Notes on early synth-pop and the ending of the long 60s
In memory of Scott Walker and Mark Hollis
Early synth-pop has been described as "eerie, sterile, and vaguely menacing", using droning electronics with little change in inflection. Common lyrical themes… were isolation, urban anomie, and feelings of being emotionally cold and hollow.
In late 1970s and early 1980s European rock and pop music a predominantly Deutsch-Englisch creative network of musicians forged a sonic futurscape, an imagined world of trans-local musical activity, constituted through the exploration of new electronic synthesized sounds and the radical reinvention of guitar based Anglo-American rock music... Traditional criteria of musicality seemed peripheral in efforts to reinvent the sonicality of rock music... This music crossed over and brought into question the heavily policed iron curtain between legitimate marginal rock and illegitimate mainstream pop and disco.
Albiez (2003, p.129)
Dislocation: Situating British synth-pop in the crisis of the 1970s
It has become increasingly clear that 1979-80… was a threshold moment – the time when a whole world (social democratic, Fordist, industrial) became obsolete, and the contours of a new world (neoliberal, consumerist, infomatic) began to show themselves. This is of course a retrospective judgement; breaks are rarely experienced at the time. But the 70s exert a peculiar fascination now that we are locked into the new world.
Mark Fisher (2014, 50)
‘No alternative’ was the neo-liberal mantra; ‘no future’, as jeered by Jonny Rotten… was the concurrent cry of despair that punk bequeathed, which, whether it meant to or not, helped scotch the flowery, futuristic dreams of the new Age of Aquarius… No future. We’re still suffering the aftershock of that Song of Experience…
David Stubbs (2018, xi)
No future they say,
It doesn’t have to be that way,
The future is coming
The future is human.
The origins of this piece came out of a discussion about neoliberalism and music in the context of the legacy of the 1960s counter culture. The debate revolved around two lines – whether punk was an ending or continuation of the 60s, and whether neoliberalism has subsumed and commodified counter-cultural themes, making them null and void.
One way to enter these discussions is to pose the question of how music itself has been transformed and how stylistic changes are mediated by the technology artists use. Just as cinema transformed art in the early 20th century, so electronica has transformed music in the decades following the end of the 60s.
While basing itself on a global consideration of electronic music, the piece concentrates on the British scene focusing on five main acts that emerged out of the matrix of punk – Ultravox;John Foxx (lead singer of Ultravox until 1978); Human League; Tubeway Amry/Gary Numan, and Japan. British synth-pop utilised the instrument to give voice to a sense of alienation and to refract the wider ‘social panics’ that were gripping British society on the eve of Thatcherism. While this alone would be a major reason for turning again to this neglected area, the fact that such aesthetically charged music came to dominate British pop from 1980-82, points to something complex going on in British culture at turn of the Thatcher period.
While the period witnessed major battles, not least the Grunwick dispute, the Anti-Nazi League and the Winter of Discontent, it was nonetheless a period of downturn, which ended with the defeat of the Miners in 1985 and the consolidation of Tory rule. But this was more than a political defeat. Thatcher’s victory combined with Britain’s role in the global financial system, meant that the UK became the template for the neoliberal restructuring of the totality of capitalist social relations. That this was done with popular consent, utilizing the ideology that Stuart Hall described as Authoritarian Populism, says much about the degree to which a sense of anti-social anomie had spread beyond small enclaves of the petit-bourgeoisie.
Not least has this restructuring been felt on the subjective plane, with its ideology of individual self-actualization coming up against the grim economic dislocations of insecure housing, health and employment. As finance and digital technology have increasingly become the integrators of a more globalised capitalism, our ability cognitively to map the totality and our position within it has become attenuated.
Electronic music has a complex place within this process. On the one hand its expansion over the past 40 years is a corollary to the computerization and digitization of our lifeworld. Beginning with Sony Walkmans and Ghetto blasters, and continuing with mobile phones and cloud storage, we have witnessed an exponential rise in the personalised curation of musical consumption and the integration of music into ever greater spheres of experience.
On the other hand, electronic music has always stood for the strange and the eerie. In the postwar years electronic sounds were used to denote ghosts (most hauntingly in Daphne Oram’s soundtrack to The Innocents) or space aliens (notably in the B-movies). The Dr. Who theme-tune composed by Delia Derbyshire set a milestone in the evolution of eerie electronica, and can be seen echoed in later pieces like John Foxx’s Burning Car (1980).
Early British synth-pop thrived on the contradiction between the integrative and alienating aspects of electronic aural landscapes. On the one hand they embraced the newest technology and developed a style that would become highly fashionable around 1981. This would pave the way for later less challenging forms of electronic pop, that would become the staple of the later 80s and beyond. On the other hand, they utilised the sound of these new machines to create songs about the sense of a society under threat.
One of the key features of the period was the fracturing of social solidarity. Even by 1978 Stuart Hall could see how successful Thatcher had been in developing a constellation out of the incompatible notions of individual freedom, free market economics and a repressive state apparatus that would impose socially conservative values on families and schools.
The kernel of truth in Thatcherism was that the form of capitalism inaugurated in the postwar era was in crisis, and nowhere more so than in Britain, which had been one of the first countries to call in the IMF in 1976. That the Labour government under Callaghan effectively was forced to adopt austerity measures, meant that the government came under attack from two fronts, from the free marketeers of the right but also from the grassroots of the Trade Unions resulting in the Winter of Discontent.
From a subjective perspective, it appeared that society was fracturing. Yet such fragmentation was registered in a different area untouched by Hall’s analysis. Technological changes and shifts towards a more informatic society (the video age), were spurred by miniaturization and resulted increasingly personalised forms of media consumption. This meant that epistemologically, people were increasingly seeing the world in a more individualised way.
While the acts being explored in this piece shared some of the sources of anomie that drove Authoritarian Populism, they developed a highly hermetic style that deviated sharply from the concerns that fed Thatcherism. Firstly, they clung to modernist art and architecture. This was in stark contrast to the Thatcherites who harked back to pre-modernist architectural styles. Secondly, they seized upon the most recent developments in analogue media technology, and especially the synthesizer. Thirdly, they pivoted away from the US and Britain towards Europe, or a European imaginary. Lastly, their attitude to gender identity was in stark contrast to the heteronormative conservativism of Thatcherism – foreshadowing the concerns of increasing segments of today’s population who reject binary conceptions of gender.
Thatcher’s model of the economically liberal and socially conservative individual would become the hegemonic figure of the 1980s, unleashing variations on the self that continues to this day in millions of images on Instagram. British synth-pop showed that in 1979 history was not on rail tracks that ran straight to today’s neoliberalism, but that other parallel lines not taken, were imaginable.
In this piece we revisit early British synth-pop in the hope of recovering that lost moment in time when a different future was imaginable.
Sons of Pioneers – the uneven development of 1970s electronic pop
Electronic music has grown exponentially over the past five decades. In the early 70s it was marginal, mainly confined to institutional settings such as music conservatories, radio, TV and cinema. In pop it either had novelty value or was used ornamentally to embellish music that was driven by non-electronic instruments – i.e. with the Beach Boys’ use of a theramin or the Beatles’ use of tape loops and Moog synthesizers, and more enigmatically with Bowie’s use of the Mellotron on Space Oddity.
