❉ Ange Chan reviews an eclectic, electric collection of synth pop’s Year Zero.
Some may say that the synth pop genre was born in 1974 when Kraftwerk released Autobahn. Across the ’70s there were a couple of attempts to use electronics in pop such as 1972’s Popcorn by Hot Butter and the seminal Donna Summer track I Feel Love (1977), produced by Georgio Morodor. Whilst that is a valid argument, it took the shake-up of punk explosion in 1976-1978 before the gestating genre truly emerged.
Punk illustrated to the public that anyone could make music if they set their mind to do so, and so pockets of synth pop bands were starting to emerge from towns like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Basildon. By the end of the ’70s you were able to pick up a half-decent synthesizer for a couple of hundred pounds or even on weekly credit from your Mum’s catalogue and this is exactly how Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark started.
The 3CD pack from Cherry Red Musik Music Musique : 1980 The Dawn of Synthpop includes an informative sleeve note booklet, which has a paragraph on each track/band and a foreword by Electronic Sounds’ Mat Smith. Not to be confused with the plethora of ’80s compilations’ that seem to hit the shelves every week, consisting of the same genre-defining, chart-topping songs, this mega 58-track compilation is true to its title and includes not only the big hitters but also the ‘have a go heroes’ of the genre who helped to define that year as ‘synth pop central’.
Track one, disc one is Messages by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark which is the perfect opener to this collection with its plonky-plonky synths sounds that build into a recognisable melody which can’t fail to grab your attention. Now long-standing forerunners of the genre, OMD were determined to be the first synth pop band to score a massive hit. Unfortunately for them Gary Numan beat them to it with his band Tubeway Army and the futuristic, dystopian track Are Friends Electric?
Because the genre was new, it required a lot of inventiveness in order to achieve the desired sound, and this was available in great abundance from the art school kids who went on to dominate the synth pop genre. Synthesizers at that time however, were largely tinny affairs and so quite often the bands had to patch them via another instrument to soften or sharpen the sounds accordingly. The synth pop phenomena soon became global with bands like Suicide emerging from America’s East Cost, Switzerland producing Yello, Germany with DAF, and The Metronomes from Australia.
Track two is the title track of the collection, by Zeus and takes the synth sounds in a different direct using vocoders to a simple synthesizer backing track whilst in Xynn’s Computed Man you can clearly hear the fellow countryman’s Germanic influence of Kraftwerk. Gina X Performance’s Vendor’s Box was an early example of production by Zeus B Held who would of course go on to be the ‘overlord producer’ of synth pop records including genre-defining artists such as John Foxx and Fashion.
Other note-worthy tracks on disc one include The Science’s Tokyo and Toyah’s foray into synth pop with the track Victims of the Riddle. Suicide were another band who had emerged from the Punk era and their Farfisa organ-led track Diamonds, Fur Coat Champagne is one of the songs that went on to greatly influence Soft Cell.
Disc two includes commercially successful artists such as Spandau Ballet, M, John Foxx, Kim Wilde, Japan and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott but not quite as you may heave heard them before. Listen with an open mind and appreciate that this is where they began. Little heard tracks by slightly more obscure bands such as The Metronomes, Kevin Harrison and The Residents sit nicely alongside the bigger names.
This disc also includes Silicon Teens track Chip n Roll. For the uninitiated, Silicon Teens was Daniel Millar’s band; still doesn’t ring any bells? Daniel Miller is often referred to as the other member of Depeche Mode, and the owner/producer of the record label Mute Records. Whilst there are no tracks from the boys from Basildon on this compilation, the roots of their beginnings can be found in the Silicon Teens track.
Disc three truly pushes your synth pop listening boundaries to new and exciting places with fewer instantly recognisable tracks and artists yielding to new treasures a-plenty to discover. Delights such as Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy as you’ve never heard it before by British Standard Unit and Nini Raviolette’s Suis-Je Normale; as the sleeve notes suggest… Don’t over think it, just enjoy it!
1980 was effectively ‘ground zero’ for the synth pop genre; a year or two later, bands such as Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Soft Cell, ABC and Heaven 17 would take the genre by storm as they developed the sound of synth pop, influenced by many of the artists on these three discs, into new avenues including the genres of Soft Wave, New Romantic and Post-Punk.
❉ ‘Musik Music Musique – 1980: The Dawn Of Synth Pop’ (CDTRED815) is released by Cherry Red Records, July 31, 2020. RRP £17.99. Click here to order.
❉ Ange Chan is a frequent contributor to We Are Cult and has written two novels and six volumes of poetry. She is currently working on her third novel Champagne Flues and Pixie Boots.