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.
‘Back Stage – A Book Of Reflections’ is a comprehensive account of GARY NUMAN’s imperial years from 1979 to 1981 compiled by long time Numan enthusiast Stephen Roper.
First released as a hardback book in 2012, it featured contributions from band members (Chris Payne, RRussell Bell + the late Cedric Sharpley) and support acts (OMD, SIMPLE MINDS + NASH THE SLASH) as well as the man himself.
Numan said: “That’s why I enjoyed reading this book so much. It gives a voice to so many people that were vitally important to me, and to what happened to me, in those early days. I was grateful to them then, and I remain grateful to them now”.
Several interviews were conducted with Numan over a period of a few years, although not all of the transcripts were used. Stephen Roper has kindly allowed ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK to publish some of these previously unseen texts.
What was the idea behind the ‘Teletour’ stage set?
It was a continuation of ‘The Pleasure Principle’ set in essence; the idea of a city in the future where the walls themselves would light up as darkness fell.
How different did you find the ‘Teletour’ from ‘The Touring Principle’?
I felt that I was better on stage, although very aware that I still had a lot to learn. I was getting very battered by the press, perhaps more during the ‘Telekon’ period than with ‘Replicas’ and ‘The Pleasure Principle’, so that was quite difficult to deal with at times. It made me feel a great deal of affection for the fans.
I would read some sh*tty piece in one of the music papers and then walk out on stage and everybody would scream and go mad. It bought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion. Overall though I thought the show itself was better, the music had moved up a gear, I was a little more confident, just that little bit more experienced. Things weren’t quite as shocking as they had been the first time round.
You spent a lot of time with Australian musician James Freud of THE RADIO STARS after the end of ‘The Touring Principle’ and worked on an unreleased album with him and his band, any memories of your time with him and why the album was never released?
I remember we went to Japan for a while as there was a girl there I’d met on tour that I was keen to see again. He was just very easy to be with, good fun. I don’t make friends very easily so it was good to have someone to hang out with who led a similar kind of life that was similar to me in many ways.
The album was recorded in England and my memory of it was that things were a bit fraught at times. I’m not the best person to work alongside. I get too intense and moody. I wouldn’t work with me. I’m not sure why it didn’t come out I’m afraid. It may have been they didn’t like it, management problems perhaps, label problems, maybe the band themselves fell out with each other. I do remember they went through a series of revelations about each other and each other’s desires and habits. It was quite fascinating to watch from the outside.
The ‘Teletour’ ended in Canada but should have gone on into Europe, Asia and Australia, what were the reasons why these never happened?
I don’t remember at all I’m afraid. I know I was very keen to stop touring, it’s why I announced the retiring thing and played those last Wembley shows. I also wanted to get back into the studio and get on with the ‘Dance’ album recordings. So, perhaps it was me that just decided to stop.
‘On Broadway’ was the first time you’ve covered anyone else’s track, how did this come about and how did the awesome Billy Currie instrumental come about?
Not strictly true as I did ‘Trois Gymnopedies’ as well around that time I think. I had always loved the ‘On Broadway’ song and finally had a chance to play it live in a setting that was appropriate. Doing a synth version of it was perfect given the success that I’d enjoyed with electronic music. The Billy Currie part of it was simply down to him being in the band at that time and the fact that he’s just a fantastic player. He was a bit of a hero of mine at the time.
Dennis Haines left the band after the recording of ‘Telekon’; you said at the time that he “didn’t quite fit personally in the band”. Do you have any recollections?
No. As I said at the time, he just didn’t fit in…
The Battle for the River Dee!!! You hired some boats out at Chester during the ’Teletour’ on a day off? What happened with that and the “Sheep” incident with the band and crew at Edinburgh?
I remember it well enough, although everyone that was there seems to remember it a little differently so perhaps none of us remember it correctly. It really wasn’t that big a deal to be honest. We rented some boats, started splashing each other, it got a bit out of hand and I think we got into trouble. Just kids’ stuff!
The sheep happened without me as I was locked into a hotel room with some blonde woman. I think I had the better time. As far as I know, they decided to steal a sheep to put into the tour manager’s hotel room. No idea why. They couldn’t catch a live one so they found a dead one instead and it split as they pulled it onto the tour bus. Yes, I definitely had a better night.
The farewell concerts at Wembley are still one of the most amazing live shows ever seen. How did the planning for these concerts go, the design for the stage, the prep work etc?
