Listen to this track by electronic-pop foursome and first-phase blippy synthesizer enthusiasts from Basildon, Essex Depeche Mode. It’s “New Life” a key track and second single from their debut 1981 record Speak & Spell.
This song would mark the band’s initial sound, under the creative leadership of Vince Clarke. Clarke would soon leave the band after the album gained traction, and form Yazoo (aka Yaz), and then Erasure later in the decade. Under Clarke’s influence those bands would also demonstrate a notable dexterity when it came to catchy synth-pop.
Incredibly, he would put this skill on display even this early on, with one of my favourite Depeche Mode songs, built on a compelling synth figure, helped along by vocalist Dave Gahan’s distanced and appropriately detached singing style. “New Life” would be their breakthrough hit in Britain, partially on the strength of their performance of the song on Top of the Pops. In the years that followed, they’d build a significant audience on our side of the pond with a succession of albums that moved them into darker thematic and sonic territory.
Despite all that, Clarke would soon cut his losses and leave the band after this record and the tour that followed. But, what is it that his influence brought to the band?
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 Principle a 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
Here’s a clip from the 1985 Grammy awards with Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Thomas Dolby playing a synthesizer medley.
This clip was meant to show off, ’80s style, modern musical technology with the keyboard/midi toys as used by innovators in their field. Wonder and Hancock were the synthesizer pioneers, while Dolby and Jones were the popsters who were meant to represent their successors, maybe. I just remember being very impressed at the time, and everyone at school talked about it the next day. These days, it stands as being pretty dated. But, a part of me still thrills at it in all of its cheesy glory.
This is about as 1985 as you can get, people. Check Dolby’s Beethoven wig. Check Howard Jones’ haircut! Still, Stevie Wonder sings, which is usually pretty thrilling (‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ notwithstanding…). And Hancock plays a snippet of his electro-hip hop hit ‘Rockit’, the one with the crazy video which was also talked about in the schoolyard. All in all, this is a taste of a more innocent age, back when everything was better when it was digital, and when technology in general was looked upon as the way to a bright, worry-free future.