Strangely, it really was like a fanfare for the common man…
When the recently departed Keith Emerson used a Minimoog for the solo on EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER’s ‘Lucky Man’ in 1970, little would he predict that nearly half a decade later, the floodgates would start to open for many rock bands eager to exploit the synthesizer as an alternative lead instrument to the electric guitar.
Pete Townshend’s use of the EMS VCS3, ARP 2500 and ARP 2600 on the ‘Who’s Next’ album was another key recording which featured electronics within an experimental rock context. Meanwhile PINK FLOYD famously took an EMS Synthi AKS with its built-in digital sequencer into the stratosphere for ‘On The Run’ from ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’.
Although these tracks used synthesizers, they could hardly be classified as synthpop. But what of the occasions when rock artists go the full hog and enter the murky world of synths, sequencers and drum machines? While occasional dabbling in the electronic world has been common, a full volte-face has been rare.
One of the most recent examples of an artist transferring allegiances has been John Grant, former vocalist with THE CZARS who recorded his 2010 debut solo album ‘Queen of Denmark’ in collaboration with the American folk-rock band MIDLAKE. Grant said to The Quietus in 2013: “I wanna be the guy who is surrounded by all this synth hardware on stage. Like Jean-Michel Jarre, or Vangelis or one of those guys. I wanna be the guys from Yello and Cabaret Voltaire. I wanna understand, it’s such a subtle art form. I wish I was a robot, like Kraftwerk!”
So here is a list of 25 favourite songs by non-synth acts who risked soiling their reputation by delving into the murky world of synthesizers. All songs feature the synth as the dominant melodic instrument and are by artists who are generally perceived to be guitar or rock driven. Those considered to have a strong association with the synthesizer, like SPARKS, SPANDAU BALLET, NEW ORDER, ASSOCIATES, TALK TALK, LCD SOUNDSYSTEM and THE KILLERS have not been included.
So presented in chronological and then alphabetical order, here are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s choices…
THE MOTORS Airport (1978)
The traditional Pub Rock sound of THE MOTORS was transformed with ‘Airport’, its intro and chorus ARP Odyssey synth riff being one that wouldn’t have felt out of place on an OMD song. With the addition of ABBA-esque pianos, the piece itself was an anti-paean to an airport, one which had cruelly flown the lead vocalist Andy McMaster’s love interest away from him.
Available on the album ‘Approved By’ via Captain Oi!
SQUEEZE Take Me I’m Yours (1978)
With A&M getting concerned that there were no obvious singles on their debut album, Glenn Tilbrook made the decision to hire “lots of synths and a bloke who knew how to work them” and then went about “pretending to be Kraftwerk”! A squelchy synth bass and lo-fi drum machine dominates throughout ‘Take Me I’m Yours’.
Available on the album ‘Greatest Hits’ via A&M Records
JOY DIVISION Atmosphere (1980)
While JOY DIVISION had played around with syndrums and electronic effects on ‘Unknown Pleasures’ to complement their gloomy guitar driven sound, they had yet to produce a song that featured synths as a melodic lead. Recorded using an ARP Solina, the chilling ‘Atmosphere’ with its tender bass playing and percussive grandeur was their most complete recording to date.
Available on the JOY DIVISION album ‘Substance’ via Rhino
JONA LEWIE You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen At Parties (1980)
This VERY electronic Polymoog-driven single was almost entirely self-produced by Lewie with the exception of some live bass by Norman Watt-Roy and hi-hats from Bob Andrews. It was rumoured that Kirsty MacColl provided backing vocals, although this was denied by Lewie. Maccoll eventually appeared on Top Of the Pops to perform ‘You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties’.
Available on the album ‘The Best Of’ via Union Square Music
PAUL McCARTNEY Temporary Secretary (1980)
Having impersonated Ron Mael from SPARKS in the ‘Coming Up’ video, Macca went the full electronic dance hog with the quite bizarre ‘Temporary Secretary’. With prominent sequencer patterns to simulate a typewriter and detached deadpan vocals, this oddball experiment confused fans of both WINGS and THE BEATLES.
Available on the PAUL McCARTNEY album ‘McCartney II’ via EMI Records
HAZEL O’CONNOR Eighth Day (1980)
Featuring in the O’Connor starring movie ‘Breaking Glass’, ‘Eighth Day’ was written by the singer to parallel the biblical story of Genesis, but with machines taking over on the final day. Produced by Tony Visconti, synths are used effectively throughout to echo the content of the song. The lyrics to ‘Eighth Day’ still feel relevant and paint a picture of a future world slowly pulled apart by developing technology.
