Review/Interview: ‘Listening to the Music the Machines Make’

Ange Chan reviews a new book chronicling the evolution of electronic pop and speaks to its author, Richard Evans.

“This book is a thorough, well-executed delight for fans of the electronic music genre and puts together all the pieces of information which you possibly already knew in the correct sequence, with myths dissolved and facts confirmed (…) and is a highly researched report of the music that machines make.”

From the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s, there was a cumulation of the preceding era’s musical output that resulted in a new wave of music that wasn’t made by drums and guitars, but by machines programmed to produce various sounds. This brave new world of music-making smashed through anything that had ever gone before, producing an innovative and creative genre of music. Richard Evans’ book Listening to the Music Machines Make tells the enthralling story of electronic pop music through the critical years of 1978 to 1983, and how that era shaped a generation of post-punk mavericks, many of whom are still producing electronic music today. Richard Evans runs the Erasure Information Service and was the former curator of ‘Remember the 80s’ and produced a book of the same title.

For his research Richard went back to original music press, seeking out stories and interviews made at the time rather than relying on memories which invariably contained mis-remembered facts or misinformation. 

‘Listening to the Music the Machines Make: Inventing Electronic Pop 1978—1983’ (Omnibus Press)

Says Richard, “I didn’t really interview people for the book because wherever possible I wanted to use original materials. That means that most of the quotes from artists which appear in the book come from the late seventies and early eighties, while the events I write about were actually happening.

However, I am extremely lucky to have access to a number of the figures I write about and lots of them were kind enough to allow me to ask questions as I went, just to give me a bit more information or to clarify something that was unclear”.

The book kicks off with a chapter on INSPIRATION in 1977, namely the acts that hugely influenced the pioneers of the electronic music genre. Inevitably we are reminded on Bowie’s 1972 performance on Top of the Pops where he performed Starman and pointed directly into the camera into millions of homes.  Its moment in pop history was epic and cannot be understated.  It was also the catalyst for many pop stars of the electronic music genre to start making their own music.

Also of Bowie’s generation were T. Rex, Roxy Music, and Alice Cooper, who similarly paved the way for the future stars of electronic music by appending their retro-futurist sound with Moogs and mellotrons. It was an evolution and from the chrysalis of shiny glam rock emerged the butterfly of music made by synthesizers.  Similarly, pioneers such as Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Hot Butter with their track Popcorn, and Joe Meek with his Atomic age hit Telstar were all instrumental (pardon the pun!) in paving the way for what was later to come.

Similarly, some literary works would also be hugely significant in the cold, steely edge given to electronic music produced in the late 70s/early 80s.  Dystopian sci-fi writers such as JG Ballard and Philip K Dick spurred the imaginations of youths like Phil Oakey (The Human League) and Gary Numan (Tubeway Army) who both cite these authors as influential.  Other artists inspired by these authors would include The Normal, Throbbing Gristle, John Foxx, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division and therefore their influence on these pioneering artists cannot be ignored.

Other influences came from the cinematic world including Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and his Wendy Carlos-scored adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, the latter of which portrayed a violent, hard-edged, emotionless future, all of which directly translated into the harsh analogue synthetic sounds which those emerging bands produced.

The next chapter reviews the REVOLUTION that came in the form of punk, which was the bridge between glam rock of the ‘70s and new wave of the early ‘80s.  The chapter goes on to discuss the importance of the Sex Pistols and similar punk acts that were born out of the revolutionary wave of punk.  Tubeway Army were born out of this punk revolution, and it was only a couple of years later when Gary Numan saw a Mini-Moog in the corner of a recording studio that his interest was piqued.  To say he never looked back from that moment in time would be the understatement of the century!

Similarly, Japan started out as a punk band in much the same way as Numan and transformed themselves into one of the most innovative bands of the synthpop era.

