. But the bonus for fans was that two of the songs recorded ‘If Looks Could Kill’ and ‘A Powerful Friend’, which had been written in 1983 and shelved, were specially revived for the occasion. Both numbers were particularly energetic with the latter even featuring very loud rock guitars!
Despite the worldwide pandemic crisis, the music industry did its best and soldiered on.
Many artists who had scheduled releases in 2020 went through with them, but other artists used the lockdown situation as creative tension and were particularly productive while stuck at home, to compensate for being unable to perform live shows.
Electronic music has always had an emotional link in particular with isolation and solitary working, so the advances in computerised recording technology meant that a number of musicians could function as before.
Worthy mentions for 2020 include AaRON, ASSEMBLAGE 23, DESIRE, DISCOVERY ZONE, FIAT LUX, JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS, GEISTE, NEW ORDER, NEW SPELL, PAGE, WITCH OF THE VALE, ZIMBRU and 808 DOT POP, while one of the most popular synthpop songs of the year was ‘Blinding Lights’ by THE WEEKND which actually slipped out almost under the radar at the back end of 2019.
A special acknowledgement also goes to ‘Future Shock’ by Marc Collin featuring Clara Luciani which came from his independently produced film ‘Le Choc Du Futur’, but only became more widely known when the fictional story of an aspiring female synth musician set in 1978 was released internationally on DVD this year.
But at the end of the day, only 30 songs could be selected as a snapshot of the calendar year. So here are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s songs of 2020, presented as usual alphabetically by act with a restriction of one song per artist moniker.
TOBIAS BERNSTRUP Private Eye
Tobias Bernstrup is an electronic musician and performance artist from Gothenburg who combines sci-fi, performance art and gothic noir for a striking persona that has been exhibited at art galleries in Sweden. The club-friendly Italo flavoured ‘Private Eye’ looked at the surveillance society with hints of TRANS-X who Bernstrup collaborated with on a new version of his song ‘Videodrome’ in 2018. Already a veteran of several albums, a follow-up to his last long player ‘Technophobic’ is in the works.
Available on the digital single ‘Private Eye’ via Tonight Records
The ninth full length BLANCMANGE long player of new material since their return in 2011 with ‘Blanc Burn’, Neil Arthur’s dark ‘Mindset’ is only reflecting what many are thinking in these strange times. Thus strange pop music is just the tonic and the highlight of this collection was the marvellous KRAFTWERK meets FAITHLESS concoction of the mutant electronic disco of ‘Diagram’. In his sharp Northern lilt, our hero repeating himself like a preacher on how “I want transparency” only adds to the sinister dance.
Available on the album ‘Mindset’ is released by Blanc Check
From ‘Children of Nature’, the excellent first album by Mark Reeder and Alanas Chosnau, ‘Heavy Rainfall’ was a song seemingly having an environmental reference but actually reflecting on the world’s increasingly disturbing political climate. Like a grooving NEW ORDER disco number with Reeder’s rhythm guitar syncopating off an exquisite range of electronic patterns while some spacey magic flies within the exquisite soundscape. Chosnau solemnly announces the storm warning, yet his message to hang on remains positive as light is seen at the end of the tunnel.
‘Luna Landings’, the second solo offering from Gary Daly was the next best thing to a CHINA CRISIS instrumental album but then it sort of was, comprising of various demos and sketches that Daly originally recorded on his TEAC and Tascam Portastudios between 1981 to 1987. A highly enjoyable record that channelled a laid back demeanour to aid relaxation and escape, despite the age of the recordings, the air and hiss from the incumbent machinery added an endearingly earthy quality to proceedings. One of the highlights ‘80s Electro 2’ did exactly as the title suggested.
Hygiene strips are now common place as reminders of social distancing, so a gesture of solidarity with fellow humans, DUBSTAR presented this poignant song at the height of the 2020 UK lockdown. Working with Stephen Hague and DUBSTAR who co-produced their hits ‘Not So Manic Now’ and ‘Stars’, the writing and recording was completed remotely. There was a forlorn presence in Sarah Blackwood’s vocal but also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS to offer some hope in the haze of melancholy.
