“If you remember the sixties, then you weren’t there” was a common saying when I was growing up and nonsensical as it may be grammatically speaking, it effectively conveys the mystique of a decade to those of us who actually weren’t there, but who were nevertheless born there, so to speak.
But nobody says things like that about the years I spent my childhood in, the ’70s.
We had prog rock, punk, disco and glam, but we also had strikes, the National Front, the IRA, the three day week and Thatcher, which can mean that despite much evidence to the contrary, the musically schizophrenic decade that gave us the Sex Pistols, Rush, Chic, Kraftwerk and David Bowie is sometimes seen as a bit drab, miserable and depressing, like a combined hangover/detox after ten years of psychedelia, free love and liberal drug laws, a kind of temporal anteroom in which we all waited for the gleaming technological paradise of the eighties to arrive in a flying car with a robot chauffeur.
So when the ’80s finally arrived, complete with strikes, the National Front, the IRA, riots, Thatcher and the Falklands war, it was music that we turned to once again for inspiration and escape.
And now we were living in the future we wanted something new and futuristic to act as an antidote to the emerging culture of unstoppable greed and consumerism, a sound that echoed the homemade ethos of punk but brought some order and technical precision into the equation.
A sound made possible by the increased availability of affordable electronic instruments, something that would lead to the first real musical revolution since the invention of the lead guitar.
Now you might think that to be an outrageous exaggeration, especially if you’re an old-school folkie who booed when Dylan went electric or someone who, when you hear the term “keyboard solo”, immediately thinks of Richard Clayderman, but electronics have been stealthily allowing innovative musicians to create new and interesting sounds as far back as the mid-sixties, when Dr Robert Moog produced the first practical analogue synthesizer.
*****Here is an example for your listening pleasure.*****
(free music download, “Moogalicious by Dogsounds, click to save)
I was 14 as the eighties arrived, already obsessed with music and at that point, a metal and prog rock enthusiast, but also greedily absorbing the eclectic mix of genres and styles played by one of my musical heroes, the late, very great John Peel.
I still recall the covert thrill of listening to the late night radio show of this gruff yet affable, funny and comically disorganised bloke, playing anything from dub reggae and thrash metal to ambient electronica and hardcore German techno.
Hidden beneath the duvet, the earpiece of my radio-cassette player firmly in place, was the first place I heard this next song.
I remember thinking what a precise, clean sound it had (while my inner headbanger shouted at me for being a poncey new romantic) and I reckon I could say with some confidence that this was probably about the time I had to concede that I rather liked synth-pop…
…and I can also remember going into the tiny record shop in Crowborough – Revolver Records, now long defunct – to buy the debut OMD album, the first LP I’d bought that didn’t have at least three guitars on it, and discovering the other side of the strange world of synth-pop that wasn’t all radio friendly singles and twinkly keyboard flourishes.
To my pleasant surprise, I found that this shiny new type of music could be just as dark, deep and peculiar as any progressive rock epic concept album.
Pop music had just got credible.
A selection of my ’80s vinyl, this afternoon.
I can certainly say that my old friend (then a new friend) Ho was a big part in getting me into the wider world of electronic music.
Ho, already a Gary Numan, Tangerine Dream and Can fan, played me albums I never would have heard among my long-haired, denim-clad mates. (with the possible exception of Tangerine Dream, the electronic band it was ok for prog fans to like)
He also introduced me to one of my all-time favourite bands, Kraftwerk.
Not only did I go out and buy the German electro-boffins’ sporadically-released ’80s output, (Computer World, Electric Café) after hearing their back catalogue, from the long haired, proggy, avant-garde jazz experimentation of the early seventies, through to the sublime period of the Radioactivity and Man Machine albums which brought them to the attention of a wider audience, I went out and bought almost everything they recorded.
Another artist that went on to inform my taste for the glacial sounding electronic music that came to be synonymous with the eighties and beyond was John Foxx, particularly his album Metamatic, which I and some friends who were similarly attracted to this new genre (especially when combined with various recreational stimulants) came to describe as “clinical music”.
There is admittedly a certain amount of rose tinted musical hindsight involved in these reminiscences, as for every Speak and Spell classic there was a Stock, Aitken and Waterman clone waiting in the wings, so the eighties detractors have plenty of ammunition to refute the musical importance of The Decade That Fashion Forgot.
What with the endless power ballads, glossy U.S.stadium rock and cheesy manufactured chart pop fodder infesting the radio airwaves, the edgy, harsh tones of the new technology came as a breath of fresh air, albeit air fresh from dingy bedsits and basement studios where the new New Wave was starting to break.
As the new music began to gain credibility and appear alongside established artists on shows like Top of the Pops, the electronic bands started to develop a more polished sound and glamorous image, something that would help them take advantage of the increasing popularity of music videos.
Not always a good thing in my not-very-humble opinion, because a lot of what made these bands so different to start with was lost as they strove to be accepted into the mainstream.
Compare the two examples below, one from The Human League and the other from Gary Numan.
The earlier material of both is harder, more abrasive, while only a short time later the image makeover has smoothed off the bright corners and dulled the sharp edges.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a fan of both artists, both early and late material, as I am of all the music here, and they are both still going strong too.
The Human League released a brand new album, Credo, in 2011 and the former Gary Webb hasn’t stopped producing music since he began with Tubeway Army in the late seventies.
Interestingly, Phil Oakey and the Human League have stuck more or less to their high-gloss, late career peak musical style, while Numan has continued to evolve, including drum ‘n’ bass, industrial and techno into the mix over the years, without ever losing that certain something that makes it still very much Numanoid.
The Human League
…and today; It wasn’t broke so they didn’t fix it.
…and today; The old darkness and edge are still very much in evidence, possibly a result of his recent association with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails
I added “volume one” to the title of this post automatically because I knew that once I started on this subject it was likely to turn into a labour of love.
So I shan’t try and cram anything else in now, but you can be sure that as soon as I hit the “publish” button I will be resuming my search for echoes of that Golden Hour of the Future we lived in for a few short, groundbreaking years.