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Sunday, 12 August 2012

Open Head Wounds 1: The Melancholia Of Analogue Synths

One of the pivotal moments in my self-tutored musical education occurred in August of 1980 on a Saturday morning. For some reason, the usual Saturday morning kids TV staples, Swap Shop and Tiswas, weren't on, and some gubbins called Fun Factory was on in it's place. During a fairly uneventful show there suddenly appeared a rock band whose unusual name I had heard of, but whom I had never heard. The band were Ultravox, and the song they performed was 'Sleepwalk', their first single with new vocalist Midge Ure (not that I knew that at the time). The song clattered along at a fair old whack making me assume that they were some new Punk band, but I couldn't help but notice that no-one on stage was playing a guitar of any description. What gives?

Of course, it turned out that Ultravox were among the early pioneers of synthesiser driven Pop music. Synths had been used in music since the early 70s with Kraftwerk, Can and David Bowie at the forefront of the new Electronic guard. But since Punk had changed the landscape and a new DIY ethos had taken over, many budding musicians questioned why bother going to all the trouble of learning to play guitar or piano when you could just push a button on a synthesiser and you were off and running.
Early pre-Punk bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle had been using synths from as far back as 1975, but had often used them to create atonal ambiance or discordant white noise. The duality of Punk Rock coupled with Bowie's synth-washed Low and "Heroes" albums proved the touchstone for many bands who emerged in the very early 80s. The NME at the time seemed to take a neutral stance; not deriding bands for their lack of musical rootsiness, and also championing the aloof and arty pretensions of some of the more serious synthesiser based acts.

At the time, the synthesiser, in particular the Fairlight synthesiser, was seen as the instrument of the future and was often used unsparingly on TV soundtracks and adverts, on Public Information Films, early video and computer games, and especially on home video distributor's idents. That hollow, unearthly, entirely artificical sound seemed everywhere in 1980 and very quickly became dated, a symbol of the synthetic falseness that many tarnish the 1980s with as a decade.
Yet there is, and practically always has been, an odd melancholy to the tones and notes created by those synthesisers, that now creates a weird mix of Proustian flashback with a memory of looking forward....that those strange sounding, mechanical Pop songs contain memories of futures to come....futures that ended up sounding nothing like the music they created. But even at the time, the very non-humanised textures of the music had a peculiar despondency to them that I'm sure their creators weren't intending as they composed them.
Take for instance 'Almost' by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark....I find this to be one of the most melancholic pieces of music ever performed. The haunting downbeat melody could almost certainly never have been created on a guitar or acoustic piano; it's the very flat, soulless-ness of the instrument that gives the song it's heartbreaking power....

Playing a very similar melody, if an octave lower, is 'The Path Of Least Resistance' by the Human League, long before Phil Oakey acquired two female co-vocalists and chased the great Pop dream. Early Human League records were very serious affairs with pure synthesised instrumentation backing Oakey's stentorian vocal concerns of a dystopian future of mechanised illness and genetic mutation....

In the early 80s it became de riguer for the more serious bands out there to feature synthesisers in their line-up, mostly in place of a lead guitar, but this lead to great deal of critical sniffiness about the 'authenticity' of the music. Whilst no-one ever took a swipe at Kraftwerk for creating beautiful, glacial soundscapes purely on synthesisers, many New Romantic, Futurist or Post-Punk bands were harshly criticised or mocked for their 'plastic soul'.
And yet this didn't seem to stem the flow. Even back in the day when we were forming school bands, Griff was involved in a band that purely played 'authentic' instruments. When he tried to get me into the band, it was on the belief that I would play keyboards (I had a tiny, cheap electronic keyboard at the time), even though the band didn't really need another member, and especially didn't need a synthesiser. But that was the point! I couldn't play guitar, bass or piano, but I could faff about with an electronic keyboard and get in the band!

Just as Punk had liberated music with it's 'anyone can do it' manifesto, so the synthesiser meant that anyone could be in a band even if they couldn't play 'proper' instruments. Whilst this may have led to a few extremely ropey chart acts (Depeche Mode, Howard Jones) it also led to some very fine music indeed.
Take, for example, nearly-rans B-Movie who, despite relentless enthusiastic championing from Kid Jensen, just failed to hit the big time with their excellent singles 'Remembrance Day' and 'Nowhere Girl'....

Then there was The Passage....starting out as contemporaries of The Fall and even once auditioning one Steven Patrick Morrissey of Salford as vocalist, The Passage went from scrappy, scribbly Post-Punk guitar band to being almost entirely synthesised in the space of one album. The Passage made some of the best alternative Pop music of the early 80s, intellectually sharp and musically complex, and really should have scored one of the biggest chart hits of the time with the exceptional 'XOYO', a song whose failure to chart still mystifies me to this day....

(I should point out that I have no idea what the video representing the song below is supposed to signify!!)

And so back to I became a fan of theirs, so I slowly began finding out more about their past. 'Sleepwalk' wasn't their first single as I had believed, but the band had had a whole 5 year history before that single's release.
Starting in 1975 as Tiger Lily and then changing to Ultravox as Punk broke, the band released three rather fantastic albums and a clutch of singles while fronted by original vocalist John Foxx. I had heard the name John Foxx before as he had released a single called 'Underpass', an odd completely synthesiser based song that I had bought without knowing anything about the singer or his past.

John Foxx was one of my first real musical heroes, just before Adam Ant and Morrissey changed me forever. There was something strangely moving about his entirely computerised music that had a detached alienation coupled with a poetic romanticism. It's no wonder then that Michaelangelo Antonioni asked Foxx to score his 1982 film 'Identification Of A Woman', a sobering study of a film-maker's existential crisis and failure to communicate with the women he is in relationships with.
His early singles all seemed to have a motorised theme running through them; 'Underpass', 'Burning Car', 'No-one Driving', and his debut solo album 'Metamatic' is considered as a high watermark in electronic music. Given that the album was created with nothing but electronic instruments, it still has a soulful beauty perhaps best captured on the track 'Blurred Girl'....

Foxx would go onto create an impeccable body of work taking in dreamy Pop albums ('The Garden'), ambient works ('Cathedral Oceans'), and still proves proficient today, working with longtime collaborator The Maths on a series of critically acclaimed albums.
While his early releases crept into the charts, he has remained a peripheral cult figure and only now is being hailed as true pioneer of electronic music and has finally gained the kudos and respect of even the most synth-phobic out there.

Whilst some of contemporaries and peers may look down upon the synthesiser and the mechanised music they created in the early 80s, I never had a problem with them, and now find their eerie tones and weird modulations a comforting and dreamy recollection of times past....

(to be continued next week....)


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