The design of it was built around both ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and ‘Telekon’ tours but with a number of huge additions. I spent an absolute fortune on it, to try and make it the biggest thing there had ever been in an indoor venue up to that point. I loved the design process, but it was when we got to stage rehearsals that the sheer scale of the thing really hit home. It was amazing. I was very proud of it.
After the shows were over, what went through your mind and was it the end of a chapter for you?
I was very sincere about wanting to get out of touring at that time so it was all quite emotional. I realised even as I was walking off the stage that I might have made a huge mistake. It was certainly the end of a chapter.
How did it feel to work with ROBERT PALMER on his songs ‘Found You Now’ and ‘Style Kills’?
I felt very honoured that he was playing two of my songs in his live set. It was ‘Cars’ and ‘Me! I Disconnect From You. When I met him, he invited me out to his house in the Bahamas I think, and I played him the ‘Telekon’ album. It hadn’t been released at that point. He really liked the ‘I Dream Of Wires’ song and recorded his version of it while I was there. He also had another couple of songs that he said he couldn’t finish, so I worked on those as well while I was there. He was a great man.
You did a promo video for ‘Metal’. How did this come about and did you ever consider releasing it as a single at the time?
It wasn’t a promo as such, it was a TV film, made by Tyne Tees TV I think, for a performance of that song on their show. Rather than just going into their studio and filming a performance of it, along the lines of Top Of The Pops, they took me out and we filmed a clip for it. I can’t remember if I ever considered it as a single but I should have. ‘Metal’ would have made a great single. Not choosing that was one of my many mistakes.
Your uncle Jess Lidyard played drums on your first two albums as TUBEWAY ARMY but left just as you broke into the charts and had huge success, can you remember the reason why he left and how you felt yourself about it?
I asked him if he wanted to join the band full-time but he didn’t want to. He had a really good job at the time and I think he was reluctant to give up the security of that for an uncertain future with me. Plus, he had been in bands before and done a lot of touring all over Europe so I don’t think it was the big exciting thing for him that it was for me.
The crew and band members who you spent nearly two years travelling the world felt they were part of a family, was this the same for you?
You do get very close to people when you tour, no doubt about that. You live life to the full and go through many extreme experiences together, most of them good. I think it’s only natural that those bonds feel as strong as they do at the time, and for a while afterwards.
I always wanted to cultivate that closeness as well. I always have on any tour I’ve ever done. It’s important to feel close to the people around you when you’re touring.
For a lot of people the end of tours is a really bad time. I know a lot of people who plunge into depression at the end of a tour, especially a long one. I used to, before the children, but now life returns with a huge bang the day you get home and I just don’t have any time to be wallowing and missing people. But, it’s one of the reasons why I’m always just a few months away from another tour. I love the life, I love the people.
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.
And when it has happened, tracks like ‘Yellow Pearl’ were so draped in the involvement of artists from the electronic field such as Midge Ure, Billy Currie and Rusty Egan, it was almost forgotten that the figurehead of the song was the frontman of THIN LIZZY!
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 synth songs by non-synth acts.
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 DAVID BOWIE, SPARKS, SPANDAU BALLET, NEW ORDER, ASSOCIATES, TALK TALK and LCD SOUNDSYSTEM 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. 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, and the addition of ABBA-esque pianos sealed its fate as a one of a kind single for a band who wouldn’t go on to trouble the Top Ten again.
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’. THE DROYDS reworked it as a wonderfully deadpan, fully electronic interpretation, revealing it as the true slice of synthpop it was always destined to be.
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 JOY DIVISION’s most complete recording to date. But it was given just a limited run of 1578 copies by French art label Sordide Sentimentale, before a wider re-release.
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’ in an appearance which one could imagine a young Phil Oakey watching and thinking, “hmm, this is a good idea!”
Having explored art funk on ‘Coming Up’ and impersonated Ron Mael from SPARKS in its 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. Self-produced, the single was issued on 12 inch only to accommodate a 10 minute B-side ‘Secret Friend’ and failed to chart.
One of the two pivotal, charting songs featured 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 and whilst the look of the film may not have dated so well, the lyrics to ‘Eighth Day’ still feel relevant and paint a picture of a future world slowly pulled apart by developing technology.
After surprisingly recording GARY NUMAN’s ‘I Dream of Wires’ on his album ‘Clues’, another album track ‘Johnny & Mary’ also showcased some impressive electronics. Although not a huge UK hit when released as a single (only reaching No.44), ‘Johnny & Mary’ with its hypnotic synth bassline and narrative-driven lyrics got a new lease of life in 2015 with BRYAN FERRY providing vocals in a more down-tempo incarnation featuring on TODD TERJE’s 2015 debut ‘It’s Album Time’.
