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.
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.
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.
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