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Two excellent recent BBC4 documentaries about music have shown up on Vimeo, for those not in the UK: Synth Britannia (about the rise of synthpop in Britain in the late 1970s/early 1980s, from early Kraftwerk-influenced acts like OMD, The Human League and Gary Numan to the wave of "fire and ice" duos), and Krautrock: the Rebirth of Germany (which features interviews with a number of German experimental musicians of the 1970s, from bands like Amon Düül II, Faust, Neu! and Can, not to mention Iggy Pop rambling on about asparagus).
Simon Reynolds has a piece in the Graun about the history of synthpop in 1980s Britain:
In some ways the crucial word in synth-pop isn't "synth" but "pop". The British groups who took over the charts at the dawn of the 80s were catchy and concise. Here they followed the lead of Kraftwerk, who were not only the first group to make a whole conceptual package/weltanschauung out of the electronic age, but were sublime tunesmiths. It's righteous that Kraftwerk's long-awaited remastered catalogue is getting reissued at almost the same time as the long-awaited remastered catalogue of the Beatles, because Hütter & Co rival the Fab Four for both their transformative impact on pop and their melodic genius... Equally inspiring to the synth-pop artists was Kraftwerk's formality: their grey suits and short hair stood out at a time of jeans and beards and straggly locks, heralding a European future for pop, a decisive break with America and rock'n'roll.
Synth-pop went through two distinct phases. The first was all about dehumanisation chic. That didn't mean the music was emotionless (the standard accusation of the synthphobic rocker), but that the emotions were bleak: isolation, urban anomie, feeling cold and hollow inside, paranoia... The second phase of synth-pop reacted against the first. Electronic sounds now suggested jaunty optimism and the gregariousness of the dancefloor, they evoked a bright, clean future just round the corner rather than JG Ballard's desolate 70s cityscapes. And the subject matter for songs mostly reverted to traditional pop territory: love and romance, escapism and aspiration. The prime movers behind synth-pop's rehumanisation were appropriately enough the Human League (just check their song titles: Open Your Heart, Love Action, These Are The Things That Dreams Are Made Of).
"Electro" in the early-90s meant cutting-edge, the future-now; nowadays "electro" refers to the kind of sounds that lit up hipster bars in east London through this past decade and then went mainstream this year with La Roux and Lady Gaga, which is to say synthetic pop that doesn't use the full capacity of the latest digital technology, and is therefore almost as quaint as if it were made using a harpsichord.The article ties in with a BBC4 documentary titled Synth Britannia, which airs next week.
More YouTube videos: this time Stump's "Buffalo", which you may remember from the C86 compilation (it was the most dadaistic track on that one). The video, in this case, is the visual equivalent of the song. Enjoy.
Meanwhile, more Swedish indiepop: Jens Lekman's "You Are The Light"; pretty polished, involving Jens riding through a tunnel in a van surrounded by riot police, with brass sections passing in open-topped cars at key sections of the song.
And here's one for the goths: Propaganda's "Dr. Mabuse", with Anton Corbijn doing his best Fritz Lang homage.
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Mulleted and mustached Molvanian pop idol Zladko "ZLAD!" Vladcik, tried to enter last year's Eurovision contest with his catchy retro synthpop ditty "Elektronik Supersonik", is back. His 2005 entry (also disqualified) is much darker, hearkening back to the perplexing 1980s European trend of minor-key synthpop songs referencing obscure religious heresies and points of theology. It is titled "I am the Anti-pope", and the video featured an ecclesiastically-garbed Zlad being whipped in slow motion by a goth chick in a nun's habit, who is also seen playing a keytar. Some sample lyrics:
I am the Anti-Pope.
I am the Anti-Pope.
Like a lion kills an antelope.
Like a hammer hits a cantaloupe.
Like a neck in a hanging rope.
Like a germ in a microscope.
Like a witch reads a horoscope.
Like a cutter stabs an envelope.
Your Humble Narrator went to see (a reconstituted version of) 1980s new-romantics Visage play in Soho.
The first support band was Suzerain, already mentioned on these pages. Suffice it to say that they were very good; somewhere between Duran Duran and David Bowie, only with more guitar solos. They have the pop sensibility down pat and the rock-star stage presence, and should go far. It's somewhat surprising that they haven't been signed yet.
Trademark were amusing; three spoddy-looking chaps in raincoats (and later fairy-light-festooned lab coats) playing a warm and somewhat geeky electropop (think something like Barcelona without the guitars, or perhaps Baxendale meets Casionova). The front man looked ever so much like Jack Morgan from Look Around You, and they did a love song with the words "simple harmonic motion" in the lyrics, so where can you go wrong?
