REDUX: Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 3]

post punk monk blast from the past

July 1, 2015

Bank clerks on top of the world: OMD in 1981

With UK technopop experiencing a meteoric rise in the years 1979-80, the next year was a watershed for the sound. Big changes were underfoot. OMD dropped their third album and it was filled with experimental elements like choral tapes played out of synch [on “Souvenir,” their biggest hit yet], musique concrete, and most shockingly of all, the rehabilitation of the Mellotron; an instrument heretofore indelibly linked to Prog Rock. They had the temerity to write and release two songs about Joan Of Arc a back to back singles and both of them were hits; even with virtually the same name! One of these [a personal favorite – “Joan Of Arc [Maid Of Orleans]” became the number one selling single in all of 1982 in West Germany.

Their album was named [by sleeve designer Peter Saville’s girlfriend] after architectural historian David Watkin’s 1977 tome “Morality and Architecture: The Development of a Theme in Architectural History and Theory from the Gothic Revival to the Modern Movement.” Could there be anything more geekily insular and intellectual than that selling millions of records throughout Europe? Watkin decried the idea of a zeitgeist, but what else could account for the bubble that propelled technopop upward from humble beginnings to the top of the charts by 1981?

Ultravox ca. 1981: right place + time

Even more interestingly, as 1981 saw Gary Numan begin to fall from the perch he had on the charts for a good year or two, the ’80-81 period saw his inspiration, Ultravox, regroup and record a new fourth album that exploded their career all over the world [except America]. Karma now balanced, they rode a wave of success that lasted a good five years filled with synthesizers in a rock context that expanded musically to take in pop and dance elements.

For a change, a band that had stuck their necks out for years of ridicule were in the position to reap the rewards after the zeitgeist finally caught up with them. But Ultravox were only geeks in the technical sense of the word. They were first musicians who wanted a certain sound, then they worked hard to achieve it with the technology at hand. Perhaps the biggest geek element in the band was drummer Warren Cann, who, far from being cowed by drum machines and rhythm boxes, gravitated to them to push boundaries and go where neither machines nor just drummers could go back then. It gave their records a certain rhythmic quality that no others had. Cann would think nothing of getting the rudimental Roland Compurhythm boxes of the day modified by wire heads even geekier than him. But the music of Ultravox never touched on topics or imagery that had what I’d call “geek appeal.” It was, under the aegis of Midge Ure, mostly vague atmospherics, lyrically. No sci-fi, hard science, or intellectual fringe theories for them.

Kraftwerk: They were 1981 in 1978!

The zeitgeist kicked into overdrive in the case of Kraftwerk, who managed to get a number one single in the UK with a song that was three years old! “The Model” was issued as the B-side to “Computer Love,” which got into the UK top 30. Imagine the Düsseldorfer’s shock and dismay when DJs began playing this embarrassing older song when their new music was filled to the brim with the bleeding edge of experimental sound technique…and it got to number one. Fair is fair, and it’s no overstatement to say that every one of these bands discussed were all deeply in debt in one way or another to the technopop pioneers. Heck, even I’m indebted to them! I can’t say that I’d be the person that I am today were it not for hearing “Autobahn” in 1974.

But as things seemed to plateau in 1981 with technopop ascendant in the charts, there were revolutionary changes in hardware and attitude that threatened to shake up the status quo. First and foremost, rhythm boxes ceded ground to drum machines that were actually programmable without chip modding. These offered bands the ability to bypass the rhythm element of their music when performing entirely. OMD had started out with drums on tape, but they incorporated a live drummer as soon as they were able. Newer bands might have never had drummers.

The computerization of musical instruments was happening as digital synths incorporated circuits that made it relatively simple to program sequences of music or to save synth patches digitally; no more calibrating knobs and sliders to achieve the sounds to play on their synths. Finally, digital sampling made the full digital reproduction of analog sounds possible, and it added a programmability that was new to the musician’s toolbox. All of these trends came home to roost on everyone discussed here, but never so profoundly than for one band in particular that we have already discussed earlier.

Next: …Digital Killed The Analog Star

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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3 Responses to REDUX: Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 3]

  1. Gavin says:

    This is a great set of posts. I was 13 in 1981 and it was the year that I started to buy records in earnest. For me,81/82 is still a Golden Age for which I swoon and yearn for daily (79-86 is my favoured 7 year itch)
    Growing up on The Wirral,a couple of miles from OMD,and hanging around Liverpool looking up at the windows of The Gramophone Suite (after being insulted by Pete Burns in Probe Records-a badge of honour worn by any Scouser) all seems like an exotic dream to me now.
    Little did I know how close to the orbits of synth pop royalty I would circulate in later years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – I’d almost call you the “Zelig” of synthpop but that’s actually insulting to your numerous outstanding qualities. You are the furthest thing from being such a cipher. As I’m a tad older, the ’78-’85 period is my swoonzone. Except that growing up in podunk Orlando, I was effectively many thousands of miles away from any “action!” I look at your life and can only gape in wonder.


  2. Vlad says:

    Ooof, I wouldn’t be so harsh on Ultravox’s lyrics. “Vague atmospherics” are usually John Foxx’s domain, both Warren and Midge had things to say and lots of songs actually have clear social, political and even religious current (critical in nature). Of course, it’s mostly indirect, allegorical and cinematic, but that’s to be expected from “New Wave”, surely? In short, it’s atmospheric all right, but those atmospheres are not vague, quite the opposite. In fact I find it strange people usually miss this side of the band’s creativity.


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