Available on the album ‘Breaking Glass’ via Spectrum Music
ROBERT PALMER Johnny & Mary (1980)
After surprisingly recording Gary Numan’s ‘I Dream of Wires’ on his album ‘Clues’, the lead single ‘Johnny & Mary’ also showcased some impressive electronics with its hypnotic synth bassline and melodic keys. ‘Johnny & Mary’ got a new lease of life in 2015 with Bryan Ferry providing vocals in a more down-tempo incarnation by Todd Terje in 2015.
Available on the ROBERT PALMER album ‘Clues’ via Island Records
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES Red Light (1980)
By 1980, SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES had fragmented and were in an interim period without a permanent guitarist which pushed the then-trio into various modes of experimentation. Featuring a Roland Compurhythm and a camera shutter motor rewind as its backbeat, the minimal ‘Red Light’ was dominated by ominous synth played by Steve Severin to evoke a smoky club atmosphere.
Available on the SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES album via Polydor
GODLEY & CREME Under Your Thumb (1981)
For those familiar with their presence in 10CC, the Kevin Godley and Lol Creme’s ‘Under Your Thumb’ certainly came as a surprise curveball with its hi-hat driven drum machine and primarily electronic instrumentation. The dramatic ghost story set to a synthpop template echoed KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’, with its rhythmic nature tying in with the train journey narrative of the lyric.
Available on the album ‘Cry: The Very Best Of’ via Polydor / Universal Music
PHIL LYNOTT Yellow Pearl – Remix (1981)
‘Yellow Pearl’ originated during the 1979 THIN LIZZY tour of Japan when Midge Ure was temporarily in the band.
Remixed by the Glaswegian with contributions from Rusty Egan and Billy Currie, it was so draped in the involvement of artists from the electronic field that it was almost forgotten that Lynott was the frontman of a heavy rock band!
Avilable on the THIN LIZZY album ‘Greatest Hits’ via Universal Music
BILL NELSON Living In My Limousine (1981)
Frustrated by the limitations of BE BOP DELUXE, guitar virtuoso Bill Nelson formed RED NOISE in 1978 with a more electronic focus. But when Nelson recorded the decisively Bowie-esque ‘Quit Dreaming & Get On The Beam’, his label Harvest refused to release it but the album evetually came out on Mercury Records; ‘Living In My Limousine’ with its Numanesque detachment was one of the highlights.
Available on the BILL NELSON album ‘Quit Dreaming & Get On The Beam’ via Mercury Records
PETE SHELLEY Homosapien (1981)
‘Homosapien’ came about after the aborted fourth BUZZCOCKS album; producer Martin Rushent suggested to frontman Shelley that the two of them should work using the latest electronic equipment. Seen as Shelley’s coming out song, synths and 12 string guitar combined for a wonderful futuristic snarl. The lyric “Homo Superior in my interior” got the initial single release a Radio1 ban.
Available on the PETE SHELLEY album ‘Homosapien’ via Active Distribution Ltd
DAVE STEWART & BARBARA GASKIN It’s My Party (1981)
Keyboardist Dave Stewart (not the EURYTHMICS one!) was best known for being part of progressive rock acts NATIONAL HEALTH and EGG, although link-ups with Colin Blunstone and Barbara Gaskin gave both hits with reworked electronic cover versions of ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’ and ‘It’s My Party’ respectively. The latter topped the UK charts in 1981.
Available on the album ‘Up From The Dark’ via Broken Records
NEIL YOUNG Transformer Man (1982)
Between 1980-1982, Young was carrying out a therapy program for his young son Ben who had cerebral palsy. The music of KRAFTWERK reflected Young’s attempts to communicate with his son. Acquiring a Vocoder, Synclavier and Linn Drum Computer, while much of the eventual ‘Trans’ album did not work, there was an ethereal ‘Neon Lights’ beauty in ‘Transformer Man’.
Available on the NEIL YOUNG album ‘Trans’ via Geffen Records
THE CURE The Walk (1983)
By this point, THE CURE were down to a duo with Lol Tolhurst ditching his drum kit for keyboards, leaving Robert Smith with a far wider artistic freedom outside of the act’s previous band-based context. The resultant fantasy single ‘The Walk’ arguably started the tit-for-tat war with NEW ORDER, its octave synth bassline and machine-like kick drum blatantly templating ‘Blue Monday’.
Available on the album ‘Japanese Whispers’ via Fiction Records
FREEEZ IOU (1983)
Following their 1980 hit ‘Southern Freeez’, jazz funksters FREEEZ had fragmented to a duo. Fascinated by the urban electro hybrid of AFRIKA BAMBAATAA & THE SOUL SONIC FORCE’s ‘Planet Rock’ produced by Arthur Baker, they jetted off to meet him in New York. Baker suggested recording his self-penned ‘IOU’.