The late 70s marked a period of popular take-off. Across Europe, Japan and the US, new bands were starting to produce popular electronic music, where analogue synthesizers and rhythm machines took over the process of organising whole compositions.
In the wake of punk there was a strong sense that the postwar hegemony of guitar driven rock had run aground. The synthesizer represented a new beginning, and the music that was created on synths refracted the way in which a crisis in musical style was playing out in different countries. The instrument also acted as an orchestra in a box, giving room for untrained musicians to let fly with their imaginations in ways we shall explore.
In the US electronic music has to be seen against the racialized hierarchy in which guitar based rock represented the dominant White form of pop. Growing out of Mowtown, we can trace a lineage from the early use of synths by Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, through to early 80s Techno, Electro and subsequently through to Hip Hop. They also grasped the potential of sampling before other countries, and used it to develop electronic dance into a new international style – we see this with Africa Bambaarta’s Planet Rock which sampled Kraftwerk and drew from Gary Numan. Synthesizers also found an outlet in the US punk scene with bands like Suicide. In contrast to their UK counterparts who stuck with a more traditional musical line-up, Suicide came out of the New York experimental scene that was more closely aligned with visual art, and saw the ‘punk’ properties in the new synths.
German electronica emerged directly out of the 60s counter culture. Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream started out in student communes. Their music was integral to the wider youth revolt which had sought to reject the previous generation’s bad faith denials of the Nazi past and capitulation to US Cold War cultural hegemony. Rather they sought to reach back to Weimar modernism and pick up where movements like Bauhaus had left off in 1933.
The early adoption of electronic music by the postwar classical avant-garde was important in Germany. Conny Plank, having studied under Stockhausen, worked with Kraftwerk and a range of bands including Brian Eno and Ultravox. The result was that by the mid-70s German bands had developed the basic stylistic framework for all subsequent electronic pop. In Düsseldorf bands like Neu!, La Düsseldorf and Kraftwerk, invented a style of syncopated rhythm called Motorik. This is essentially a rhythm in 2:2, which is played at high speed and sometimes with time delays to imitate the motion of cars, trains and other forms of mechanical locomotion. The Berlin scene took a different tack, inventing Kosmische Musik. Tangerine Dream’s Phaedre (1974) is perhaps the most famous example of this style, which created long instrumental pieces, that emphasised the ambient and timbral properties of electronic sound over its mechanical and co-ordinative properties. British synth-pop was distinctive for combining both, with its mechanical rhythms and fascination with machinery, alongside a concern for using synths for their atmospheric and ambient qualities.
The Japanese situation resembled Germany. The 60s had seen an upsurge in youth activism directed against similar postwar denials and Cold War cultural capitulation to the US. Synthesizers gave bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) the chance to join Kraftwerk in rejecting US influence, but they adopted a wider range of cultural influences than their German counterparts and used a broader emotional and melodic palette. It is no small irony that the expansion of electronic music was largely powered by Japanese corporations like Yamaha mass producing cheaper modules than the earlier US synth producers like Moog.
Turning to Britain, synths drew in a post-punk generation who found in the instrument a way to explore their anxiety about living in British society. In Britain, pop music has always been entangled in issues of post-imperial decline, industrial decline and displacement by the US as global hegemon. Britain utilised its postwar and Cold War position to retain an outsized influence through culture, the military, diplomacy and espionage. This created a series of ideological ramparts that protected British society from coming to terms with its decline. While Thatcherism sought to strengthen these ramparts, punk tore them open and synth-pop probed the emptiness that punk’s act revealed.
I was in a car crash or was it the war? On machines and modernism
Down in the park where the Machmen
meet the machines and play kill by numbers
down in the park with a friend called five.
I was in a car crash or was it the war
well I’ve never been quite the same.
My sex is invested in suburban photographs
Skyscraper shadows on
A car crash overpass.
See the breaking glass
In the underpass
One of the most striking features of British synth-pop is its fascination with car crashes, concrete structures and general Neo-Brutalist architectural fantasies at a time when postwar modernism was in crisis, and postmodernism was in the ascendency.
The car crash acted as a signifier for this deeply subjective relationship to machines in a period where the collective sense of hope in machinery and its ability to transform our lives was in crisis.
By the late 1970s these anxieties had become a cultural paradigm. In cinema science fiction movies like Silent Running, THX 1138, Logan’s Run, Rollerball, The Andromeda Strain and Soylent Green pivoted on the paradigm of a machanized world as a prison from which the individual had to escape.
In the literature, the works of JG Ballard and Philip K Dick exposed the unconscious phantasies, desires and needs aroused by the way machinery had become integrated into the lifeworld. Dick probed the membrane between human and machine in a way that leaves us unhinged about what remains human and what remains machine (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). In Ubik we get an intimation of the nightmare of the neoliberal digital totality, where machines take over our lived experience by penetrating it with talking doors that demand cash payment before opening.
In Ballard’s novels Crash, High-Rise and Concrete Island, the motor-car and its infrastructure of concrete overpasses, motorways and multi-story carparks become spaces of desire and anxiety. In Concrete Island this anxiety of the individual in a mechanized world draws on the myth of Robinson Crusoe, where the main character is marooned on a traffic island as his car careens off a concrete overpass. Caught between motorway intersections, his battle to escape becomes existential.
Architecture was especially sensitive to these concerns. Douglas Murphy’s book Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture traces the history of postwar architecture and its embodiment of a vision of a future that promised a utopia of space, leisure and new forms of living. He traces the way in which ideals stemming from world fairs of the interwar and postwar years channelled avant-garde architecture to mass audiences and fed into a number of municipal projects from the construction of Brasilia in the Amazonian rain forest to the town planning of postwar Britain. He described how ambitious projects were dreamed up including the university campuses at East Anglia, and the Thamesmead estate in South London, where people could live in airy concrete towers, with their ziggurat structures and walkways.
He describes the process by which the dream of the future that animated these projects died in the 1970s. Increasingly the notions of plug-in housing, and the rapid building technologies that promised to create new flexible and modular modernist architecture were resulting in terrible disasters. Beginning with the Ronan Point gas explosion of 1968 which resulted in the collapse of a part of the 22 storey building, the public mood turned. But this was dwarfed by the events of 2 August 1973 with the fire at the Summerland holiday complex in the Isle of Man. Built with a striking avant-garde design, the complex caught fire when a cigarette ignited the acrylic lining between the external shell and the inner structure – killing fifty people. The parallels between Summerland and Grenfell cannot be stressed too strongly, and we need to keep these histories in mind, but what also has to be kept in mind is the distinction between the failure of modernist styles of architecture from the failures of regulation and profiteering in the construction industry. The Summerland holiday park was a product of venture capital, and Grenfell the result of deregulation and Conservative councils putting money before people.
While the private and public underfunding of modern architecture was resulting in disasters, the ideas of Jane Jacobs were turning the tide of popular thinking about urban planning. Her emphasis on the importance of historical and organic approaches to urban design, such as those of Greenwich Village in New York, influenced Greater London Council’s decision to preserve the historic arcades of Covent Garden that were mooted for demolition.
