Listen to this track by Sheffieldian one-time Human League splinter group, and sonically ambitious hitmakers in their own right, Heaven 17. It’s their smash UK single “Temptation” as taken from their 1983 album The Luxury Gap.
One of the features here is guest vocalist Carol Kenyon, who sings in a Northern Soul influenced style, contrasting the synth-pop groove. The tune would also incorporate a full orchestra, creating even more textural contrast, and producing a high-charting single that year for the band, reaching number 2 in the UK pop charts.
The Luxury Gap was the group’s second record, after 1981’s Penthouse and Pavement. The band had been one of the most prominent proponents of Northern synth pop, although initially split off from the Human League, a project that was abandoned by keyboardists Ian Craig-Marsh and Martyn Ware. They’d left the band in the hands of vocalist Phil Oakey. That version of the Human League under Oakey’s leadership would become an international success with a new line-up.
But, Craig-Marsh and Ware had pop smarts of their own to draw from. Read more
Here’s a clip from synth-pop-with-a-hint-of-Northern-Soul collective from Sheffield, England The Human League. It’s their spring of 1983 hit, “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”, a hit single released between hit albums Dare! (which included the massive hit “Don’t You Want Me”) and Hysteria. The song was released as a single, later to be included on the 6-song EP Fascination.
The early-to-mid 1980s was an incredibly creatively fertile period for the band, with a number of instant pop singles that made them a smash success on both sides of the Atlantic, during a period in pop history where British groups were once again making headway into the North American market on par with the way they had twenty years earlier in the 1960s.
But, that track to success was not a goal when the band started, with a completely different set of players, with completely different approaches to making synthesizer-based music. Read more
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.
Hey; not unlike today.
But, there were certainly other forces guiding this development, too. Read more
Listen to this song by 80s British soul-synth duo Yazoo, known on these shores as ‘Yaz’, with their 1983 song “State Farm” as taken from their second, and last, album You & Me Both.
Yazoo was an amalgam of two separate approaches to pop music. Fresh out of leading Depeche Mode and then departing after their first album, Vince Clarke was still interested in the possibilities of European synthesizer music made by the likes of Kraftwerk. Alision Moyet was a dyed in the wool R&B singer.
In some ways, it’s a very odd pairing until you hear a song like “State Farm”, which is one of my favourites, or even their more well known hits “Situation”, “Don’t Go”, and of course their take on “Only You”. All of these tunes pushed them to the top of the charts, with their first album scoring top ten in both their native UK, and in North America.
Yet, as successful as this band was, it would only prove to be something of a way station for the duo. Moyet’s interest in soul would draw her out of the band, and she would enjoy a successful solo career by 1984. Clarke would also flourish with a new band, Erasure and with a new singer in Andy Bell – who to my ears sounds a lot like Alison Moyet!
Recently, the pair have reunited for select shows, playing material from this album as well as from their first album Upstairs At Eric’s. They’ve called it the Reconnected tour.
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’s a clip of Merseyside post-punk popsters China Crisis with their fretless-bass-riff-heavy title track to the 1983 album Working With Fire and Steel. This was their second album, which kicked off a critically acclaimed run of singles into the next two years, although with limited top 40 play in North America, with the exception of 1984’s “Black Man Ray”, of course. And that song and the album off of which it comes was produced by an unlikely collaborator who knew something about smart pop songs in the mainstream; Walter Becker of Steely Dan.
Maybe this tune appeals to me because it comes from an LP that was among the first I ever owned; a brilliant blue-vinyl edition at that. But when I first heard that slidey fretless bass riff, I was hooked. In 1983-84, it was one of the best sounds I’d ever heard. Perhaps it’s all a bit dated now. But, I still get a thrill from it, maybe because I can see through the sheen of 80s production (although to be fair, producer Mike Howlett brings out some pretty warm sounds on the record as a whole…), and see the real strength of this record which is true of a lot of what would be considered ‘alternative music’ now. This is a song from writers who are concerned, terrified in fact, about the path of human history.
‘While all the time you dance around/And things get fucked and we’re to blame…”
But, they still know how to write a pop song.
To my middle-aged brain, I can’t see that this type of balance is happening today in pop music, even if our times are arguably even more worrying than they were in 1983. Pop music has once again become more of a diversion than it is a means for artists to engage audiences in some way with the times in which they are living – and what times they are. Or if it’s not a source of mindless diversion, then pop music seems to be about the petty angst of the artists, and about how difficult it is to get laid these days.
Say what you want about 80s pop songs, but this is one thing they did well; remind us, tunefully, that the world is not a safe place, and that we should pay attention to where our leaders are leading us. Leg warmers, Yamaha DX7s, ‘gated’ snare drums, Trickle-down economics, and fuchia headbands are things best left in the past. But smart pop writing that is politically aware and gets played on the radio needs to make a comeback.