Listening to the Music the Machines Make
'Blue Monday' by New Order was doomy and repetitive and was likely to cause a tense, nervous headache. Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' was unbearably coy and the early lineup of The Human League looked like what might happen if Kraftwerk ever merged with Slade...
...One of the many delights of Richard Evans's thorough analysis of the birth of Electronic Pop in the UK during the late 70s and early 80s is how frequently, as shown above, it was derided and misunderstood by the weekly music press.
Although, to their credit, Melody Maker (1978) did celebrate the 'stark, pretentious, anti-commercial' music that was being made by the 'true rock eclectics,' it concluded that they didn't 'expect many of these groups to amount to much.' Evans's book is a testimony to what that music actually did amount to - the prominent role that it played throughout the 1980s, its influence on the dance music that came from the US almost a decade later, and how several of those innovators are still as creative as ever over 40 years later. And some of those key figures provide their input to this book - including musicians Martyn Ware, Vince Clarke and the founder of Mute Records - Daniel Miller.
Evans namechecks the German bands (Neu!, Can, and especially Kraftwerk), as well as Giorgio Moroder, David Bowie, early Roxy Music et al that inspired the electric music makers, but most fascinating of all is the void that was left behind after punk had all but disappeared in the late 70s:
'All that anger and revolutionary spirit didn't go away, it simply became repurposed - transmuted into a defiant icy cool, much more energy efficient than all that shouting'
- John Foxx
The significance of Foxx and the early incarnation of Ultravox! (note the exclamation mark), is key to this evolution (and the book takes its title from one Foxx's lyrics for the band). And, if you've ever wondered when and why the band dropped the exclamation mark from their name (and it was before Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon left and they became a more chart-friendly act), then Evans will explain all.
It is the sudden chart success of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army that provides the turning point in the story of electric music in Britain. The number one singles ('Are Friends Electric' and 'Cars'), caught those acts that had been making music with synthesizers to little or no public attention by complete surprise. 'Every TV appearance Gary Numan makes must be a dagger to the heart of The Human League, every radio play a bit more salt in the wound...' wrote the NME. In truth, The Human League found that, after the infamous change of lineup ( see my review of Martyn Ware's memoir for take on his sacking from the band), that they discovered their ability to craft commercial pop songs. The unexpected arrival of Numan provided the prompt that would take so many underground acts from the fringes of experimentation to the mainstream pop market.
Some acts were keen to distance themselves from the perceived scene ('we're more like a cabaret than a rock band really' claimed the ever-quotable Marc Almond of Soft Cell), whilst others were called out for their pretensions by some of the most ardent supporters (Paul Morley's dissection of the seriousness of OMD's , 'Architecture and Morality.' is woundingly true).
As Foxx noted 'After 1981 everyone and his dog went electro...' And with that fear of over-saturation becoming more and more obvious the artists branched off into several new directions, the newly formed New Order became infatuated by dance music, Visage remained central to the fashionable Blitz Kids/New Romantic scene, Vince Clarke (who also pens the Foreword to Evans's book), moved seamlessly from Depeche Mode, to Yazoo, The Assembly and ultimately to the pop classicism of Erasure. Elsewhere Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet succumbed to the teen market, Japan remained aloof and promptly split up and Cabaret Voltaire stayed as stubbornly unorthodox as ever before.
It is however the legacy of the electronic pop era that would later be found in the House and Techno music at the end of the decade and into the 90s that provides the most fascinating conclusion to this story. In one instance, Depeche Mode arrived in Detroit, completely unaware of the reputation as being techno pioneers there. Although bewildered by their new status, lead singer Dave Gahan felt justified:
'In a way, it's confirmed that what we were doing was right all along. House music seems to me the most important musical development of the eighties, in that it has combined dance music and the electronic sound...it looks to the future'.
When reading Gahan's words, it serves as a reminder of the derision that so many of the electric musicians had endured (the CD booklet of the first Depeche Mode 'best of' compilation sarcastically gathered together many of the press slayings that they had received), and how much those 'tense, nervous headache' inducing records became so influential to each subsequent generation. 'Listening To The Music The Machines Make' would have been a great read if it had only listed the achievements of the inventors and creators, but Evans has combined his authoritative reseach with his genuine passion for the records themselves.
You will find yourself going back to listen and re-evaluate those records too.
Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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