It was not long before the social movement aspects of the reaction against modernist architecture gave way to nascent neoliberal attitudes that focused on notions of private home ownership. In a book published in 1972 Oscar Newman developed the idea of ‘defensible space’, speculating on the benefits of people identifying with their house if they own it. This later led to works like Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial (1985) in which high rise blocks were associated with delinquency and crime.
All this lay the ideological conditions for the Thatcher government to inaugurate a mass sell-off of council houses, an end to public house building, and an exponential rise in private developers who covered suburbia with private Georgian-style housing estates.
It is here that the reaction of British synth-pop comes in. Rather than rejecting the modernist project, they developed a uniquely ambivalent position. The practical futuristic goals of modernist architecture and road building were transplanted into music and lyrical representations of these objects, mediated by a heightened sense of personal isolation and ambivalence.
John Foxx was especially conscious of these tensions. As a student in graphic design Foxx had studied early 20th avant-garde movements and we can see how his album Metamaric is an homage to these movements. The lyrics to the opening track Plaza rely on a cinematic style of mise-en-scène to create a dislocated relationship between the promise of modernist space and the reality of uniquely modern forms of disaster:
On the Plaza
We’re dancing slowly lit like photographs
Across the Plaza
Towards the shadow of the cenotaph
Down escalators come to the seaview,
Behind the smoke glass no one sees you,
A familiar figure comes to meet you,
I remember your face from
Some shattered windscreen.
Across the Plaza
Some giant hoardings of Italian cars
Across the Plaza
The lounge is occupied by seminars
From the Plaza
The highways curve in over reservoirs
On the Plaza
A queue is forming for the cinemas.
Down escalators come to the seaview,
Behind the smoke glass no one sees you,
A familiar figure comes to meet you,
I remember your face from
Some shattered windscreen.
Gary Numan and Human League also focused extensively on the mechanisation of life, Numan putting on an android like stage persona, staging the intersection of human and machine. Unlike Kraftwerk, whose machine personae effaced all feeling but humour, Numan’s persona was based on his reading of Philip K. Dick and anticipated the kind of angst-filled Replicant persona that would be immortalised in Bladerunner (1982). Human League exposed the features of a society that had been reordered by machinery, using parody, irony and unease in an overlapping way, that owed something to punk’s liking for chaos.
To understand why they did not follow the anti-modernist trend we have to look at how emerging new technology gave a second wind to the aesthetic modernist impulses that animated their work.
A Standard Polaroid World: Instant technology
“So we go to the studio to record our debut punk album, and in the corner of the control room there was a Minimoog,” Numan remembered. “I’d never seen one before. I’m pretty geeky so I was fascinated by it.”
Numan started fiddling with the Minimoog, which he mentally thought of as an extension of his sound generation approach to the guitar.
“I didn’t know how to set the Minimoog up, so I just pressed a key for whatever it was set on, and it made that famous Moog sound, that famous low growl and the room vibrated,” recalled Numan. “It was the most powerful thing. It was like an earthquake and I just loved it. And before the band was even finished setting up the gear I was in there working on changing the songs we’d arrived with into pseudo-electronic songs.”
Interview with Gary Numan
The 1970s and early 1980s marked a technological transition between analogue and digital technology. This gives the period a quality of openness compared to the culture industry that dominated the mid-20th century and the digital totality of today.
Over the 1970s a mutation emerged that was linked to the miniaturization powered by the intense competition between the US, Germany and Japan. Over a remarkably short period new analogue media technology transformed cultural production and consumption, unleashing a wave of personalisation that was a forerunner for digitization: VCRs, Polaroid cameras, Walkmans, ghetto blasters, personal computers, arcade games and cordless phones.
The transformations going on in the late 70s and early 80s were analogue powered. If we focus on information processing and storage, the main revolution was in the miniaturization of tape. The magnetic tapes developed in the mid-20th century required a scale of hardware that precluded personalization. With the increasing miniaturization of tape, it was possible to reduce film to a video cassette and to listen to music from cassettes that could fit into someone’s pockets.
A key part of the self-reflexivity in British synth-pop lay in its appropriation of such emergent media and communication technology. For them these new products exerted the same fascination that the technology of motor-cars and airplanes in the early 20th century had had on Futurism, Constructivism and the Bauhaus. The Polaroid camera filters into Japan’s album titles and lyrics, while cover sleeves use Polaroids snap-shots as a design template (for instance the front cover of Ultravox’s 1978 album Systems of Romance). From 1980 we see British synth-pop and related bands like Visage making early use of the pop video to create an integration of sound and image, while bands like the Human League openly performed with reel-to-reel tape players, as a way of demonstrating their pride in displaying what was live and what was pre-recorded. David Sylvian on the 1981 cover to Japan’s Art of Parties sported a Sony Walkman, while Heaven 17 (having split from Human League) display cordless phones in their mock London stock exchange imagery on the cover of Penthouse and Pavement (1981). John Foxx on the cover of Metamatic is seen standing in a dark room reaching out to a luminescent screen, while Sylvian on the cover of Assemblage is in an equally dark room staring at a portable TV set.
Nowhere was the influence of emerging instant technology greater than with the synthesizer, which turned the whole of music into a product of instant tech, shattering our conception of the relationship between sound and instrumentation.
Before the rise of electronic music sound was conceived in terms of acoustic instruments whose sounds were based on the material they were made from or the ways in which the instrument was played. Brass, wind and strings formed key components of the classical orchestra, while the difference between a plucked and a bowed string showed how sound was affected by the mode of playing. With electronic music the association between the instrument and the sound is severed, creating a literal estrangement.
Electronic sound generation is a late technological development, emerging mainly in the early 20th century. In the postwar period we get the first attempts at electronic music mainly through manipulation of magnetic tapes. The diffusion of electronic music was limited by the amount of hardware required to make electronic sound and the lack of a reliable instrument through which to play tones made using electronic processors.
The challenge was overcome in the 1960s by Robert Moog who linked the sound processor to a keyboard. By doing this he created the ability to perform synthetic sound using the tempered scale. By the late 1970s the first relatively cheap models were available.
At the time young artists discovered synthesizers, and it was the sudden encounter with a way of making sound that was so completely new, that gave their music a sense of ‘futurism’ much like the futurisms of the early 20th century.
The analogue synthesizers of this generation relied upon the player sculpting a sinewave that was made up of four parameters – attack, sustain, decay and release. This gave the sound its basic shape. For instance, a sound with a high attack and low sustain, decay or release would make a sound like a snare drum, and on with the opposite sinewave a stringed instrument. Having shaped the sinewave, the player then manipulated a series of dials and switches to modulate the sound to give it a distinctive timbre.
Early synthesizers sounded alien to listeners whose musical education had almost entirely came from acoustic instruments. Also the technology at the time was ‘crude’, and it was these qualities that early British synth-pop foregrounded.