With her long-awaited debut album ‘Mirores’, ANI GLASS had the honour of being shortlisted for Welsh Music Prize. An observational electronic travelogue based around the idea of movement and progress in her hometown of Cardiff, one of the highlights was the Euro-disco of ‘Ynys Araul’. Rich in traditional melody with a lovely high vocal register while offering a pop sensibility and a wonderful triplet bassline, it was given a subtle remix by her one-time mentor Andy McCluskey who she had worked with as a Mk2 member of GENIE QUEEN.
From the Italians Do It Better stable, home to CHROMATICS and DESIRE, the mysterious but glamourous GLÜME offered this lovely eerie ‘Twin Peaks’ styled cover of ‘Come Softly To Me’. More chilling and metronomic than the almost acapella song written and made famous by THE FLEETWOODS in 1958, the original vocal hook was transferred to synth. Her version captured the innocence of forgotten yesterdays in the pursuit of today with its hypnotic arrangement and her lush but tragic Marilyn Monroe meets Julee Cruise delivery.
HILTIPOP might be a new name in electronic pop but the man behind it is something of a veteran. Magnus Johansson’s best known project internationally has been ALISON, but he began working on solo material and launched HILTIPOP with a triumphant early afternoon slot at Electronic Summer 2015. It would be 2018 before his first release ‘The Pattern’. Johansson’s sombre darker-tinged pop style fused is evident on ‘Time’, with a sample of SIMPLE MINDS ‘Theme For Great Cities’ thrown into a dynamic squelch fest.
Available on the digital EP ‘The Man’ via Hoyt Burton Records
After an excellent self-titled debut album, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP brought more of their danceable synthy togetherness to home discos with ‘Pop Gossip’. With a sardonic twist and perhaps referring to the soap opera that is the status of HRH Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, the brilliantly uptempo album closer ‘The Tower’ amusingly imagines Queen Elizabeth II telling her Beefeaters to “Take them to The Tower, it’s a beautiful day, take them away!” like a future scene from series 8 of ‘The Crown’!
Unwittingly reflecting the pandemic crisis, KID MOXIE composed the soundtrack to a film ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need to Have a Serious Talk’. The plot centred around a womanizer who finds out he is a carrier of a sexually transmitted virus, lethal only to women! She said of ‘Big In Japan’: “It didn’t feel right to necessarily use drums because I did want to take a departure from the ALPHAVILLE original. There was already a strong rhythm element with the synth bass and it takes it to a different place by having a woman sing it.”
Exploring the innocence of ‘Teenage Bliss’, the most recent singular offering from KITE was co-produced by Benjamin John Power, best known as Scared Bones artist BLANCK MASS. The dynamic uptempo combination was wonderfully hymn-like, with Stenemo telling his congregation that “Teenage bliss, there ain’t no consequences in your life and you don’t know what tragedy is” before the bittersweet revelation that “In the end, no-one wins!” as “life is not like your first kiss…”
Recalling melodic 21st Century dance-friendly acts like San Francisco’s ANDAIN, LASTLINGS are a Japanese Australian sibling duo comprising of Amy and Josh Dowdle whose debut album title ‘First Contact’ was a reference to the thrill and despair of notable life milestones like first love and first heartbreak. Capturing the anxiety of growing up and the unknown of adult independence, the ethereal electronic drama of ‘Held Under’ was one of its highlights, using subtle house influences while maximising a hauntingly treated layers of female voice.
LINEA ASPERA released their self-titled debut album in 2012. A collection of dark but danceable electronic pop, before any new listeners had an opportunity to discover and savour them, the duo had already disbanded in 2013. The duo reunited in 2019 and on the superb ‘Event Horizon’, the cutting synthesized hooks, disco drum box rhythms and supreme vocals confirmed how LINEA ASPERA have become such a highly rated and beloved duo and why their magnificent melodic melancholy had been so missed over the past few years.
