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When Synth-Pop Ruled Britannia

An exploration of vintage synth-pop that was popular in the UK.


My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


There was a time when synthesizers replaced guitars as the most important component of a band. The result was Synth-Pop, a style of popular rock that ruled the airwaves for about ten years beginning in 1977. Synth-pop had its origins and most sustained popularity in the UK. Preceded by the likes of Kraftwerk in Germany and the Berlin sound of David Bowie, there emerged a generation of artists whose compositions revolved around the use of synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers such as the Emulator and Fairlight. For most of these groups, the instruments became anonymous, simply listed as “keyboards” or “synthesizers” in the liner notes. What was of most interest was a new sound, a remix of tuneful compositions spiced up with the often eerie and atmospheric flows and beats of electronic music.


For this episode, I played 25 synth-pop hits that were big in the UK. This list of synth-pop hits was created in 2018 by Paul Lester for the UK magazine Classic Pop. I was really impressed with his selections of the music that made an impact on the popular music scene through the technology being used at the time. Most, but not all, of these artists were from the UK. They all had an impact on the British synth-pop scene. You can read Lester's article in the February 2018 edition of Classic Pop.


Of course, the recordings that Lester listed came in many versions. Many of the recordings in my collection are the original singles releases, but a good number are culled from albums featuring the same tunes. Still others are from 12-inch extended play 45s, often remixes or variations of the original singles versions. While most are from UK groups, several are from other countries but became popular in the UK. The playlist for this episode will list the origin of each song and include the principal keyboard players involved in each. Many of the names became familiar as they moved on and became solo or guest artists in the world of popular electronic music.


The music is presented in chronological order by year, beginning in 1977 and ending in 1986. Artists doing more experimental—less popular—electronic music, such as Cabaret Voltaire, Tomita, Bowie and Eno, are not included here. Instead, we hear the transition from super synthesists such as Space and Giorgio Moroder, producing what was essentially dance music, to a field using much less expensive technology, your Rolands, Yamahas, Prophet-5s, and Polymoogs. As the eighties progressed, you can hear more sounds of digital synthesis and sampling via the E-mu Emulator and Fairlight CMI. The recording techniques were also transitioning during this period from analog to digital. By the end of this era that we call British synth-pop, the mixes were more pristine, the recordings more precise and of higher fidelity.



Playlist

1. Space, “Magic Fly” (1977 United Artists). French group led by Didier Marouani (aka Ecama) and Roland Romanelli. Flirted with electronic disco music. 4:18


2. Giorgio Moroder, “The Chase” (1978 Casablanca). Big synths programmed and played by Moroder. Produced in Germany. An extended play “Casablanca Disco Single.” 13:08


3. The Normal, “Warm Leatherette” (1978 Mute). UK artist Daniel Miller. 3:21


4. Vice Versa, “New Girls Neutrons” (1979 Neutron Records). Electronic New Wave / Minimal Synth band from Sheffield, UK. Synthesizers, David Sydenham. 2:02


5. Gary Numan, “Metal” from The Pleasure Principle (1979 Beggar’s Banquet). UK group. Gary Numan on keyboards, synthetic percussion. 3:28


6. Telex, “Moskow Diskow” from Looking For Saint Tropez (1979 Vogue). This Belgian synth group included Dan Lacksman, Marc Moulin, and Michel Moers. 4:12


7. Yellow Magic Orchestra, “Rydeen” from X∞Multiplies (1980 A&M Records). Japanese band featuring electronic keyboards, synthesis and processing, Ryuichi Sakamoto; Guitar, Kenji Omura; synthesis programming, Hideki Matsutake; vocals, Chris Mosdell. 4:25


8. Suicide, “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne” from Suicide: Alan Vega · Martin Rev (1980 Antilles). UK group. Electronics, Martin Rev; vocals, Alan Vega. 3:18


9. Yello, “Bostich” from Bostich (1981 Stiff America). Swiss electronic band formed in 1979 in Zürich, Switzerland. Electronics, vocals, Boris Blank; lyrics, vocals, Dieter Meier; tape, Carlos Peron. 4:32