For his first predominantly electronic album The Pleasure Principle (1979), Gary Numan developed a severely restricted sound palette. First, there was a deep warbling base sound whose sinewave consisted of slow attack, with high sustain and release. He used this sound in the opening of Films and Cars, where the sound fades in creating an ominous atmosphere. Second, were his signature high pitched string sounds. These had a similar sinewave, but with added vibrato, to create a shrill that he used to produce sparse and anthemic melodies in the treble. In Cars he sustains this on one note for up to 20 seconds, and again in Films uses this to powerful effect with just three notes played in a descending scale and then reversed: a kind of minimalist maximalism. Then there is a percussion sound that has a different sinewave – sharp attack, low sustain and decay but high release. The sound it makes is like a metal bar being struck in a large empty reverberating space. Again, this is used extensively by John Foxx in Metamatic and later via sampling by Depeche Mode in their construction years (1983-7) and has since become something that is common to Industrial, Electronic Dance Music and the late style of Scott Walker.
Human League had a broader sound-palette. In their early demo works (unpublished until 2002) and their first two albums, they concentrate on creating sounds that buzz and announce their crudity. A Bird and Baby, for instance opens with three base notes almost punched out in an ascending scale before the vocals kick in. The sound is rough-hewn but also full of electricity – like a musical pylon. To a large extent the percussion is performed on the synthesizers instead of drum machines (though this would change drastically in their 1981 album Dare). This gives the percussion a much wider sonic variety than is usually the case with electronic drum track.
The sonic palette in John Foxx’s Metamatic marked a further stage in complexity. He utilised the same basic sounds as Gary Numan, but with greater nuance and alteration between tracks, showing a greater level of work gone into the programming of the synthesizers. He also utilised a similar variety of percussive sounds produced on synthesisers to Human League, but in addition to both acts drew on similar ambient sound textures to those Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno had developed. A signature sound Foxx developed consisted of a long wave-like sound produced by sinewave with a low attack but very high sustain. He would play it in the treble, but an octave lower than Numan’s string sound. Unlike the latter it has a more calming and dreamlike quality that he used to great effect in Touch and Go, complementing its utopian modernist lyrics and acting as a counterpoint to the Motorik rhythm section.
Note on synthesizers and the Eerie
There is a powerful link between synthesizers and Mark Fisher’s notion of the eerie, which he described in the following terms:
The eerie is…fundamentally to do with the outside… A sense of the eerie seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces: we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human. What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry?... The eerie is fundamentally tied up with questions of agency… They also apply to the forces governing capitalist society.
Fisher (2016, Introduction)
In an interview with Mark Fisher, John Foxx provides us with the link between Fisher’s speculations about capital as an eerie agent operating at a distance and the haunting realities of urban spaces left after capital has moved on:
When I first came to London it seemed a great deal like Lancashire, where I’d come from. But Lancashire had fallen into ruin. The factories had closed, the economy had faltered. We felt like the Incas after the Spaniards had passed. Helpless, savages adrift in the ruins.
I grew up playing in empty factories, huge places which were overgrown. I remember trees growing out of the buildings, I remember… looking at it all and thinking what it would have been like when it was all working… All my family worked in mills and factories and mines. And all this was gently subsiding, spinning away.
Fisher (2014, 163)
Foxx explored these themes in his early lyrics:
Listening to the music that the night makes,
I felt the floor change into an ocean
We’ll never leave here never
We’ll stay in here for ever
And when the streets are quiet
We’ll walk out in the silence.
For the early British synth-pop practitioners the eerie came to express their estrangement from Britain. There is a sense of these musicians not being at home in their home. Often, they focus on external spaces – cities, motorways, buildings. When featured inside buildings they are often shown alone standing in an empty room, or staring at a screen, as if haunted or mesmerised by something coming in from outside that we cannot see.
Standing in the dark
Watching you glow
Lifting a receiver
Its nobody I know
John Foxx, Underpass (Metamatic, 1980)
When the room is quiet
The daylight almost gone
I feel there’s something I should know
Well I ought to leave but
The rain it never stops.
Since Dracula washed up on the shores of East England and the modernist emigres from Nazi Germany shifted westward, there had always been in the British collective imagination an association between eeriness, modernism and Europe. For the reactionary right this had fed an anti-Europeanism that persists to this day. To those seeking to express estrangement with British culture, it has been an object of allure.
Trans-Europe Express: The project of an ‘imaginary elsewhere’
Here I am European son
Sometimes a passenger
One of the key themes in British synth-pop was the sense of being an alien. Gary Numan took this furthest in the direction of sci-fi, while for Ultravox and Japan it meant pivoting away from the US and the UK towards Europe and Japan.
As early as 1975 Kraftwerk’s Autobahn had got to number 11 in the UK singles chart, and around the same time Tangerine Dream’s eerie album Phaedre reached 15 in the album charts. In the years that followed two chart hits cemented the European influence. Jean-Michelle Jarre’s Oxygene and Donna Summers’ I Feel Love (powered by the Italian producer Georgio Moroder’s hypnotic rhythm). Vangelis and the Japanese composer Tomita also produced electronic albums that sold in the 1970s. Collectively this cemented the notion that electronic music was made by ‘foreigners’, but while this certainly gave rise to stereotypical articles about Kraftwerk and Nazi Germany, synthesizers created a non-American pole of attraction.
Having split from Roxy Music, Brian Eno spent much time in Germany. He made contact with the producer Conny Plank, and collaborated with the German band Cluster. Famously he went on to work with Bowie on the Berlin period albums that would do much to bring the association between Europeanism and synthesizers closer to home with tracks like Warzawa and Neuköln.
While producing Bowie, Eno was also working with the new band Ultravox, and Conny Plank would go on to produce several Ultravox albums.
In 1981, the second biggest selling single was Ultravox’s Vienna. In the case of Japan, aside from the band’s name, we can see this in their song-titles: A Foreign Place; Life in Tokyo; European Son; Canton; Cantonese Boy; Visions of China; Suburban Berlin; Taking Islands in Africa; Rhodesia; Communist China. The band’s attraction to Polaroid cameras conveyed a sense that they were tourists, away from home, and in many of their songs the atmosphere they evoke is a kind of snapshot of the places to which their imaginations have taken them.
Ultravox, prior to John Foxx’s departure and under Midge Ure, and John Foxx’s 1981 album The Garden play with a European aesthetic – reaching beyond German synth music to embrace neo-classical architecture and classical musical motifs. The cover of Ultravox’s 1978 album Systems of Romance displays a carefully sequenced Polaroid style shots of European landmarks.
Gary Numan’s imaginary ‘elsewhere’ came largely through his evocation of a sci-fi world of machines on the rampage, that he superimposed on the concrete flyovers and suburban sprawls of the area around Heathrow airport. Whereas the Europe and other ‘foreign places’ evoked by Japan and Ultravox were places of desire, Numan’s imaginary worlds were ones of threat.
Human League’s imaginary travels cleaved more closely to the world and texture of British society, but in a manner that is closer to the way Philip K Dick estranged his American society by giving the everyday Mom and Pop world a surrealist twist.
We also see a vogue for European names for pop groups such as Depeche Mode and Visage. Sci-fi themes are present in other synth pop bands we have not discussed such as Landscape, while Cabaret Voltaire (another band who came from Sheffield), took its name from European Dada.