In a typically NIGHT CLUB twist, the duo found their perfect co-conspirator in former SKINNY PUPPY member Dave “Rave” Ogilvie who mixed Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2011 worldwide smash hit ‘Call Me Maybe’. ‘Die In The Disco’ set the ‘Die Die Lullaby’ album off with a slice of throbbing HI-NRG disco, donning its hat to Giorgio Moroder and Bobby Orlando before asking to “take me to a place I can dance” and an unsettling ghostly pitch-shifted voice exclaims that ”This is my party and I will die if I want to…”
Much has changed for NINA. First the German songstress made some life changes and moved back to Berlin just as the world went into lockdown. ‘Runaway’ from this year’s ‘Synthian’ album declared she “searching for a way out”. So it was only natural that any new material would be influenced by the uncertainty and sombre realities of what was happening around her. The self-explanatory ‘Where It Ends’ made something of a sombre statement with the introspective tones of DE/VISION in building towards a steadfast gothic schwing and penetrating synth solo.
Available on the digital EP ‘Control’ via Lakeshore Records
A ghostly light seen by travellers at night that refers to ignis fatuus or “foolish fire”, the astute intelligence of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe saw Medieval folk mythology referenced for ‘Will-O-The-Wisp, a fabulous PET SHOP BOYS dance tune with catchy hooks and a dry monologue. From the third of a trilogy of long players produced by Stuart Price and recorded in Berlin’s renowned Hansa Studios, the duo’s fourteen album ‘Hotspot’ maintained the duo’s position as exemplary English songsmiths.
Available on the album ‘Hotspot’ via x2 Recordings
PISTON DAMP are a new electronic pop duo based in Norway comprising of Jonas Groth and Truls Sønsterud. ‘Something In Me’ is what APOPTYGMA BERZERK or AESTHETIC PERFECTION would sound like if they were in full synthpop mode. Catchy, bubbly, melodic and rhythmic with an emotively spirited vocal, when Jonas Groth hits falsetto, it provides a most gloriously optimistic lift that is reminiscent of APOP’s more immediate work, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is part of their live line-up in support of his brother Stephan.
Recording a collaborative album with Austria’s POWERNERD, the joyous result ‘Megawave’ was Canadian synth starlet Dean Jean Phoenix’s most sonically consistent body of work yet, reflecting her powerhouse stage persona in recorded form fully for the first time. A fun and dynamic collection, the album’s highlight ‘Fight These Robots’ was a classic funky Sci-Fi number with a dose of girly cheekiness and a reflection of a childhood watching ‘Transformers’ cartoons.
Available on the album ‘Megawave’ via Outland Recordings
Having described themselves as “Slacker synth-wave refuseniks”, POLYCHROME and their brand of filmic dreamwave as showcased on their self-titled 2018 debut album found favour with TV producers and advertising agencies around the world, particularly ‘Final Kiss’. Continuing the kissing theme, their recorded return Starts With A Kiss’ featured an unexpected but fitting guitar solo from Bjorn Agren of RAZORLIGHT but made extra special by the dreamy voice of Vicky Harrison who said “we’d finished with a kiss, so now wanted to start with one”.
For Bristol-based Finlay Shakespeare, his interest in synths came from his parents’ record collection, with music from the likes of KRAFTWERK, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JAPAN. His second album ‘Solemnities’ was a more focussed progression from his debut ‘Domestic Economy’, making the most of a crystal clear modular synth sound coupled to his claustrophobic anxious vocals. The superb ‘Occupation’ was a metronomic squelch fest about social injustice with our hero conducting a raucous avant noise experiment in song with penetrating noise percussion and icy string machines.
With her arty but catchy electronic pop, Emilie Simon studied at the Sorbonne and her only release primarily English release was ‘The Big Machine’ in 2009. Using Martian invaders as a metaphor to the world pandemic, she felt the need to express her feelings on the ‘Mars on Earth 2020’ EP. The best track from it was the powerful ‘Cette Ombre (This Shadow)’ on which she summised “Planet Earth is under attack. Faced with an unknown invader, humanity is experiencing an unprecedented shift. What will remain of it?”
Now adding a “THE” to prefix their name, SMASHING PUMPKINS surprised many with a splendid synth friendly single entitled ‘Cyr’. With hooks very reminiscent of ‘Enjoy The Silence’, Billy Corgan & Co went synthpop with much of the track being of an electronic bent, particularly the synthetic bass. Not only that but ‘Cyr’ was also quite catchy in an almost DURAN DURAN vein! It was magnificent surprise that only highlighted the hopelessness of the more recent material from DEPECHE MODE.