Available on the ROBERT PALMER album ‘Clues’ via Island Records
For those familiar with their presence in 10CC, the GODLEY & CREME single ‘Under Your Thumb’ certainly came as a surprise curveball with its hi-hat driven drum machine and primarily electronic instrumentation. The song echoed KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’, with its rhythmic nature tying in with the train journey narrative of the lyric. An epic ghost story set to a synthpop template, the track saw the duo became more established as promo video directors for artists including DURAN DURAN and VISAGE.
Frustrated by the limitations of BE BOP DELUXE, guitar virtuoso 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. Nelson bought the unreleased songs for his own label, Cocteau. A solo single ‘Do You Dream In Colour?’ gained radio play and the album was released by Mercury Records; ‘Living In My Limousine’ with its Numanesque detachment was one of the highlights.
‘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 and while it was recorded before THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Dare’, label politics ensured the parent album was not issued until 1982.
Available on the PETE SHELLEY album ‘Homosapien’ via Active Distribution Ltd
DAVE STEWART & BARBARA GASKIN It’s My Party (1981)
Keyboardist Dave Stewart (not to be confused with one half of EURYTHMICS) 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 after successfully jumping on the coat tails of the first wave of British synth acts.
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’. For his troubles, Young was sued by his label Geffen Records for “deliberately uncommercial and unrepresentative work”!
Available on the NEIL YOUNG album ‘Trans’ via Geffen Records
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’. Legalities aside, ‘The Walk’ had all the ingredients for perfect synthpop with its sawtooth hook and off the wall lyrics.
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’. The similarity to the Roland TR808 rhythms heard on ‘Planet Rock’ and NEW ORDER’s ‘Confusion’ can be explained by Baker refusing the let anyone tamper with his beloved machine.
While Tony Banks’ keyboards have always been a key factor in the sound of GENESIS, 1983 saw a distorted Linn LM-1 Drum Computer taking centre stage alongside some sinister minor key synthesizer lines played on a Prophet 10 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 used to famously declare “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 and bass player 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 Linn Drum driven song was extended to include more synthesizer in the intro and the bridge after the solo, emotively enhancing the less synthy album cut.
Originally recorded by Jennifer Warnes in 1985, the doom laden Canadian poet recorded his own monochromatic synthpop interpretation in 1988 with additional verses. Tightly produced with sequenced digital slap bass, Linn Drum and sombre synth sweeps, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ was Cohen’s commentary on terrorism and its unsettling mindset where “there are no alibis or no compromises”. Contrasting with a soulful interlude in the bridge from Anjani Thomas, it made Cohen’s vocal even more resonant.
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’ to the point where if this track had gone anywhere remotely near the charts, some sort of legal action would surely have ensued. As it stands though, the song judged on its own merits is an uber-catchy piece of synthpop work with some pretty filthy lyrics.
THE BLOODHOUND GANG’s ‘The Bad Touch’ with its double-entendres and very un-PC promo video easily pushed all the necessary synthpop buttons.. The promo video itself went on to prove itself a little too controversial with a scene involving two gay characters being bashed with baguettes getting cut, resulting in singer Jimmy Pop offering to “…give any gay man two tickets to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of his choice if he could describe exactly who’s going to become violent based on that scene”.
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. However, it was perhaps a little bit too classic sounding, with a more than passing resemblance to VISAGE’s ‘Fade to Grey’. The resemblance was so uncanny that legal action was launched. The matter was eventually settled out of court with Midge Ure, Billy Currie and Chris Payne each awarded a share of the royalties.
After starting life as an angular indie guitar band, frontman Kele Okereke steered the act into using synths, culminating in his own 2010 electronic-based solo album ‘The Boxer’ and the BLOC PARTY single ‘Flux’. The latter revealed itself as a high octane romp of a tune, with its fast-paced sequencers and drum machines leaving space for only minimal guitar textures. The song itself was a brave departure and sonically bears little resemblance to the spiky guitar sound of their earlier work.
While the synth was the rogue element of THE KILLERS’ debut album ‘Hot Fuss’, reflecting singer Brandon Flowers’ love of NEW ORDER and DURAN DURAN, it wasn’t until ‘Human’, co-produced by Stuart Price, that THE KILLERS came up with a true synthpop anthem. Effectively a soaring rework of the ALPHAVILLE’s ‘Forever Young’, the thundering motorik dancebeat confused their more rock-inclined fanbase, as did the Hunter S Thompson referencing refrain of “are we human or are we dancer?”.