These various investments had two key functions. The first was to superimpose on the grey and drab Britain a negative transparency – pointing out what is absent from the world in which they were living. The second was utopian function.
The negating function complemented punk’s by showing that what we think is there is not. In direct contrast to the British essentialism that underpinned Thatcher’s Authoritarian Populism, Britain was a vacancy, a kind of empty screen onto which they could project their European imagery. Other bands existing in the same moment, such as Joy Division (whose original name was Warsaw) emphasised the depression that had spread over cities like Manchester, and much that was dynamic in British pop, whatever its style, was performing this negating function.
Again, this European pivot is not about any existing Europe, let alone a paean for its political institutions, but a utopian projection that was designed to be a negation of the British world they were living in. Nothing could have been further from the iconography of Thatcherism.
Random Genders and Quiet Men: Delibidinization of the pop-star
Is savage, tender,
It wears no future faces
Owns just random gender
Is a spark of electroflesh
Leased from the tick of time
And geared for syncromesh
Is an image lost in faded film
The neon outline
On the high rise overspill
Ultravox, My Sex (Ha! Ha! Ha! 1977)
Ever since Elvis, rock had been dominated by the guitar wielding male who flaunts his heterosexuality. Much of the anxiety of influence for British pop music lay in its varied attempts to take over this essential US export and re-export it to the US and globally, yet this has largely been within the heteronormative masculinity that is based on male libidinal and phallic expression.
The industrial and social crisis Britain experienced was, in a sense, isomorphic with the sense of impotence and frustration that fed both Thatcher’s Authoritarian Populism and the flagging of rock music on the eve of punk. By the mid-70s bands like Status Quo – fittingly titled – came to signify what was rotten about this model.
Punk’s strategy was one of visceral exposure – using the very guitar-based format to rip it apart. This retained rock’s thrusting libidinality, but flayed its glamourous surface, reducing it to cum and spit.
British synth-pop responded by reviving a supressed stream of music that was based on crooners and lush orchestration. Much of pop history in the 1950s and 60s can be seen as a struggle for hegemony between this tradition and rock, with the latter winning out and the former ending up as MOR fodder and TV shows hosted by crooners. Running largely in parallel, these acts utilised the synthesizer as an instant orchestra in a box, to bring back in the old crooning style. For these artists the image of the extrovert rock-star and the guitar soloist, along with the implied fan adulation failed to speak to their sense of dislocation.
Rhythmically the adoption of Motorik was a way to break the link, that rock heavily guarded, between sex and movement, in favour of mechanical location in space. Alongside this, the influence of Kosmicshe Musik with its focus on sonic experimentalism combined with post-punk simplicity of playing, meant that there are virtually no synth-solos in the music (Billie Currie from Ultravox began to do something along these lines when John Foxx left the band in 1979).
While these musical features along with the revival of a supressed crooner tradition explain aspects of their reaction to rock’s heteronormativity, the third feature was that they were very much the first generation to have been formed by Bowie. They followed in his wake in their choice of clothing, make-up and hairstyles. Yet, when combined with synthesizers this Bowie-esque style become more cold, distant, introverted and deeply uncomfortable with its own libido.
Ultravox!’s song My Sex (1977) can perhaps be seen as the anthem of de-libinisation. It was a take on the Jaques Brel/Scott Walker/Bowie classic My Death, with the lyrics framed around a series of statements spoken in monotone with the opening ‘My sex is…’ Increasingly his sex is dissolved into the mise-en-scène of high rise buildings, faded films, car crashes and automats so typical of the modernist and sci-fi imaginary of early synth-pop.
Musically the song is stripped down and minimalist, its vocal parts spoken, and the synthesizers programmed to form an orchestral string section that plays a mournful and haunting melody over his statements, echoing the achievements of Scott Walker’s use of alienated vocal and lush orchestra in the Scott 1-4 albums. The overall effect encapsulated what these musicians were trying to explore – a world where the libidinal energy lives not in the singer or the lead musician, but in the strange and wonderful sounds of orchestration and the mise-en-scéne of the lyrics.
Later synth-music would evolve with and the 1980s would see the rise of synth-pop duos with a geeky male synth player in the background and an operatic style singer who was either female (Alison Moyet from Yazoo and Annie Lennox from Eurythmics) or LGBT (Marc Almond from Soft Cell, Andy Bell from Erasure and Neil Tennant from Pet Shop Boys). This continued synth’s opposition to the heteronormativity of rock, upgraded for the period when Thatcher was in power and new issues came to dominate – AIDS not least.
1977-82 – The rise and fall of synth-pop
Having assembled the style of synth-pop we can briefly discuss its history before concluding on a series of reflections about how such music relates to the current period 40 years on.
The style developed over four overlapping phases – rise (1977-79), breakthrough (1979-80), dominance (1981-2) and decline (post-82).
During this period the style was in formation. Bowie’s b-sides to Low and Heroes belonged to this period, while bands like Ultravox, Tubeway Army and Japan were still guitar based and beginning to replace guitars with synths.
Human League during this period were the first fully synthesized band. More than any other band their demo tapes from 1977 (only made available in 2002) and the early albums Reproduction (1978) and Travelogue (1980) went the furthest in probing the possibilities of electronic pop, keeping one step within the avant-garde. While Travelogue belonged to the next period, stylistically it was a consummation of their approach stemming from 1977. Nowhere was this more exemplified that in The Black Hit of Space, which satirically, and self-referentially foretells the subsequent rise and decline of the very music they are making.
The whole piece is self-referential, being about a record with a futuristic cover and its devasting impact on the music world.
‘As the futuristic sounds warbled on and on’, a wobbly synth baseline breaks out in a minor key, which synchronised with the slow mechanical drum pattern to create a darkness set against the ironic tone of the lyrics. The listener is left with the cognitive dissonance of ‘very serious music’ and lyrics that laugh at the very music it is making.
As the song develops, we see that this hit will go on to be so successful that it becomes a black hole or vortex:
As the song climbed the charts
The others disappeared
‘Til there was nothing but it left to buy
It got to number one
Then into minus figures
But no one could understand why…
…The Black Hit of Space
Sucking in the human race
How can it stay at the top
When its swallowed all the shops?
Human League, ‘The Black Hit of Space’, (1980).
While I have not mentioned The Normal in this piece, it is worth pausing on this seminal one-off single. It was the creation of Daniel Miller who formed Mute Records. In 1978 he released the double A-side TVOD/Warm Letherette. They combined the urban angst of JG Ballard, with a pure exercise in Motorik that gave Kraftwerk a run for its own money. No other record at the time demonstrated the full capacity of synths to operate in a post-punk environment of disaffection and minimalism:
I don’t need no
I just stick the areal
Into my skin
And let the signal
Run through my veins
The Normal, TVOD, (1978).
The breakthrough came with Tubeway Army’s Are Friend’s Electric? Released on an independent label, and denied airtime because the song was five minutes long, Tubeway Army’s first ever song to chart got to number 1, staying there for a month. The song marked Numan’s transition from a punk sound to a kind of synth rock that he made his own.
During this period John Foxx split from Ultravox and recorded his first solo album Metamatic. Released in January 1980, along with the singles Underpass and No-one Driving. The album was the ‘high-noon’ of this emerging style, and remains the most concentrated expression of all the tendencies being explored in this piece.