Available on the album ‘Cyr’ via Sumerian Records / Warner Music Group
If there was a song that captures the claustrophobic solitude of lockdown isolation, then it was the appropriately titled ‘Small World’ by SNS SENSATION, the new musical vehicle of Sebastian Muravchik, best known as the charismatic front man of HEARTBREAK. A song about self-isolation during the pandemic crisis, ‘Small World’ was a throbbing electronic number with icy rhythms, marrying the elegance of minimal synth with the melodic presence of Italo disco, reminiscent of VISAGE’s ‘I’m Still Searching’ and PET SHOP BOYS ‘Miserabilsm’.
Less than three years after ‘Hippopotamus’, SPARKS offered ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’. As idiosyncratic as ever, if there was a key track, then it was the glorious ‘One For The Ages’; with a narrative about craving artistic longevity, the lines “As I write my tome every single night, my eyes show the strain of computer light but I’m pressing on” captured the lot of the creative mind. Already very synthy, the Mael Brothers probably could have made it even synthier!
ZACHERY ALLAN STARKEY featuring BERNARD SUMNER Force
With two albums ‘DIY’ and ‘Hard Power’ already under his belt, since opening for NEW ORDER on the ‘Music Complete’ tour in 2016, Zachery Allan Starkey has been working hard on observational concept album ‘Fear City’. ‘Force’ was a powerful collaboration with Bernard Sumner featuring his signature Italo-influenced sequencing style. Starkey’s impassioned authentic vocals were a rallying call to the people with the daunting prospect of Donald Trump being re-elected on the horizon. Thankfully, the message on jointly produced track was heeded.
ULTRAFLEX are a new Norwegian Icelandic duo based in Berlin who describe themselves as “The new teen sensation” with an interest in Soviet disco, athleisure and weirdo boogie. However, Kari Jahnsen and Katrín Helga Andrésdóttir are perhaps better known by their solo monikers FARAO and SPECIAL-K respectively. ‘Olympic Sweat’ was uplifting disco lento with an organic heart, a pretty tune with an expansive sweeping resonance that was reminiscent of SIN COS TAN, PET SHOP BOYS and NEW ORDER, but with a feminine twist.
If there was a musical duo who visually symbolise the dystopian paranoia of the world pandemic crisis, then it is UNIFY SEPARATE, formally known as US. ‘Solitude & I’ was a natural progression of the material on ‘First Contact’ with Andrew Montgomery not letting up with his Jeff Buckley inspired vocal delivery, reflecting the isolation and uncertain future many are currently feeling as “There’s nobody out there, no-one but you and I”. Anthemic, uplifting and optimistic, it was a message to all about never giving up on your dreams.
Capturing a dystopian outlook on life with an appealing electronic sensibility, ‘Black Kiss’ was the best VANDAL MOON album yet. With a sound seeded from post-punk, goth and new wave, they are shaped as much by their use of drum machines and synthesizers as much as guitars and the inevitable deep baritone vocals. The superb electro-gothic aesthetics of ‘Suicidal City Girl’ recalled the enthralling tension of THE DANSE SOCIETY and a highlight of a record with many highlights.
On ‘Forever’, Greek dark synth songstress Marva Von Theo channelled the frantic tone of ‘River In Me’, the Anders Trentemøller’s collaboration with Jenny Vee of SAVAGES, into a great atmospheric art pop statement on redemption and eternity. A track from her upcoming second album ‘Afterglow’, with determined vocals and punchy beats, ‘Forever’ demonstrated, along with its singular follow-up ‘Ruins’, a significant artistic progression since her promising but unfulfilled debut long player ‘Dream Within A Dream’.
Available on the digital single ‘Forever’ via Marva Von Theo
Melodic synth trio WHITE DOOR released their only album ‘Windows’ in 1983 but despite BBC Radio1 airplay, were unable to gain wider traction. WHITE DOOR gained cult status and one young fan was Swedish synthesist Johan Baeckström who joined the band for their return. Acknowledging the theme of ’Get Carter’ but with a more brassy flair, ’Resurrection’ surprised with a bouncy Moroder-inspired stomp while Mac Austin managed to sound like a cross between Morten Harket and Chris De Burgh around some beautifully symphonic synth.