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, Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden used a number of piercing monophonic synth lines to aurally represent the hatching of eggs laid by a deceased praying mantis. A lyrical fantasy about leading the rock star life of drugs and models, the overdriven drums and dominant synth bass pattern provided a perfect crossover record for MGMT.
EDITORS followed a similar keyboard-based trajectory to BLOC PARTY 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, although a pure electronic fix of the song was provided by the fantastic TIESTO remix. 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.
With JOHN GRANT, there are echoes of when hardcore folk fans screamed “JUDAS!” as Bob Dylan introduced electric guitars into his sound. Grant chose a folk festival for his we hope you enjoy our new directionmoment, premiering a brace of synth/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.
The late Ronnie Peterson has been acknowledged as one of the fastest Grand Prix drivers of all time, yet he was never crowned World Champion.
Statistics can often not be a good indicator of quality and so it is that sometimes, a great single never actually attained the sales recognition it deserved. This could have been due to timing, lack of interest from a fickle music buying public or even a saturated market.
While some of these lost singles do get forgotten, many become live standards and firm fan favourites. So here are 25 singles from predominantly established acts, or collectives featuring figures who are now well known in the music scene, that did not reach the UK Top 40 Singles Chart. Due to the sheer numbers of songs that are eligible, a cut-off point has been made for when CD singles started to become the norm around 1990.
After much deliberation, it was decided to leave out the work of ASSOCIATES as a number of their songs that would have been contenders for this list were featured in ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s own Beginner’s Guide To Billy MacKenzie. There are of course, several other notable omissions, but this list could go on forever…
So with a restriction of one single per artist moniker, the list is presented in chronological order by year, and then alphabetically…
THE HUMAN LEAGUE Empire State Human (1979)
It seems unbelievable now that this extremely catchy single failed to be a big hit in an era when synthesizers were being accepted by the wider record buying public. After all, both SPARKS and TUBEWAY ARMY had entered the Top 20 with their Moog assisted ditties. In hindsight though, Colin Thurston’s production did sound comparatively thin next to ‘The Number One Song in Heaven’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’. Despite a timely re-release in 1980, ‘Empire State Human’ only reached a high of No62.
THE CHAMELEONS (not to be confused with the cult Manchester band) were actually Zoo Records supremos Bill Drummond of THE KLF fame and country house resident Dave Balfe who played keyboards with THE TEARDROP EXPLODES. On the beautifully sequenced ‘Touch’, art school student Lori Lartey innocently told of her holiday romance in Tokyo. It spent one week at No70 when re-issued on Sire Records. There was to be just one more single entitled ‘The Lonely Spy’.
After three albums with Ariola Hansa, JAPAN decamped to Virgin Records and reached No60 with ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, their first single release on the label. This should have been considered a promising success, but much more was expected as the band were already playing huge venues such as The Bukodan in Tokyo. It would not be until Autumn 1981 following a cash-in release of ‘Quiet Life’ by their former label that David Sylvian and Co. were to become regular singles chart fixtures.
The suave Mr Palmer took an interest in synths having become a fan of GARY NUMAN and JAPAN. ‘Johnny & Mary’ was a beautifully world weary number that hit a high of No44. Palmer was to later have massive success with a more rock flavoured sound while his bank balance was enhanced when ‘Johnny & Mary’ was covered for the ‘Papa et Nicole’ Renault adverts. Bryan Ferry’s reinterpretation with Todd Terje exposed a twilight years scrutiny on the lyrics which sadly, Palmer himself was never able to do….
Available on the ROBERT PALMER album ‘Clues’ via Island Records / Universal Music
SIMPLE MINDS were signed to Arista Records between 1979-1980 and like JAPAN, they were met with indifference by their label. ‘I Travel’ was their penultimate single at Arista who threw in a free blue flexidisc featuring ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Film Theme Dub’ as a sweetener to early purchasers. But despite airplay from Rusty Egan at The Blitz Club where its futuristic frenzy was highly welcomed, ‘I Travel’ did not make any chart impact. Arista’s 1982 cash-in reissue of ‘I Travel’ disappeared without trace…
Things were heading in the right direction for the Mk2 line-up of ULTRAVOX following ‘Sleepwalk’ getting to No29 in the UK chart. Built around a more synth rock structure, ‘Passing Strangers’ had the makings of a bigger hit with a great chorus and a sympathetic environment in which THE HUMAN LEAGUE and DEPECHE MODE were also managing to break through. But the single stiffed at No57 and it would take the massive surprise success of ‘Vienna’ in early 1981 to truly establish ULTRAVOX as a chart force.