By 1981 synth-pop was the dominant style. While many of the bands came from the suburbs and industrial heartlands, it was central London that acted as the crucible for turning this music into fashion.
In 1980, Steve Strange and DJ Rusty Eagan set up Club for Heroes in Soho. With Strange curating the fashion styles and Eagan the music, the aim was to attract art students, journalists and fashionistas to the only nightclub in Britain whose playlist consisted almost entirely of the German and British electronic music of the time. Quickly parlayed via the music press, and then through TV, the culture industry seized on these developments to create the monika of New Romanticism.
While New Romanticism is not the focus of this, piece, it helped make synth-pop fashionable in 1981. In this year we see new synth bands chart who were not born out of punk – especially Depeche Mode and Soft Cell (whose debut single Tainted Love was the biggest selling single of the year – Ultravox’s Vienna being the second biggest).
Over this year and the next Human League became Britain’s biggest band and made brief inroads into the US charts. The band had split in 1980, with the synth players leaving to form Heaven 17, while Oakey recruited two co-vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, and overtime Human League evolved into these three singers and the players who accompany them. They style began to shift towards greater Mowtown and Soul influences, while in 1981 the album Dare sold over a million copies.
In 1981, Japan produced their masterpiece Tin Drum. In many respects Japan fits less into the ‘futurism’ of early synth-pop than the other bands considered here, however, in works like Ghosts they took the ambient possibilities of synthesizers further than anyone else at the time.
Tin Drum is a one of a kind type of album – having no close counterpart, with the possible exception of Scott Walker’s Night of Hunter that came out in 1984. While the focus in this essay has been on the electronic, Japan’s evolution was unique in that they gradually removed the lead guitar, but in doing so created a sound that gave equal room from live drumming, fretless bass and synthesizers. Their sound was one in which the drums, the bass, the synths and the vocals had become unique – each sounding as if they had been shut away and allowed to develop their own idiosyncratic styles.
The album was produced by splitting the band in two, with the bassist Mick Karn and drummer Steve Jansen in one studio laying the rhythm sections, and singer David Sylvian and synth player Richard Barbieri in another studio laying down the vocals and the synths.
The rhythm section would begin with Jansen laying an initial drum line, which Karn would use to produce a fretless bass line, to which Jansen would respond seeking to outdo anything Karn had achieved, and then back to Karn and so on. The result was highly syncopated rhythm section in which the drums and the bass found the kind of unique voice usually reserved for lead guitars, carrying much of the melodic as well as the rhythmic line.
While this was taking place, Sylvian and Barbieri spent days simply manipulating sine waves and oscillators, probing new sounds in the way a chemist might combine chemicals in an experiment. They amassed hundreds of programmed sounds and found ways to make analogue synthesizers sound like digital ones before the latter were invented. Many of the sounds they developed were not the typical ‘electronic’ sounds of the time, but came across as if in some world there are acoustic sounds that make those noises - just not in this one. Much of the esoteric and eerie feel of Tin Drum is down to this quality, and as both Sylvian and Barbieri were less musically ‘talented’ than Karn and Jansen, they used the synth to provide ambience rather than to dominate melodically or rhythmically. But in this sense, this meant that the synths permeated the album in a series of perfectly placed sounds.
When it was all mixed together, the effect is reminiscent of a cubist painting, in which an object is arranged in such a way as to force the listener into perceiving each track from multiple simultaneous perspectives.
Sons of Pioneers offers a striking example of this process and result. The piece has a spaciousness about it, as if the drums are communicating with the bass across a vast distance that is interspersed with strange synthesizer sounds that only reinforce the space, while Sylvian’s vocals are there as an instrument operating on an equal footing and in no way ‘the lead’.
These creates a democratic type of sound only made possible when the traditional rock structure of ‘lead vocals a guitar’ has been displaced giving equal footing to vocals, bass, drums and synths – becoming more like a classical string quartet than a rock act.
Each track can be heard from multiple perspectives and it is worth listening repeatedly to the same trick, first time, just listening, second, focusing on Sylvian’s vocal, third from the bass, fourth from the drums, fifth from the synths, then trying various combinations. It is like looking at the same room through different windows and seeing the room differently.
This complex balance was, arguably, the greatest achievement of the period, and in many ways encapsulated the common aim among early synth practitioners to develop a musical microcosm, crystal, monad – call it what we like: something that drew all the forces of the world in a state of dislocation inward into an aesthetic space that offered something of the possibilities latent in the crisis of the period.
By 1984 these bands were in decline. Japan had split up by the end of 1982. Gary Numan entered a lost decade in which his music lacked focus and direction, with him fishing up as an embarrassing Thatcherite for a while. John Foxx gave up music altogether in 1985 and his work after Metamatic showed a steady decline into Euro-MOR. Both Numan and Foxx have benefitted from the development of industrial music and bands like NIN and have re-emerged to produce a powerful body of works in the past 20 years.
At the same time electronic music continued its ascent aided by the replacement of analogue with digital synthesizers from around 1982. By the mid-80s analogues ceased to be produced, and along with digital technology came samplers and computers. This foreclosed the random exploratory sound creation that marked these early bands.
The synth bands that emerged in the mid-80s (Art of Noise, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure) had a more overproduced sound, and relied on equipment that was pre-programmed by manufacturers using algorithms. At its best it gave a style and opening for women and LGB singers to be more operatic and explore spaces foreclosed by rock. Just as with the 1960s orchestras of Phil Spector it was a period when increasingly the producer dominated over the artist, and ersatz bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood (who still had critical edge), and the conveyor belt outputs of Stock, Aitken and Waterman took over.
It is this music that belongs to the neoliberal period proper. At its best it produced the Pet Shop Boys, who sang about an already established Thatcherite society ‘Lets make lots of money’, but their music was wholly different to what went before.
Following the hiatus of the mid-to-late 80s, the dance scene would reinvigorate electronica, but this time the influences came predominantly from Kraftwerk and American Techno. Depeche Mode also influenced some of the British Drum and Bass music, as did Gary Numan, but this music overall was more heavily driven by Motorik rhythms rather than the eerie spaciousness of Kosmische Musik. This was a different synthesis.
No one driving: Some final reflections
British synth-pop emerged during an interregnum between major periods of capitalist development. In Britain, Thatcherism turned out to be the new force that would reshape society setting the template for global neoliberal ‘reform’.
Its Popular Authoritarianism was a constellation that connected free market individualism, social conservativism and aesthetic anti-modernism. The political success of this constellation should not lead us into thinking it was the only one available at the time.
British synth-pop built a constellation that in many respects was the negation of Popular Authoritarianism – it was modernist in aesthetic, drew on an alternate European, Japanese and science-fiction imaginary, and questioned masculine heteronormativity. Rather than seeking to re-found society based on individualism, it used the isolated individual as a starting point to give aesthetic form to a state of collective dislocation.
