REDUX: Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 5]

depeche mode 1981 monktone
Fresh faced young lads from Basildon…and Vince Clarke [L]

By 1981, with The Human League transitioning to a completely different type of synthpop band, the UK charts began to get crowded with synthesizers as the goldrush to capitalize on the beachhead that Gary Numan established in 1979 led to what I’ve come to call the Generation B of technopop; at this point I’d call it synthpop. It was all machines; the latest generations, with the early drum machines and no live drummers in the band. By that time, it was beginning to be an established career path.

silicon teens - musicforpartiesUKCDA

In 1980, Mute prime mover Daniel Miller famously made a synthpop album by a fake teenaged band who didn’t really exist as The Silicon Teens. He hired actors for interviews and sent out completely fraudulent press releases as if the group really existed. Basically, they were the synthpop Archies. By the next year, he must have been in seventh heaven, because he began releasing synthpop records by actual teenagers who wrote and played their own songs and with whom Mute released records by; Depeche Mode. And Miller didn’t have to lift a finger. Prophesy had become reality in no time at all.

As much as I was in on the ground floor with Depeche Mode, I can’t say that I ever held the band in the sort of esteem that the earlier generation of technopop artists like Ultravox/John Foxx, Gary Numan, or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark carried with me. The music seemed more facile; less groundbreaking. The songs didn’t reflect any left-field, outsider sentiments as did the works of Generation A. But Depeche Mode weren’t the half of it in 1981.

soft cell 1981 monktone
Soft Cell: Empathetic…kinky…but not geeky

Other synthpop newcomers that year included Soft Cell from Leeds, who had their earliest singles produced by Daniel Miller [small world], though they signed with the Some Bizzare label instead. Like The Human League, they also managed a worldwide hit single, albeit with a cover this time. Sure, the music used a synthesizer palette, but the songs were more traditional in their artistic point of view. Singer Marc Almond was a perceptive writer; you don’t write “Bedsitter” without having a strong sense of empathy and perception, but as pure content, even that fine song was worlds apart from primevally strange material like “Being Boiled.”

And that’s what happened as synthesizers became more prevalent in the UK pop scene. The earlier technopop music had been made by weirdos and social outcasts who had been drawn to electronics as a means of self-expression by people who could have made music no other way. Once they began having success, that attracted the larger wave that followed in their path. By 1981, synthesizers wee no longer a fringe element in British pop music, and once that happened, the professionals came in and cleaned up house. Once Martin Rushent could codify how to make music electronically with synths, it was only a matter of time before other bands came to him for “that sound.” That sound got watered down, thinner, and thinner with each trip to the well. It speaks volumes that the second Altered Images album that he produced sounds much more like The Human League’s “Dare” than anything by Siouxsie + The Banshees. As far as I can tell, the actual band may not have played anything but guitars on “Pinky Blue,” by the sound of it.


So, by my perspective, the show was over by 1981. All of the crucial moves had been made before, and it was diminishing returns on the now burgeoning synthpop front. I bought records by Generation B but few of these bands made it to core collection status. Generation C of synthpop happened by the middle of the 80s and included bands like Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, and Howard Jones. I ignored Erasure for years before a chance hearing of their fourth album finally managed to turn my head. Pet Shop Boys wrote smart songs with fantastic lyrics, but they were musically conservative. Howard Jones? A former progrocker who changed his spots to sell records in the intensely anti-prog environment of the mid-80s.

Even worse, the computerization of recording as analog gear became replaced by digital hardware meant that the whole of pop music production was transformed by techniques originally used for the likes of The Human League in 1981. What had been fringe was now mainstream. Banalized through association with garden variety pop music looking to gain an “edge” through synthpop production techniques. Always the canary in a coal mine, The Human League managed to take their devolution all the way to its conclusion by 1986, when they obtained the services of Jam + Lewis to produce their “Crash” album.

By the mid-80s, mainstream pop was just like what had started out as weird synthpop five years earlier. But a style can be considered fringe only in the context of the mainstream values contrasting with it. The difference was that people like Phil Oakey once had very different things to say with their content than perhaps Taylor Dayne, but in terms of form, the end products were becoming very similar. When The Human League got Jam + Lewis to write their album, they, in effect, became Taylor Dayne!! Any firewalls segregating the two artists had summarily vanished.