The chapter also discusses the importance of Brian Eno and his work with bands like the original line up of Ultravox! (exclamation mark included) with John Foxx at the helm before Midge Ure took his place when Foxx left the band to pursue his own journey in electronica.  Moving across to Europe, specifically Germany, and even more specifically Dussledorf, Kraftwerk were starting to make waves by producing the 20-minute epic, Autobahn which yet another influential moment in the story of electronic music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Devo were making similar waves in America, whilst all over the UK pockets of creativity were being born in Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Basildon and Leeds with bands adopting the DIY spirit, finding vacant spaces in which to record their music and get it out to a receptive audience desperate to hear new music.  Record covers were similarly embracing the DIY ethos with letrasets and freehand drawn record covers being de rigeur.

Onwards the book progresses year by year from 1978 through to 1983, into TRANSITION where those fledgling bands formed out of the punk era, metamorphosed into their peacock-feathered, Top of the Pops-appearing, face-of-mainstream-music full beings.

The book concludes with a section entitled REACTION which goes on to complete the synthpop story, where bands have been clearly documented as being influenced by the likes of Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan etc.  It also discusses the techno genre of Detroit, USA, which was directly borne out of the electronic music produced by bands in the era covered here and its importance on contemporary popular culture. 

Music is always evolving from one thing into another, and it’s a very interesting process to read about.  Richard’s book is a thorough, well-executed delight for fans of the electronic music genre and puts together all the pieces of information which you possibly already knew in the correct sequence, with myths dissolved and facts confirmed.  It draws on actual reality from the time it happened rather than myth and misinformation and is a highly researched report of the music that machines make. 

I was lucky enough to catch up with Richard to ask him a few questions about his epic tome… 

Richard Evans: Interview

Richard Evans (Omnibus Press)

Richard, what inspired you to write this book?

A couple of things…. Publishing my first book back in 2007 was a big part of it. That book, Remember The 80s was a very different sort of project, but going through that process showed me that it was actually possible for me to write and publish a book but then, when it came to doing another one, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about.

That inspiration came from reading the autobiographies from some of the artists who helped define the 80s and noticing that sometimes the stories didn’t quite match the facts as I understood them.

Sometimes I think people were altering the stories a little bit to make themselves look better, but sometimes I think that too much time has gone by for everyone to properly remember what actually happened and in what order.

Then I started thinking that it would be great to have one book which told all those stories but which drew from original source materials from the late seventies and early eighties instead of from today’s slightly wobbly memories!

How long did it take you to write the book?

I first started doing research for the book about six years ago, but not in any serious or particularly organised way. I just kind of messed around for a couple of years and didn’t really get anywhere, but I did build up quite a collection of research materials.

Then in 2019 I had a little bit of space to take on a new project and I decided that I would use it to put together a book proposal which I could show publishers as a way of seeing if there might be actual interest in a book on this subject. That took a few months to put together, but the proposal was enough to attract the interest of an agent who then secured the contract with Omnibus Press for me to write the book. I signed the contract remotely just after the start of the first lockdown in 2020 and handed in the final part of the manuscript in July 2022.

I had to write a sample of the text for the proposal so a large part of the writing on the releases and events of 1978 was already done before lockdown, but yes, most of the book was written during lockdown or during the various periods of restrictions and uncertainty that followed the actual lockdowns.

What was your writing process?

As I had decided that I wanted to write from original source materials, rather than doing new interviews with people about events from forty years ago, the process was massively led by research. Basically, as soon as lockdown allowed, I locked myself away in the British Library in London for days and days and days and I went through as many of the music papers and magazines that were published from 1978 to 1983 – the period the book covers – as I could get my hands on and I used my phone to take photos of anything that caught my eye: reviews, interviews, news reports, adverts, anything that I thought might be useful. I ended up with thousands of individual pieces of research and started to connect them all together, kind of like a giant jigsaw puzzle, in a timeline of the period which then became the backbone of the book. The actual writing part came after that and basically joined everything together and smoothed it all out.

Do you play any synths yourself?

