Listen to this track by Tubeway Army founder and frontman turned solo synth-rock innovator Gary Numan with this sci-fi tale of a lonely computer. It’s “M.E” as taken from his landmark 1979 album The Pleasure Principlea disc that helped to usher in the 1980s; a mix of synthesizer-based pop mixed with live drumming, and with the odd violin and viola for contrast.
Having put out two Tubeway Army albums, Numan eschewed traditional rock instruments (read: guitars) for this, his third release and his first under his own name. Instead, he discovered minimoog and polymoog synthesizers, instruments growing in popularity on the continent as popularized by acts like Kraftwerk, who provided a basis for Numan’s approach .
The main argument against synthezisers in the rock world even to this day is their artificial, cold sound. The “strings” don’t sound like strings. The “choirs” don’t sound like choirs. “Vox Humana” is a preset. But, given that Numan’s subject matter was about alienation, technology, and the relationship between the two, the real question is which came first, the songs or the instruments that inspired them?
Synthesized music, and the themes of technological ubiquity and mechanized humanity in the music took off in the 1970s, partially due to a trend in industrialization and computer technology emerging in parallel at an alarming rate. This trend affected commerce, mass transportation, communications, and (of course) music and the arts to an exponential degree.
Dolby is of course probably best known for his ginormous radio hit “She Blinded Me With Science”, taken from his excellent debut The Golden Age of Wireless, released in 1982. In many ways, Dolby was an unlikely pop star, more at home in the studio building synths from spare parts and from kits, and drawing from his love of jazz more so than for straight-ahead pop music. But, I think it’s his background which made him so fascinating as a musician, and his varied interests in all sorts of genres helped to add something to his own albums too.
Dolby intially honed his craft as a songwriter for other artists such as new wave diva Lene Lovich, and early hip hop crew Whodini. Both acts had chart action with Dolby compositions and co-compositions – “New Toy” and “Magic Wand” respectively. He was also an enthusiastic producer and session musician, working with acts as varied as Joni Mitchell (he was producer on 1985’s Dog Eat Dog) and Foreigner (with whom he served as a session keyboardist on their 4 LP in 1982), Def Leppard, Robyn Hitchcock, and others. He would go on to work with luminaries such as George Clinton, Prefab Sprout, and Roger Waters later in the decade, among many others. All the while, Dolby was keen to write material for his own albums, building them up using synthesizer and sequencer technology, as well as drawing from his wide musical interests.
His singles “… Science” and the follow-up “Hyperactive” aside, Dolby made some elaborately textured music even side by side with those pop singles, some of it being just as accessible (‘Airwaves’, which should have been a smash), and other tracks more experimental and angular (“Cloudburst At Shingle Street”, “Mulu The Rainforest”). His ability to write a hit single was proven, yet on his albums he was still interested in pushing the boundaries a bit.
I think ‘Screen Kiss’ is one which strikes a happy medium between these two poles, with the wash of electronics that sound downright organic and warm, peppered with sparse piano voicings, Pastorius-like fretless bass lines, and a repetitive, hypnotic electric guitar riff. Lyrically, he manages to be interesting too, with a sort of impressionist take on a tale about ex-pats seeking and discarding connections while living in the darkly surreal Hollywood landscapes, seeming to celebrate appearances and lack of depth. It’s my favourite track off of a solid album, which despite using synths while in the mid-80s, manages to sound pretty timeless. And apparently, this is a song about a real person with whom Dolby was smitten, and by whom he was tossed aside, himself an English ex-pat in LA. The names were of course changed, to protect the jaded.
Despite his singular voice and ability to craft sonically interesting records in a pop vein, Dolby didn’t regain the commercial traction of his first hits, with follow-up singles and albums less well received during the remaining years of the 80s and into the early 90s. But, he had plenty of other interests to hold his attention, including software development which occupied his time for a decade and a half following his success as a pop musician.
He founded the software company Headspace, and then developed applications for sound compression for studio use. He formed a company called Beatnik, which focused on the development of mobile phone sound technology including polyphonic ringtones for Nokia. He was a frequent speaker at technology conferences by the early Twenty-First Century. All the while, he continued to write scores for films and video games.
In 2006, he was back as a performer, and is currently working on new material while overseeing the remastering and repackaging of both the Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth.
For a peek into what Dolby is doing these days as a performer, check out this clip of Thomas Dolby performing the title track from the Flat Earth, giving you a close-up of his onstage set up as well as watching how he builds the track from the ground up in a live setting. This is another atmospheric track from a very good album that brings the influences of synth pop together with the unlikely bedfellows of soul and jazz.