10. Jon Foxx, “Underpass” (1980 Metal Beat). UK artist. Electronics, John Foxx. 3:21


11. Visage, “Fade to Grey” (1980 Polydor). UK artist. Produced by Midge Ure (Ultravox). 3:50


12. The Human League, “Love Action (I Believe in Love)” (1981 A&M). Electronic band from Sheffield, England. Synthesis Philip Oakey. 3:49


13. Heaven 17, “Play to Win” (1981 Virgin). UK artist. Formed as a side project of the British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.), the production company formed by Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, after their departure from the The Human League in 1980. 7:26


14. Soft Cell, “Memorabilia” (1981 Some Bizarre). UK artist. Synthesizer, percussion, David Ball; vocals, percussion, Marc Almond. 4:48


15. Depeche Mode, “Just Can’t Get Enough” from Speak & Spell (1981 Mute). UK group. English electronic music band formed March 1980 in Basildon, Essex. Lead vocals, Dave Gahan; keyboards, guitar, vocals, Martin Gore; keyboards, Andy Fletcher; keyboards, Vince Clarke. 3:39


16. Yazoo, “Don’t Go” (1982 Mute). Yazoo was an English Synth-Pop duo from Basildon, Essex. Vocals, Alison Moyet; synthesizers, Vince Clarke. 4:58


17. Kajagoogoo, “Hang on Now” (1983 EMI). UK group. Lead vocals, Limahl; bass, Nick Beggs; E-bow and guitar, Steve Askew; synthesizers, Stuart Croxford Neale; drums and electronic programming, Jez Strode. 3:38


18. The Art of Noise, “Moments in Love” (1985 ZTT). UK group. Vocals, Camilla Pilkington; keyboards, Ann Dudley; engineering, Gary Langan; electronics, Fairlight CMI, J.J. Jeczalik; bass, producer, Trevor Horn. 4:32


19. Propaganda, “Dr. Mabuse” (1984 Island Records). German group. German group from Düsseldorf; formed in 1982 by former Die Krupps keyboarder Ralf Dörper and Andreas Thein. Produced by Trevor Horn. 4:46


20. Pet Shop Boys, “West End Girls” (1985 Parlophone). UK group. Lead vocals, keyboards, occasional guitar, Neil Tennant; keyboards, occasional vocals, Chris Lowe. 3:58


21. Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy” (1984 Forbidden Fruit). UK group. Keyboardists Steve Bronski, Larry Steinbachek; vocals Jimmy Somerville. 4:59


22. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Black Night White Light” from Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1984 ZTT). UK group. Lead vocals, Holly Johnson; backing vocals, Paul Rutherford; guitar, Brian Nash; bass, Mark O'Toole; drums Peter Gill; keyboards, programming, software, J. J. Jeczalik. 4:02


23. Prefab Sprout, “Appetite” (1985 Kitchenware Records). English pop band from Witton Gilbert, County Durham. This track produced by Thomas Dolby. 3:54


24. Ivan, “Fotonovela” (1984 CBS). Spanish singer, Juan Carlos Ramos Vaquero; produced by Pedro Vidal. 4:32


25. A-HA, “The Blue Sky” (1986 Warner Brothers). Norwegian band formed in Oslo in 1982. Lead vocals, Morten Harket; guitar, vocals, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy; keyboards, vocals, Magne Furuholmen. 3:15



Opening background music: David Bowie, “Subterraneans” from Low (1977 RCA Victor). Vocals, saxophones, guitar, ARP synthesizer, Chamberlin (tape horn and brass, synthetic strings, tape cellos), David Bowie; Minimoog, ARP, EMS Synthi AKS, piano, Chamberlin, other synthesizers, vocals, guitar treatments, synthetics, Brian Eno; rhythm guitar, Carlos Alomar; bass, George Murray; produced by David Bowie, Tony Visconti. 5:38


Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.


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