Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 2]

Gary Numan was the flashpoint for technopop in the UK

Gary Numan was the flashpoint for technopop in the UK

Gary Numan had made one album as the sci-fi punk band Tubeway Army in 1978. It was full of chugging guitars and even the same Philip K. Dick lyric references [“Listen To The Sirens” opens with the line ‘Flow my tears the new Police song’] that The Human League had referenced on their demo tape, but like the Sheffield act, it didn’t go very far on the charts. All of this changed when teenaged introverted geek [and Ultravox! fan] Numan wandered into a studio session early enough to find a synthesizer that had been rented by the previous act still sitting there. Given that bit of tinder, his next move became the spark that ignited the technopop explosion which was to follow him.

Once he recorded “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and released it featuring his new techno heavy sound with synths played with the effects and aggression that he previously brought to guitars, the airwaves opened to him as if by magic. Once Numan appeared on Top Of The Pops miming to his single it shot to number one for a full month in early 1979. Overnight, the UK pop landscape changed to accommodate him. Once this loner and outsider found the genie in the bottle, he became the new sound to emulate overnight. We’ll ignore the fact that Ultravox! had been plowing this furrow for a few years by then as they had the bad fortune to have been a few years ahead of their time and had broken up as failures by this time.

Crucially, Numan just added synths to his rock band format. It was the main flavor here, but all of the sounds were analog. The synths were Moog analog units of the day. Guitars, bass, and old fashioned drums made up the rest of his soundbed. Digital synths were several years down the line. With those Moog units, patches were not storable. You were given a booklet with the instrument’s control panel layout and if you liked a sound, you moved dials and switches and drew the settings in the booklet if you ever wanted to reproduce it.  But the sound had a heft for all of its complexity in designing. His records satisfied the urge for rock while being something more. Ascendant, Numan booked an up and coming Liverpudlian band who had their debut single out on Factory Records to open his triumphant “Replicas” UK tour.

OMD in 1980: No sci-fi jumpsuits for these guys

OMD in 1980: No sci-fi jumpsuits for these guys

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark were outsiders among the geekery in that they eschewed the sci-fi trappings that just came with the territory that The Human League and Gary Numan were mining. Not only did they not fit in with their guitar rock loving peers, but they had in truth, little in common with the Dalek-collecting set either. Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey were much more likely to write a song about science or history, or even a phone booth than the adolescent sci-fi trappings that most people with access to synthesizers to back then committed to tape. Even Kraftwerk, the elephant in the room of synthesizers, were hip deep with songs like “The Robots,” or “Spacelab.” OMD got a hit with their fourth single “Messages” and then they followed Numan up the charts. Only they had more saying power.

Their first album sold well. The second had a massive hit all across Europe with a song about the plane that dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, and by the time of their third album, they were poised to detonate. Significantly, they also were steeped in analog sounds and like Numan, had a live drummer playing drums, thought they didn’t allow him to play fills or use cymbals. It’s hard to imagine a time when songs about the generation of electricity was considered single material, but outsider geeks were taking the new tools and forging a technopop sound that was winning ears and influencing the direction of music production to come in the imminent decade getting ready to dawn.

Next: …Generation B in the sidelines

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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One Response to Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 2]

  1. Echorich says:

    It’s important that Numan was an Ultravox! fan. They showed that there was a way to incorporate synths into the new rock vein – they just got no credit for it. It’s also important to Numan thought about how to “use” these synthetic sounds. Treating them with a heavy hand, running the synths through the guitar effects pedals was sheer genius!
    In my mind, Numan doesn’t get the credit he deserves for giving synths a soul. Numan’s vocals were the detached element here, not the music. HIs vocals are robotic, android-like while the synths pulse like a heart beating on the outside of the body. He broke down the wall mixing these elements together and was NEVER apologetic about it. In fact he reaped the rewards of these decisions. Numan was also more Punk than many of the others dabbling in the electronic world. His lyrics were filled with youthful isolation and vitriol. A song like M.E. from Pleasure Principle has just as much comtempt and anger as any Sex Pistols song.
    Oh, and one of the greatest moments in TV history, for me anyway – Gary Numan performing I’m Praying To The Aliens on Saturday Day Night Live!

    Like

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