You can read Thomas Dolby’s blog, to find out about the remastering project, new music, and any number of things seeing as he’s as big a blogger as any of us, apparently! He was always a hero of mine when Ifirst became a music fan. And now thanks to WordPress, his “heroship” is assured.
Here’s a clipof Basildon Kraftwerk acolytes and future goth rock pin-ups Depeche Mode with their 1983 hit single “Get the Balance Right”, a big favourite of mine. The song was released as a single in early ’83, and then went on to appear on their 1984 North American-released People Are People compilation.
Depeche Mode: they only look like nice boys
Depeche Mode are one of those groups with an unpredictable career path, stylistically speaking. They went from fresh-faced synth nerds, led for the most part by founding member Vince Clarke, into darker territories in many senses of the term. Clarke left the group after their debut to form Yazoo with Alison Moyet, and then went onto form yet another band, Erasure, with Moyet soundalike Andy Bell (not to be confused with the other Andy Bell who is now in Oasis…). When Clarke headed up the group, their sound was based around hook-laden synth lines, with material aimed at a young dance crowd who weren’t terribly concerned with anything other than something to dance to.
When fellow founder Martin Gore took over as musical director after Clarke’s departure, he led the group further away from their breezy synth-pop roots with every release, and into a musical territory which was darker and more dense. This strategy initially added dimension to what had been established on the first album, and soon a new sound began to eclipse the original sound of the band, using harder-edged instrumentation and more lyrical references to the darker side of the human psyche.
I think this single was the beginnings of that process, with the synth pop sound still there, yet this time a bit beefier, and the lyrics here are a little less bright than, say “I Just Can’t Get Enough”, or “Dreaming of Me”. The opening salvo establishes this pretty blatantly:
There’s more besides joyrides/Little House in the countryside/Understand, learn to demand/Compromise, sometimes lie…
This is the sound of innocence lost, that to remain ultimately selfish is not necessarily bad, that it is a part of the balance of living. It was clear that the moral boundaries described here are pretty blurry. And this is heavy stuff for men in their early 20s, with the understanding they may have come to what they considered to be some pretty practical conclusions about what it is to make it through an equally amoral world of successful pop stars.
The People Are People compilation (which is a collection of singles and earlier tracks) marks the end of their first phase as synth popsters. The optimism and brightness which had marked their work up until this point, which is encapsulated so well in the title track of the compilation, was soon to disappear. Their follow up single, “Blasphemous Rumours” would take on headier subject matter still, as would the material on subsequent albums like Violator, Music for the Masses, and Songs of Faith and Devotion. The naiveté of the writing began to fall away too, with references to S&M and drugs taking their place, possibly because the band themselves were immersing themselves in these kinds of pursuits.
But, the darker they became, the more North American audiences seemed to embrace them. And they did make some excellent music well into the late 90s as well, with the “Barrell of a Gun” single in particular standing out for me as some of the best in industrial-pop, the kind of which had paved the way for Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and others during that decade. Yet for me, my favourite period for this band is when they only hinted at the darkness, when they infused their seemingly innocuous dancefloor hits with streaks of grey and black, with the innocence of youthful enthusiams still fighting back against them.
Here is a track from French retro-futurist outfit Air off of their 1998 album (and a personal favourite) Moon Safari.
Something is stopping me from making this a part of my The Song In My Head Today series, maybe because I’ve added to that series so recently. But call this an unofficial entry, as this is, in fact, the song in my head today.
When I first heard Air, it was the lead single off of that album, ‘Sexy Boy’, which left me kind of cold on first listen. It’s grown on me since, but it’s still the weakest track (relatively speaking) off of a phenomenal, must-have release. What sold me on MS was the follow-up single, ‘Kelly Watch the Stars’, which is all vocoder fronted electro pop and dreamy piano arpeggios. Apparently, the titular Kelly is a reference to the character from Charlie’s Angels as played by Jaclyn Smith. You’ve gotta respect that.
The piece itself, much like the whole of the record, seems to be a soundtrack to the coolest European movie from 1975 that was never filmed. The songs and instrumental pieces seem to tell a story; the kind of tale you’ve dreamt , and have forgotten the details of once you wake up, yet feel as though you’ve been on a great adventure.
If you’ve not heard Moon Safari, and you have an affinity for the sound of lost 1970s soundtracks, with Moog synths, theremin, and Fender Rhodes textures, then I envy your discovery of this album. I plan to write a full review of this album, as it is one of my favourites, in an upcoming article – stay tuned, people!