The social conditions that led to the emergence of technopop in the late 70s won’t ever repeat themselves. Whatever it was in the water of the UK that led to introverted young men attracted to synthesizers will only play out once more as a stylistic fad. New New Wave. Electroclash. Fill-in-the-bank. Once that actually succeeded in the marketplace it became codified and the wild west period of technopop got swept away to be replaced by settlers moving in to set up the ranch and raise their families. All of the first generation stars who had first heard Kraftwerk five years earlier and went off to do their watered down version of it, were now the source for further generations to do the same with the raw materials that they in turn pioneered. As Ultravox begat Numan, who begat Duran Duran, and so on.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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12 Responses to REDUX: Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 5]

  1. Andy B says:

    I was only 12 in 1979. Apart from my dad’s rather eclectic record collection I consumed music through watching Top Of The Pops or listening to the likes of BBC Radio One. It was apparent that something new was in the air.
    The arrival of Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army that year changed everything for so many. Then there was OMD, John Foxx,the Human League, Visage,Ultravox, etc.
    It’s hard to put into words just how exciting it was being young and impressionable at that time in the UK. I count myself really lucky. Your article emphasises just how creatively important that brief moment in time was.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      AndyB – The developmental arc of Synthpop from a fringe concert from fringe minds carried the seeds of its own dilution that were sowed by the levels of success that it engendered and spread through the UK music business environment. The mainstreaming of Synthpop was inevitable in the face of the success that it had. Particularly since the production costs of Synthpop were falling dramatically at the time as compared to the traditional costs of Rock; the cost of samplers, notwithstanding! In face, this thread ended by 1981; just two years after the introduction of sampling. So it was not really addressed here. This would come to head on what Generation C of Synthpop would consist of. And would have a profoundly deleterious effect on Kraftwerk; the progenitors of Synthpop.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ade.W says:

    In 1977 I was 19 years old and I remember being in the mix for buying most of this stuff well. With Bowie , Roxy, Be Bop Deluxe etc already in the collection these early post punk pioneers were right up my street. Just random picks from my LPs of 1977 shows some confusion though Peter Gabriel 1, Supertramp Even In the Quietest and Ultravox !, but most of my core collection is of 77-85ish. Your right about the next wave though , Soft cell and Depeche Mode made little impact on me. Really good thread though, enjoyed reading it. thanks Monk.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Ade.W – Interesting. You are just ahead of Andy B and myself as we ran the gamut of 12-19, with me in the middle. It’s quite an interesting mix as we develop and our musical sophistication does as well. The power of one’s actual adolescence is mirrored in one’s musical adolescence. Part of my reasons for writing the thread in the first place was to give a context to my ambivalence regarding bands like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell as compared to their immediate progenitors in the marketplace. I like both bands. I can be said to have collected DM for a decade, but I am not passionate about them. And sold most of it off to fanatical German fans. Marc Almond ultimately has more to do with Scott Walker than Suicide, and that’s where his true artistic value lies!


  3. McRonson says:

    Memphis, Tennessee by the Silicon Teens was poxy!


  4. Bungholeinone says:

    Having arrived a little late to the party in 84 age 0, I can’t imagine how the synth landscape must’ve looked at the time. Perhaps I too would’ve put 2nd wave bands like Depeche on a lower rung. Certainly the music lacked the bite of Ultravox or the austerity (or indeed dry humour) of Kraftwerk or OMD. However, Depeche had the advantage of a bona fide perverted pop savant in Martin Gore, and the art meets industry production integrity of Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones. While other early synthpop combos would round out their sound and integrate current trends, Depeche have always maintained that bizarre mix of introverted minor key explorations blown up to wide screen proportions by whichever producer they align themselves with. Their elevation of the synthpop form and the manner in which their sound palette seemed to reflect the unusual fragility and lack of posturing in Martin’s lyrics puts them in the top tier for me!


  5. djjedredy says:

    This is bizarre story how I got into synths. Listening to the Prog Rock of Camel (The Snow Goose) the War Of The Worlds Soundtrack, bits off the Boney M album and quite a bit of Abba. I kid you not! Then my friend got the JMJ’s Oxgene album (I was 8 at the time and we used to hum along to synth line)) and then Equinox that I borrowed (didn’t have a cassette recorder!) From there I bought my first 7″ , Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” , I was 11 and fascinated by those weird drums and dark bass. The floodgates opened, “Cars”, Ultravox, Visage, Landscape and even a soft spot for the first Eurhythmics album (with synths) “Sweet Dreams.” The more obscure, underground stuff I was drawn to as, like you, it was all getting a bit watered down and superficial, so it was Bill Nelson, Cabs, Fad Gadget and anything that was Leftfield, Pete Shelley, Kissing The Pink… ’79-83 were the Golden Years for me. Cheers for the series.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      I also crossed over from Prog, though I was a teenager at the time. So “Games Without Frontiers”was your first single? Wow! Can I swap with you! Mine was “Imagine.” A classic to some, but not like anything from that awe inspiring third Peter Gabriel album!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • djjedredy says:

        Loved the B-side, “The Start” going into “I Don’t Remember” played that too death. “Imagine” – a just remember the white piano and lack of shoes, a bittersweet song.


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