Available on the FREEEZ album ‘Gonna Get You’ via Cherry Red
GENESIS Mama (1983)
While Tony Banks’ keyboards have always been a key factor in the sound of GENESIS, 1983 saw some sinister minor key Prophet 10lines played on a at the start of ‘Mama’. Building in a similar fashion to ‘In Your Room’ by DEPECHE MODE, the story of a young man with a mother fixation, longing for a prostitute, took an unexpected genre twist with Phil Collins’ creepy laugh inspired by Grandmaster Flash.
Available on the album ‘Genesis’ via Virgin Records
QUEEN I Want To Break Free (1984)
QUEEN famously declared “no synthesizers” on their albums, but by 1980’s ‘The Game’, an Oberheim OBX had entered the ranks. Recording ‘I Want To Break Free’ had been tense, due to writer John Deacon’s insistence that the guitar solo had to be played on a Roland Jupiter 8 by session musician Fred Mandel. For its single release, the song was extended to include even more synthesizer.
Available on the album ‘Greatest Hits II’ via EMI Music
LEONARD COHEN First We Take Manhattan (1988)
Originally recorded by Jennifer Warnes in 1985, the doom laden Canadian poet recorded his own monochromatic synth interpretation. Tightly produced with sequenced digital slap bass, Linn Drum and sombre synth sweeps, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ was Cohen’s commentary on terrorism. Contrasting with a soulful interlude from Anjani Thomas, it made Cohen’s vocal even more resonant.
Available on the album ‘I’m Your Man’ via Sony Music
JULIAN COPE Just Like Pooh Bear (1995)
It doesn’t take a musical genius to work out just who Mr Cope is parodying here… the bassline, sequencing and drum programming on ‘Just Like Pooh Bear’ hilariously rip-off DEAD OR ALIVE’s ‘You Spin Me Around’. Judged on its own merits, it was an uber-catchy piece of synthpop work with some pretty filthy lyrics.
Available on the album ’20 Mothers’ via Echo Records
THE BLOODHOUND GANG The Bad Touch (1999)
Known for their crude lyrics, alternative rap rockers THE BLOODHOUND GANG’s ‘The Bad Touch’ with its double-entendres pushed all the necessary synthpop buttons.. The song was inspired by boredom and depression after vocalist Jimmy Pop was watching the Discovery Channel and saw a programme featuring monkeys mating.
Available on the album ‘Hooray For Boobies’ via Interscope Records
KELLY OSBOURNE One Word (2005)
After her initial pop punk adventures, Ozzy’s youngest daughter surprised everyone with the classic synthpop of ‘One Word’, a number penned by 4 NON BLONDES’ Linda Perry with a more than passing resemblance to VISAGE’s ‘Fade to Grey’. The resemblance was so uncanny that legal action was launched with writers Midge Ure, Billy Currie and Chris Payne each awarded a share of the royalties.
Available on the KELLY OSBORNE album ‘Sleeping In The Nothing’ via Sanctuary Records
MGMT Time To Pretend (2008)
Originally recorded for the 2005 EP of the same name, ‘Time To Pretend’ was stoner rock gone synthpop. Re-recorded for the ‘Oracular Spectacular’ album, MGMT used a number of piercing monophonic synth lines to aurally represent the hatching of eggs laid by a deceased praying mantis in a lyrical fantasy about leading the rock star life of drugs and models.
Available on the MGMT album ‘Oracular Spectacular’ via Columbia Music
EDITORS Papillon (2009)
EDITORS followed a keyboard-based trajectory with their third album ‘In This Light & on This Evening’. It spawned the Flood-produced ‘Papillon’ which was their most synth-dominated single to date. The decision to “go synth” didn’t go without ramifications though, with lead guitarist Chris Urbanowicz departing in 2012 citing the band’s “future musical direction” as his reason to bail from the outfit.
Available on the album ‘In This Light & On This Evening’ via Kitchenware
JOHN GRANT Pale Green Ghosts (2013)
John Grant chose a folk festival for his we hope you enjoy our new direction moment, premiering a brace of synth and drum machine-based songs which prompted half the audience to walk out. ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, produced with Biggie Viera of GUS GUS, showcased an artist unafraid to embrace a polar opposite style and actually pulling it off successfully.
Available on the album ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ via Bella Union
A playlist ‘Songs With Synths by Non-Synth Acts’ compiled by ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and featuring over 90 tracks can be listened to at
Text by Chi Ming Lai and Paul Boddy
31st March 2016, updated 20th January 2024