REDUX: Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 1]

post punk monk blast from the past

June 25, 2015

Paul Cook models the T-shirt John Lydon made famous
Paul Cook models the T-shirt John Lydon made famous

It was back in the late 70s when I began to notice a change in the perception of synthesizers among musicians in the Post-Punk era. In 1977, Punk Year Zero, synthesizers were viewed with much suspicion as being the tools of the ruling elite, such as Pink Floyd or Rick Wakeman. The anti-rock star movement was seen as all about aggression, abrasion, and non-musicianship. The cash and talent needed to coax music out of the analog synths of the day set the bar of entry fairly high and in the end, it was seen as much easier just to bash a guitar like an animal as fast as possible as being the way forward. Which it was. For a short time, at least. But it was some time in 1978 when two things happened to challenge this new orthodoxy. First, the next generation of synthesizers hitting the market were a fraction of the cost of the hardware that had been born in the late sixties and had hardly changed much in a decade. Secondly, these devices were falling into the hands of what we would now call geeks who had been through the cleansing fire of Punk and who could now approach these devices from an angle that did not involve ice rinks and costume changes.

human league monktone
The classic Human League lineup

The band for me that stood at the precipice of Punk and then took the lesson of empowerment from it and moved further left in their quest was The Human League. When I say that synths were getting into the hands of geeks, in this case it was literal! Human League core members Philip Adrian Wright and Martyn Ware were working as computer operators at a hospital in the late 70s and were besotted with sci-fi enough that they recorded experiments that sounded like Doctor Who library music as produced by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. Their demo tape was packed with then-obscure Philip K. Dick references. It was “hosted” by compere “Jason Taverner,” the protagonist from Dick’s novel “Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.” Finally, the band’s name had mutated from “The Future” to “The Human League,” which was taken from a sci-fi based role playing game that those presumably geeklike, but not interested in elves and monsters, played!

Heard then, the first two Human League albums were riveting to these ears. Heard now, they were pure gold cascading from the left-field minds of outsiders who saw the synthesizer as a way of leveling the pop music playing field so that time-consuming musicianship was no longer the barrier to entry. Geeks with interesting ideas could now for several hundred Pounds buy a machine which they could master [and geeks specialize in mastering technical processes] and produce the soundtrack to their ideas with… all without getting bloody, blistered fingers! Who knows? They might even get on Top of the Pops?

Next: …Generation A Continue to develop.

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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