That this negation took the form of an aesthetically hermetic and self-reflexive musical style was no accident. Rather taking a politically committed stance, its basic opposition lay more in its form, which negated the Authoritarian Populist political climate that reduced culture to a form of moralism. While the isolated individual was a shared starting point for Authoritarian Populism and synth-pop, if we can speak philosophically, the latter probed this as an epistemological issue and the former as an ontological one. Thatcher sought to connect individualism to the notion that there is a substantive and unchanging human nature that requires strong policing. This elision of individual freedom and an unchanging human nature accounted for the authoritarianism inherent in Thatcherism and its tendency towards social ontology (there is no society only individuals and families) and political ontology (there is no alternative).
British synth-pop unwittingly (but wittingly in a dialectical sense) was interested in epistemological issues. For them it was about understanding the sensory and conceptual experience of this isolated individual in the face of a clash of decaying modernism and emerging communication technology. Synthesizers opened a sonic field, through which they could channel feelings and moods that otherwise could have lent themselves to Thatcherite morals. Gary Numan, especially, was vulnerable here, and it is no accident that he was a Thatcherite in the mid-80s becoming an embarrassment to all but his most hardened fans. By eschewing politics and seeing the isolated individual as an aesthetic subject, they performed the dialectical trick of telling us – especially today – more about how capitalism was reshaping society, than committed bands like The Clash who were in the thick of political struggle.
It has struck me how little a focus there was on the relation between technology, art and politics among the British left in the 1970s. Reading Stuart Hall’s essays, these dimensions are absent from an otherwise prophetic discussion of Thatcherism. Also, wider debates stemming from the International Socialists about the ‘downturn’ were not mined for their epistemological, cultural and technological implications. Rather it was viewed as a short-term dip in the class struggle that could be reversed with some victories – a view that persisted until the failure of the Miners’ Strike in 1985.
John Berger’s TV serialisation of his book Ways of Seeing, brought Walter Benjamin’s essay on the artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction to a British audience. Yet while influencing debates among socialists and feminists about representation – especially of the female body, it remained largely focused on deconstructing conservative notions of ‘high art’. The closest equivalent we get to discussions like Benjamin’s involve the influence of television. Yet by the time Marxism caught up with the video-age, it was in full postmodern flow, and the linkages between art, technology and politics were explored to explain the ending of art’s negating role – something that corresponds more to mid-to-late 80s.
This raises the question of whether we are looking at a missing encounter between art and politics of the type that has been suggested regarding the late 60s, or whether such an encounter was impossible. By this I do not mean that there was no encounter – Rock Against Racism was grounded in a very real joining of music and politics. Rather, paradoxically, because it was a period of mass mobilization, at a time when deep long-term structural changes were taking place ‘behind the backs’ of the participants, that there was a constitutive split in the post-punk register between a more politically committed guitar-based music and a dissociated autonomous synthesizer music. This split mirrored the ontological-epistemological divide discussed above, this time between committed political music focused on substance and ‘apolitical’ music focused on form. In this sense it was a period which did not know itself. It was also a dislocation that affected the left more broadly who were faced with a level of mass struggle that required immediate political mobilization. There was not the time to probe the inner depths of capitalist transformation and its relation to aesthetics, which was arguably a luxury reserved for the doldrums of the late 80 and 90s.
It is for these reasons that British synth-pop has a relevance today that it would not have had at the time. With neoliberalism undergoing a long-term structural crisis that is enveloping economics, geopolitics and ecology, the sense of history as an active force is back in a way it wasn’t in the decades between 1989 and 2008. This time round we have a left that has used the years of defeat to include in its constellation of questions debates around modernity and capitalism, philosophies of subjectivity and the questioning of multiple and fluid identities (not least gender, race and their relationship to class), digitization, AI and cyborgism, not to mention perhaps the greatest question of all, namely, climate change. This constellation is closer epistemologically to the world being probed in the late 70s by British synth-pop.
Another connection worth stressing is that increasingly left activism takes place between isolated individuals virtually networked and acting collectively in more complex sometimes ad hoc ways than in previous periods. These changes in the lifeworld of late neoliberalism have raised questions of how technology can mediate the isolated and collective subject. Suddenly, album covers like Metamatic, with its solitary subject interacting in a dark room with a wall mounted screen becomes contemporary.
Yet in other ways the differences between the late 1970s and today couldn’t be starker. Perhaps this is most apparent in terms of temporal experience. Today’s world has been characterised as suffering from arrhythmia that has been brought on by the clash between the instantaneity of online and financial transactions speeding us up cognitively, and the slow-motion apocalypse that is grinding the capitalist economy and the planet’s ecology to a slow state of death. In contrast there is less room for the eerie stillness and the sense of suspended temporality that gave working class musicians like John Foxx and David Sylvian the time to develop highly articulated and complex musical monads through which they could refract what was going on in the world around.
While I have focused on the anomic features of early British synth-pop, it is worth ending on the utopian side of this music which, I think, stemmed from the temporal space in which these artists could operate without having to react to external stimuli. Many of these musicians were working class autodidacts (ironically less educated than people like Joe Strummer), who benefitted from the combination of persistent post-war institutions that fostered aesthetic autonomy – free libraries, BBC late night programming, the Arts Council and a more (relatively) generous welfare state. They belonged to a period when work was less precarious and the sense of struggling to find jobs and housing didn’t dominate in the way it does today. This fostered spaces for self-cultivation and the creation of internal aesthetic worlds, the kind of monads we see in their music.
There is something to be mourned about this. In a period when technology and finance are forcing us to live at ever greater speeds, our need to develop a form of aesthetic praxis based on the mediation of technology and social relations is more needed than ever.
Today their utopianism consists in the stillness we feel when listening to Japan’s Ghosts and the evocative touristic optimism in their Polaroid snapshots of distant places. We sense it in John Foxx’s evocative futurism:
Its springtime on the moving stairway
Time to start again…
Outside now it’s so huge and blue
And the city windows start to glow
And the tides are soft as we’re casting off
And the summer starts to show.
There is something in these words and the whole of Metamatic, that exudes what a modernist non-neoliberal future may have looked like back in 1980. It is an alternate future when modernist buildings were not the rotting carcasses of underfunded housing estates, but cast a glow, and summer does not have the threat of climate change overhanging it. It is a future imagined less in the Buckminster Fuller style of an airless enclosed dome in space, but more simply as an open blue space, waiting for us.
Perhaps the greatest price paid by our collective arrhythmia is the pressure on those spaces we need to mourn for the loss of an open unproblematic future. Yet the fragility and doubt of this achievement was written into the same songs that retained the last traces of a technological utopia:
Vapour trails go by
Voices on the line
Nothing to came back to
Can’t we fade.
There’s no-one driving
Albiez, S. and Pattie, D. edd. (2010) Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop (Continuum, London).
Albiez, S. (2010), ‘Europe Non-Stop: West Germany, Britain and the Rise of Synth-Pop, 1975-81’, in Albiez and Pattie edd.
Brenner, R. (2006) The Economics of Global Turbulence, (Verso, London)
Grönholm, P (2010), ‘Kraftwerk – The Decline of the Pop Star’, in Albiez and Pattie edd.
Fisher, M. (2014), The Ghosts of My Life, (Zero Books, Winchester).
