Listen to this track by science-blinded synth-pop innovator and early synthesizer tinkerer Thomas Dolby. It’s “One Of Our Submarines”, a single off of Dolby’s 1983 edition of his debut record The Golden Age Of Wireless. That album had been issued in an earlier form the previous year, with this tune not initally appearing. It also appeared on the 1983 EP Blinded By Science.
Before embarking on his solo career and crafting this first album that would also eventually include his most recognized song “She Blinded Me With Science”, Dolby was a session musician and songwriter for other artists. Even this song was originally written for the Thompson Twins, for whom Dolby also served as a session musician. Also by penning songs for new wave diva Lene Lovich (“New Toy”) and electro whiz kids Whoodini (“Magic Wand”), Dolby had his hand in the mechanics of what made for a sleekly designed pop song. Figuring out how things work came naturally to Dolby in any case, having always been something of a gearhead, particularly around electronics and musical equipment. It’s no wonder that “… Science” was a hit, since it combined all of his strengths with pop hooks and innovative technology into a whole.
But, this song has a decidedly murkier feel than that hit, true to its subject matter. There’s also a personal connection to this song where its writer was concerned as well. Read more
Listen to this track by urbanely detached duo and superlative synthpop vectors Pet Shop Boys. It’s “West End Girls”, a smash for them in 1984 as a US club single, and then again in late 1985 as a single released internationally, later to appear on their debut record, 1986’s Please. From there, it would be re-mixed many times, ready for the clubs once again.
This song had made inroads into a musical area that really hadn’t been explored; a synthpop and rap hybrid. Somehow, I’d be hard-pressed to call this a rap tune in the strictest sense. But, one might see why someone might argue that it is, I suppose. It certainly takes its cues from early hip hop records like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”. To me, it’s more of a spoken word piece, with a big groove behind it, which somehow isn’t the same thing as a flat out hip hop record. It’s actually much closer to Isaac Hayes’ “(The Theme From) Shaft”, with the extended, tension-building instrumental intro, and with the rest of the song buoyed up by a narrator’s voice (the original definition of a “rap”, kids), this time with a cut-glass English accent.
However like rap at the time, “West End Girls” certainly does evoke a distinctly urban feel. This is a song about the city, and the culture around cities. And despite it being a hit all over the world, it touches on something that is very much associated with the culture of those who created it, which is class structure and socially encoded roles. Yet, it was originally born outside of that culture, and in a place where the roots of the song were firmly established. Read more
Listen to this track by synth-pop purveyors and technologically minded quartet from the Wirral in the northwest of England Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark, aka OMD. It’s “Tesla Girls”, a single as taken from their 1984 LP Junk Culture.
The album was the follow-up to Dazzle Ships, which had served to be something of a dip in their fortunes chartwise the year previous, a record that’s now celebrated as being ahead of its time, even if it was misunderstood by critics upon release. It could be that their work had drifted into darker political themes and more experimental textures that perhaps didn’t play as well on the radio by 1983.
This song was a definite move in a more pop direction after the more avant garde approach of Dazzle Ships.This single was the third salvo from Junk Culture as a whole after “Locomotion” and “Talking Loud and Clear”. And what a bright and chirpy song this is, although as usual the lyrics of this song make it angular and distant for contrast, and somewhat mysterious too. And to that point, who are the Tesla Girls of this song, anyway? Read more
Listen to this track by London-based synthpop trio Bronski Beat. It’s “Smalltown Boy”, their biggest hit, released in June of 1984, and eventually appearing on their first record Age of Consent by the end of the year. Before this, they were three housemates living in Brixton, south London; Steve Bronski (after whom the band is named), Larry Steinbachek, both of whom played keyboards, and Jimmy Somerville lending his uniquely calibrated pipes as lead vocalist.
The single was a smash success, gaining top ten showings all over the world, and only after the three friends did only a brief stint of gigs before signing with London Records. Besides the clear thematic content in the song itself, another aspect of the song was assuredly brought out by the video which enjoyed heavy rotation. In it, Somerville portrays a young man who is on a train, reflecting on what it was that set him out on his journey; that the small town where he is from is too small for him, and for others like him.
In many ways, it’s a pretty simple narrative. But, it was, and is, tied up in a common thread that we’re still working our way through as a society today. Read more
This one is different. If you don’t like this, you’re dead inside. So, light up the oil, if you must. I’ll boil for this one.