New York trio OUR DAUGHTER’S WEDDING were one of the new synthpop acts to emerge following Synth Britannia from across the Atlantic and their best known song ‘Lawnchairs’ was a frantic mechanised combination of OMD and GARY NUMAN. Despite gaining regular radio play in the UK, its chart summit was No49. The trio later re-recorded ‘Lawnchairs’ with a more conventional live drum sound, but this template totally took the charm out of the song!
Produced by Daniel Miller, ‘Memorabilia’ borrowed heavily from CERRONE’s ‘Supernature’ and the funky overtures of James Brown. Released as a 12 inch single in March 1981 but relegated to B-side status on the edited 7 inch format where ‘A Man Could Get Lost’ was the A-side, Almond recalled a list of trashy souvenirs over a linear dance track that were also metaphors for stalking. Dark yet danceable, despite not being a hit, ‘Memorabilia’ would later become citied as an influential proto-house classic.
If Ian Curtis had joined TALKING HEADS, then it might have sounded like this. “On reflection, I always thought it was more David Byrne than Ian Curtis but, there was never any intention” recalled Neil Arthur in 2013, “We hired a Roland Jupiter 8, an ARP sequencer and a Korg MS20 plus a Linn LM-1 which Stephen Luscombe and I programmed up” . Reaching No46, ‘Feel Me’ always had untapped hit potential as FAITHLESS’ reworking using Arthur’s vocals proved.
With its thundering Simmons drums and glistening synth riff, ‘Europa & The Pirate Twins’ was based on a real life romance of Dolby’s: “I had a girlfriend and we used to fantasise that after the apocalypse, wherever we were, we would meet up on this beach in East Anglia where I grew up… I always thought she’d end up being this big movie star or something”. Alas the single was not a Top40 hit, but the song entered the wider consciousness when its intro was used as the theme to BBC Radio1 show ‘Saturday Live’.
Glenn Gregory and Martyn Ware often cite ‘Let Me Go’ as their favourite HEAVEN 17 song. Propelled by a funky Roland TB303 Bassline in the days before it was hijacked by Acid House, ‘Let Me Go’ had hit written all over it, but stalled at No41. But in a competitive Autumn ‘82 for new releases, even songs that were to become international hits like THOMAS DOLBY’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ and EURYTHMICS’ ‘Love Is A Stranger’ (on its initial release) were having difficulties getting into the Top40 as well.
Trip-poppers TX may not have been a synthesizer driven group as such, but this marvellously haunting ballad was layered in Prophet5 courtesy of Dave Balfe while Julian Cope sounded like a distressed little boy, lost in his sunshine playroom. Mercury Records probably thought ‘Tiny Children’ would be a hit following the success of JAPAN’s ‘Ghosts’ but released in June 1982, the sonic chill reminiscent of Copey’s hero Scott Walker was not what people were wanted to hear as they prepared for their summer holidays!
It’s now strange to think that when TEARS FOR FEARS first appeared, they were trying to emulate OMD. ‘Suffer The Children’ took inspiration from Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal de la Quintana’s interest in Primal Scream therapy while musically, it recalled McCluskey and Humphreys’ ‘Pretending To See The Future’ but with more guitar. The child-like refrain by Ozabal’s wife within the bridge and coda would have actually sounded like an OMD hookline had it been played on synth.
Available on the TEARS FOR FEARS deluxe album ‘The Hurting’ via Mercury / Universal Music
In Autumn 1982, VISAGE were in a state of limbo following the departure of Midge Ure. But with John Luongo who had remixed ‘Night Train’ on board, the remaining quartet of Steve Strange, Rusty Egan, Billy Currie and Dave Formula plus new bassist Steve Barnacle explored New York electro. ‘Pleasure Boys’ was hard and aggressive with lyrics full of hedonism. But the New Romantic audience had moved on and sales were only enough for it to get to No44.
Have courted the major labels for some time, DEAD OR ALIVE finally settled on Epic Records and unleashed this vicious slice of electro gothic disco in ‘Misty Circles’ as their first single release for them. Featuring guitars from a soon to be sacked Wayne Hussey, who went on to join THE SISTERS OF MERCY and then form THE MISSION, ‘Misty Circles’ had a highly unusual sound produced by Zeus B Held that was initially far darker than the romping Hi-NRG that DEAD OR ALIVE were later to have hits with.