Fisher, M. (2016), The Weird and the Eerie, (Repeater, London).
Hall, S. (1988), The Hard Road to Renewal, (Verso, London).
Jameson, F. (1991), Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Verso, London).
Penman, I. (2012), ‘A Dandy in Aspic’ in Young R. ed. (The Wire).
Renton, D. (2018), Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League (1977-82), (Routledge, London).
Storr, W. (2017), Selfie: How we became so self-obsessions and what it is doing to us (Picador, London).
Stubbs, D. (2018), Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music, (Faber, London).
Tayor, T. (2001), Strange Sounds: Music, Technology and Culture, (Routledge, London).
Turl, A. (2018), ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’ in Red Wedge Issue 6: In Defense of Transgression, (Red Wedge, Los Angeles and other places).
Young, R. ed. (2012) No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker, (The Wire).
Playlist (in chronological order and available on You Tube)
Tubeway Army – Down in the Park
Are Friends Electric?
Gary Numan – Films
Album: The Pleasure Principle
Human League – Blind Youth
Japan – European Son
Life in Tokyo
Album: Assemblage (released 1982)
John Foxx – Plaza
Touch and Go
Japan – Taking Islands in Africa
Album: Gentlemen Take Polaroids
Human League – The Black Hit of Space
Ultravox – Mr. X
Visage – Fade to Grey
 The term synth-pop is used in Britain to describe the first generation of bands using synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers to replace ‘acoustic’ instruments. In the US the term New Wave covers these groups, though at the time New Wave referred mainly to post-punk guitar based music (i.e. Elvis Costello, Blondie etc.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_wave_music
 Sean Albiez has combined his academic work on the music and style of the period with his activity as a maker of electronic music. His writings and music can be accessed on his website: http://www.seanalbiez.com/home.
 David Stubbs (2018) provides an excellent discussion of some of the underground music that used electronica, acts like Cabaret Voltaire, Thomas Leer who would merit discussion and connecting to this piece. I have left them out as they did not breakthough around the year 1980 in which the acts I have focused on did. I should also add Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark (OMD), a major band who were inspired directly by Kraftwerk. In many ways they took a different path, being less focused on themes of isolation and urban alienation.
 The Grunwick Dispute was a strike led by South Asian female workers for union recognition that lasted from 1976-8. It involved mass picketing, over 500 arrests and clashes between the police and picketers. It was the first major dispute led by workers who had immigrated to the UK to get the backing of the wide labour movement. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grunwick_dispute
 The theory of the Downturn was used by the International Socialists/Socialist Worker’s Party (in the UK) to signal a change in the level of class struggle compared to the late 1960s and early 1970s. This piece links that industrial theory to Stuart Hall’s writings, and extends them into aesthetics. In the conclusion we come back to this question.
 See Hall’s essay from 1978 ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ (reprinted in Hall, 1987), remains seminal.
 This argument about cognitive mapping comes from Jameson’s discussion of postmodernism (1991).
 See below for a discussion that draws on Mark Fisher’s essays on the Weird and the Eerie.
 Stubbs (2018) has produced an excellent history of electronic music, and has stressed how institutions such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop provided an opening for women, and gives much space to this neglected area. In a section below I will explore the issues of gender in British synth-pop. All discussions about the period before the 1970s in this piece can be referred back to his work.
 For an entertaining, but theoretically thin, account see Will Storr (2017). His book eviscerates the evolution of the self under neoliberalism, most especially in the 1990s and the whole ideology of self-esteem.
 The BBC documentary David Bowie: Finding Fame gives a demonstration of the Mellotron in Space Oddity https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002jlw
 This paragraph is based on Stubbs (2018).
 This account is drawn from Stubbs (2010), Albiez (2003, 2010) and the essays collected by Albiez and Pattie (2010).
 This scene is largely overlooked by Stubbs, though Reynolds’ book on the band Japan provides some key insights (2018).
 The basic history is covered by Stubbs (2018), though Albiez (2003 and 2010) explores British synth-pop more fully.
 See Toby Manning’s excellent new book on John le Carré for a thorough working through of these notions.
 These paragraphs provide a compressed summary of the closing chapters of his book.
 For Foxx’s biography http://www.browsebiography.com/bio-john_foxx.html
 His Friend Electric: Gary Numan and the MOOG https://thequietus.com/articles/20392-his-friend-electric-gary-numan-and-the-moog
 The debate about art and digitization in this essay owes much to Adam Turl’s essay on the Digital Gesamtkunstwerk in the age of mechanical reproduction (2018).
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miniaturization The notion of triangular competition between the US, Germany and Japan is based on Robert Brenner’s basic analysis of the period (The Economics of Global Turbulence, 2006).
 See Stubbs (2018).
 https://www.dawsons.co.uk/blog/what-is-analogue-synthesis This provides a good example of a sinewave and some of the instruments around at the time that musicians used to sculpt sinewaves.
 Most percussion sounds have a high attack and a low release (think the sharp quick beat on a snare), but some percussion sounds reverberate (i.e. timpani), and if hit in a large hall, a drum will die away slowly. With a synthesizer where all the sonic conditions have to be programmed, a percussive sound in a large empty chamber would need to have a high attack and a high release.
 He benefitted from having Gareth Jones as sound engineer, who went on to engineer for Depeche Mode and is one of the unsung heroes in electronica. Also it should be noted that all three acts were their own producers, and in the case of John Foxx, who wrote, sung, performed and produced Metamatic, we have an example of the modernist auteur in full swing.
 The xenophobia of the music press was also responsible for the creation of the term ‘Krautrock’, and it is probably time we junked using this term to discuss innovative post-60s German rock and pop.
 For more on this see Fisher’s article on Joy Division in Ghosts of My Life (2014).
 Pertti Grönholm’s article in the essay collection Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop provides an excellent analysis of how Kraftwerk defied the dominant Anglo-American heteronormativity of the rock star. This section extends this line of argument to the British scene.
 For an account of this history and its links to electronica see Taylor (2001). For Scott Walker’s brief period of hosting a TV show presenting MOR lush, see Ian Penman’s insightful essay (2012), his later adoption of electronica in 1978 with the politically charged piece The Electrician is too big a topic to cover here.
 Of all the writers who have influenced this piece only Mark Fisher has given much space to John Foxx, the others mention him in passing without fully grasping the degree of his significance to this whole style.
 Depeche Mode stand out as bridging the divide, as the period of digitization coincided with the maturing of their style along with an emerging political awareness. Yet here again it was under the guidance of producer Daniel Miller that they carved out their industrial sound.
 For a helpful discussion of the theory of the downturn see Ian Allinson https://www.rs21.org.uk/2017/04/21/revolutionary-reflections-the-upturndownturn-debate-an-introduction/
 The seminal work of the Glasgow Media Group should be looked at afresh in this regard: http://www.glasgowmediagroup.org/about-us/timeline
 This notion of a missing encounter in the 60s is something I have borrowed from discussions with Jordy Cummings.
 Though it 9/11 was a geopolitical turning point in this regard, I see 2008 and its aftermath as the point where the geopolitical and the economic pressures collided.
Joe Sabatini is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective and edits Revolutionary Reflections for rs21 in Britain.