Visage (or, more accurately, Visage Mk. II) came on and did a ~20-minute set, a preview of their main gig this Saturday. Steve Strange had hair like a less flamboyant Robert Smith and was wearing something that looked like a torn, paint-splattered military uniform of some sort, and his mascara seemed somewhat smeared. In performance, he wasn't quite the ice queen I expected; he danced around with a slightly goofy grin, and interacted with the audience, laying on hands. At one stage, he took a glow stick from a gaggle of goths near the stage and made their day. Anyway, Visage Mk. II did all old songs (The Damned Don't Cry, Love Glove, We Move, The Anvil and, of course, their genre-defining classic of existentialist disco, Fade To Grey). The songs sounded somewhat different than the old records, being played on modern digital-modelling synths. (Most of the songs had a standard post-90s 4/4 dance beat, for one).
The music played by the DJ between sets was a mix of 80s synthpop/electronic pop (Human League, A-Ha, Dead Or Alive, Bananarama), with small amounts of glam (Transvision Vamp and Electric Six both got a play) and a few goth-club crowd-pleasers (some Depeche Mode, NIN, and an EBM/darkwave/futurepop/power-electronics/whatever they call it version of Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, a.k.a. the theme from A Clockwork Orange). Your Humble Narrator left sometime before the DJ got around to playing Headhunter (which he surely must have; it seems to be the "Gotta Be Startin' Something" of people who wear a lot of black).
Anyway, there are photos here. My camera battery ran down towards the end, requiring me to shoot without the screen, which is why quality and quantity drop off a bit.
Eurodisco cheese of the day: Zladko "Zlad" Vladcik, "Elektronik - Supersonik", available with MP3 and video. This was Molvania's entry in the recent Eurovision song contest, and is somewhere between Ladytron and Mahir Cagri or something. I believe the Chaser/CNNNN people are behind this.
Remember Anything Box? They shared the lofty heights of the synthpop pantheon with such giants as Boxcar and Seven Red Seven. In other words, they were one of the countless synthpop bands who did not have a Bizarre Love Triangle or an Enjoy The Silence in them, but instead churned out bland major-key songs with drum machines, sequencer lines, uninspiring lyrics and predictable verse-chorus-verse structures. Anyway, if you're a synthpop fanatic, they've released a retrospective compilation in downloadable MP3 format, with PDF artwork. Some of the songs are better than others, though a lot of them have a certan saccharine quality; often the beginnings and endings are better than the songs themselves, and the singer sounds a bit too boy-band. IMHO, it'd be on a par with a CD by a Tennessee synthpop outfit named Otherness which came unbidden in a bootleg CD-R order, and whose only memorable feature was the instrumental closing track comprised entirely of sequencers, drum machines and Gillian Anderson samples. (If anybody wants that CD, btw, make me an offer.)
I had somewhat of a Tanya Headon reaction to 8.mp3, which asserts that there are "too many songs about bitches and ho's, too many songs about pimpin'", but "not enough songs about love". Au contraire, there are too many songs about love, and most of them are unmitigated shite.
Apparently the new Fischerspooner album is getting a local release; I may have to check it out. Bec Hornsby just played a track from it on her programme on 3RRR; it's much as I expected, stilted synthpop-inspired beats. I get the impression of them being to the 80s what the mid-90s Britpop movement were to the 60s, or perhaps Air to the '70s; not so much a slavish imitation as a reinterpretation and an updating. (Or perhaps an appropriation or opportunistic plundering.)
(Which makes one wonder what the '90s-inspired artists in a decade's time will be like. Grunge revivalists, perhaps, or 'old-style' commercial techno-pop with 909s and 303s in the mix; only done as an ironic reference, with a 'teens sensibility?)
Btw, while I'm on the topic, I think the word "electroclash" sounds rather daft; as it (i.e., Fischerspooner, Ladytron, Felix Da Housecat) doesn't sound particularly clashy, or indeed like The Clash. I prefer Mag/Tif's term "neo-electro". Then again, most music-journalist-coined genre names initially sound silly and ill-fitting (e.g., "goth", "shoegazer", "britpop", etc.)
This last microtrend -- effectively a re-revival -- highlights one of the ironies of the 80's resurgence, for the 80's were the first era in pop in which recycling and retrospection became rife. There were vogues for ska, rockabilly, psychedelia and other musical antecedents. "With 1980's retro, we have reached the point of second-order recycling," said Andrew Ross, a cultural critic who is the director of the American studies program at New York University. "It's the equivalent, God forbid, of double quotation marks."
Modern digital technology is so sophisticated that producers make electronic music that sounds almost as if it were played by a live band, full of subtle rhythmic irregularities that create a humanlike feel and jazzy swing. But just as punk rockers embraced a raw, elemental music, rejecting the overproduced sound of 70's rock, today's electro groups use old-fashioned synthesizers and drum machines. They prefer cold tones and stiff beats because they evoke a period when electronic music seemed alien and forbiddingly novel. They are making machine-music and proud of it.
For many clubgoers, the 80's were a time when rock and dance music were in lively conversation with each other. Club music then was full of punky attitude and personality, a stark contrast to the functional music and faceless D.J.'s who dominate today's post-rave dance culture.
(There we have it; New Wave's Big Comeback.) (ta, Toby!)
Just heard Bis's cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart; it's pretty amusing, in a 80s-retro-kitsch sort of way. They use a speech synthesiser to do part of the vocals.
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