Full length version available on the DEAD OR ALIVE album ‘Evolution’ via Epic Records / Sony Music
By 1983, JOHN FOXX had moved away from pure electronic music and was now listening to both SIMPLE MINDS and U2. His third solo album ‘The Golden Section’ took on a more pop oriented slant under the auspices of producer Zeus B Held ‘Endlessly’ was initially released in 1982 as a moody Linn drum heavy psychedelic romp and failed to chart. But for the new version, thundering sequencers, Simmons drums and a danced up euphoria were added… however, it still failed to be a hit.
‘Electricity’ would have been a hit had its sales not been spread over three separate releases with three different recorded versions between 1979-80. ‘Telegraph’ was Andy McCluskey’s angry metaphoric attack on religious fundamentalism in the United States, but considered to be the most commercial track on OMD’s brave but critically panned nautical adventure ‘Dazzle Ships’. With an infectious synth melody, what was there not to like? But OMD’s audience had diminished by this time and it only got to No42.
Brilliantly produced by Rhett Davies who was best known for his slick touches on ROXY MUSIC’s ‘Avalon’, ‘My Foolish Friend’ was the last TALK TALK song to feature contributions from their original keyboardist Simon Brenner. Released in the interim between ‘The Party’s Over’ and ‘It’s My Life’ albums as a single, Mark Hollis was in wonderfully miserable mode over a dramatic synthesized backdrop. The single became lost when it only reached No57 and was not included on the ‘It’s My Life’ long player.
A classic song that sounded like THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS fronting OMD, ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’ is regarded as THE BLUE NILE’s signature tune. From the album ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ that was released as part of a deal with hi-fi manufacturer Linn Products to showcase their flagship Sondek LP12 turntable, the gorgeous melancholy of ‘Tinseltown In the Rain’ had an understated quality that ensured the trio’s sporadic releases over the next 20 years were eagerly anticipated by the musical cognoscenti.
Liverpudlian combo CHINA CRISIS are probably the most under rated band of their generation. Lyrically inspired by an artificially assisted gondola ride in Venice, ‘Arizona Sky’ was one of their many singles which deserved greater recognition. The nucleus of Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon usually managed at least one hit per album but with the wonderful ‘Arizona Sky’, it was not to be. It settled at No47 despite the song’s brilliant singalong chorus, infectious synthesized textures and catchy “bop-bop-be-doo-dah” refrain.
“Why are they doing a DOLLAR song?” someone was overheard at their first visit to an ERASURE concert. And this ultimately sums up why ‘Oh L’Amour’ should have been a massive hit. Its now highly collectable ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’ cover had to be withdrawn due to copyright infringement and wouldn’t have helped availability. However, it should be noted that the original artwork does not actually feature Thomas The Tank Engine, but two incidental characters from the Reverend W Audrey’s famous books!
One of NEW ORDER’s best loved tunes, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ only reached No56 in the UK Chart as a single. However, the version released for 45 RPM consumption was an irritating, dance enhanced remix by Shep Pettibone which took all the subtlety out of the song with its collage of overdriven percussive samples. Far better and much more commercial was an at-the-time unreleased remix by Stephen Hague which later formed the basis of the ’94 version on ‘(the best of)’ compilation.
Available on the NEW ORDER album ‘Singles’ via Rhino Records
It was the height of Thatcherism and the Synclavier driven theatrics of ‘Snobbery & Decay’ were a sharp observation by Claudia Brücken and Thomas Leer on the state of the nation. However, the UK were not yet ready for an Anglophile German to tell them about its political decline… “No sadly they didn’t” remembered Claudia Brücken in Summer of 2010, “perhaps it was just not the right moment for this song… Thomas does think that perhaps we were ahead of our time”.
The last single featuring the classic RFWK line-up, ‘The Telephone Call’ was the most immediate track on the disappointing ‘Electric Cafe’ album. Featuring lead vocals from Karl Bartos, despite the abundance of digital synthesis and sampling, ‘The Telephone Call’ still had all the usual Kling Klang hallmarks such as pretty melodies, syncopated rhythms and slightly off-key singing to make this to ‘Electric Cafe’ what ‘Computer Love’ was to 1981’s ‘Computer World’ opus.
Available on the KRAFTWERK album ‘Techno Pop’ via Mute Records
In today’s world, DEPECHE MODE influenced acts are common place but in 1989, 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. ‘The Great Commandment’ was probably the best single DM never recorded but while it 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