I don’t. I have zero musical ability but I do genuinely love the music from the period I wrote about, so the book is written more from the perspective of a fan or an enthusiast than from the perspective of a musician or an insider.

Of all the people you interviewed for the book, which was your favourite anecdote?

Usually, I asked those questions as I went rather than going into an interview situation and talking about everything at the same time. Having said that it was brilliant to be able to ask both Vince Clarke and Neil Arthur about a Yazoo and Blancmange collaboration that happened in 1982. They recorded a track together and everything, but apparently it didn’t really come together musically. Neither of them would let me hear the track though!

Who is your favourite artist from the golden age of synth music? And why?

That’s an impossible question to answer, particularly after having recently revisited so much of the music as I wrote about it. It’s like trying to choose your favourite child! I will say that the most important artist for me personally is probably Depeche Mode.

I grew up in Essex and was starting my journey as a music fan at the same time that they were starting out. The fact that they were broadly local made them extra exciting, and their trajectory from out and out pop towards exploring more challenging sounds happened at the same time that I was doing something similar, so it felt like we were in step musically.

Many synth pop acts have continued to make music 40 years on, clearly displaying their enduring spirit. Do you think this is a trait of their generation? From talking to the artists, how do you think they laid the groundwork for this in the 80s?

I think that it’s fascinating that so many of the pioneers of this story are still making new music, and also that the music they are making is every bit as innovative and interesting as it ever was, and sometimes more so. It may be a trait of their generation, but I wonder if their longevity is in part down to the fact that they were successful at a time where success could be particularly rewarding financially which may have provided a comfortable base to continue to operate from. There’s also the ongoing nostalgia circuit which allows these artists to continue to perform and those performances also provide a financial base from which acts can record and release new material. As for laying groundwork in the 80s, in my experience these artists are almost always amazed and slightly baffled that they have been able to get away with it for so long!

What part do you think fans play in the synth pop story?

My book has the sub-title ‘Inventing Electronic Pop’ and I’ve chosen to define ‘pop’ as ‘popular’ so in my telling of the story there’s no career without an audience.  On that basis without fans there’s no story…

Does the book touch on the iconic artists who designed the record covers at the time?

Yes, a little. Some of the artwork from the period the book covers is just as iconic as the music (and sometimes more so), so although the book isn’t really about the visual side of what was going on it was often difficult to disconnect one from the other.

Which is your favourite live synth artist act?  

Obviously, I have to say Erasure because I’ve worked with them for so long, but if I put them to one side then maybe OMD.

Also, every time I see them, I always come away thinking what a great show The Human League always put on.

Who have you seen the most times over the years?

Again that would be Erasure. If I take Erasure out of the equation then at a guess it’s between OMD, Depeche Mode, The Human League and maybe Nine Inch Nails.

Who is your guilty pleasure musically?

I don’t have any guilty pleasures. I love music equally across the genres and, although my tastes are definitely weighted towards electronic artists, at any one time I’m just as likely to be listening to Buddy Holly as I am to Orbital!

Any particular synth related anecdotes that you weren’t able to include in the book?  Any you’re at liberty to share with We Are Cult readers?

Not really, if it’s a good story then it’s in the book! One of my favourites though is the time that the Musicians’ Union tried to ban synthesisers for fear that they might put “proper” musicians out of work…

To book tickets for “Listening to the Music the Machines Make: Inventing Electronic Music A Panel Discussion”, taking place at INNSIDE Manchester on Sunday 13 November 2022 as part of the Louder Than Words Festival, click here to visit the Eventbrite page.

❉ ‘Listening to the Music the Machines Make: Inventing Electronic Pop 1978—1983’ by Richard Evans is published by Omnibus Press on 17th November 2022, RRP £25.00. Click here to pre-order: Website | Facebook | Omnibus Press

  A lifelong lover of music and prominent contributor to Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon), Ange Chan is a Freelance Writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry.

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