Afterbirth of Synthpop

By 1980 the UK had clearly become the center of a widespread international scene that combined well established trends in popular music with new possibilities in electronic instrumentation, particularly as the first wave of cheaper digital synthesizers began appearing for purchase. Both more portable as well as offering different sounds, these instruments in combination with any amount of homegrown electronic tinkering led to a range of acts from DIY home tapers to established studio professionals to get serious about what this could all mean for pop music, whether by designed intent or even by accident. Numerous young bands with ambition established either all-electronic lineups or integrated synths into prominent if not central parts of their approach, while veterans considered new ways to approach songwriting and performing to create their own breakthrough moments. Married to the rise of music videos as promotional tools, especially in America thanks to MTV, synthpop, still primarily but not solely a UK centered scene thanks to acts like Canada’s Men Without Hats and Norway’s a-ha making their own marks on the charts, began to become a dominant commercial wave for much of the 1980s, hitting an early peak in the decade’s first half as numerous acts charted big in both their home country and throughout the world.

Some bands like the Human League and Duran Duran turned into lifers, others were more flash-in-the-pan or only had one or two commercial hits while still creating memorable efforts with a long reach. But probably nobody best exemplified the course of synthpop’s rise as that of keyboardist and composer Vince Clarke, who in the space of five years was part of four separate foundational acts for the form. After starting in Depeche Mode and writing their earliest hits, he left to create a duo with Alison Moyet, Yazoo, scoring yet more smash singles and further helping show what the style could do. After Yazoo fell apart he did a brief irregular studio project with guest singers in the form of the Assembly — and that too resulted in an epochal hit, “Never Never” — before finally establishing a lasting partnership with Andy Bell in Erasure. That duo, along with the Pet Shop Boys and the continuing success of Depeche Mode — as well as a-ha, whose one major American hit obscured a lengthy chart dominance in the UK and Europe — extended the initial wave’s run through the end of the decade. Any number of musicians since have drawn on the period, style and songs to one degree or another worldwide, from techno and industrial acts to underground indie pop artists the world over, not to mention 21st century superstars like Taylor Swift and Rihanna

Welcome to the Pleasuredome cover

Almost swamped beneath the outrageous and frankly amazing antics of everyone involved — Holly Johnson’s barely coded (if coded at all) lyrics, Paul Morley’s astounding autohype for the ad campaigns, approximately eight million remixes and much more — is the fact that Welcome to the Pleasuredome is a ridiculous, great album. Trevor Horn’s near Olympian production isn’t so much synthpop as synth-bombast, making singles like the leering “Relax” and the frenetic “Two Tribes” huge smash singles, but the whole thing is a perfect monument to excess.

Please cover

When the Pet Shop Boys’ fitful start of a career suddenly ramped up thanks to the smash success of “West End Girls,” it might have been easy to assume that the accompanying debut album couldn’t entirely match it. But Please stood out as an astonishing mid-80s bridge between synth pop, club trends and Neil Tennant’s coded but clear discussion of gay life in the shadow of AIDS and Thatcher, with other hits like the widely misunderstood “Opportunities” and the exquisite “Love Comes Quickly” demonstrating their remarkable depth.

Upstairs at Eric’s cover

Vince Clarke’s departure from Depeche Mode might have seemed abrupt after their first burst of fame thanks to his songs, and his connection with Alison Moyet, herself just looking for a new singing gig, was a gamble for both of them — one that turned out to be exactly perfect, as the non-album classic “Situation” showed. With Clarke’s precise, beautiful electronic melodies and dance rhythms matched by Moyet’s rich singing voice, Upstairs at Eric’s helped shatter the cool-if-not-cold image of electronic pop with stellar songs like “Don’t Go” and “Only You.”

Journeys to Glory cover

When the perceived flagship band of the original Blitz Kids scene that birthed the new romantics got around to making an album, both expectations and skepticism were high to say the least, not least given that Spandau Ballet were known as much for their ever shifting fashions as for any of their music. Journeys to Glory makes for a game start in the end, the most coolly focused full-length they released — Tony Hadley’s not entirely in full vocal flight yet — and songs like “To Cut a Long Story Short,” “The Freeze” and “Musclebound” became early standards.

The Age of Consent cover

If The Age of Consent was notable alone for the fierce public advocacy in art and life of Jimmy Somerville, it would likely still be enough, given both the overt homophobia of the Thatcher government in the UK and the increasing danger from AIDS at the time of its release. But Somerville’s remarkable, crystalline vocals were something else again, while the electronic performances and arrangements by Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek were detailed and compelling, as hit singles like “Smalltown Boy” and “Why?” showed to dramatic effect.

Speak and Spell cover

Given the arc of musical history it’s more accurate to say that Depeche Mode’s debut full-length is more than anything else the first key album by main songwriter Vince Clarke, who left the band soon after its release to start his run with such acts as Yazoo and Erasure. But that’s precisely why it works — if Depeche never returned to quite this level of bubbliness, they made it count then, with the all time “Just Can’t Get Enough” matched with peppy songs like “New Life” as well as moodier explorations such as “Photographic,” hints of what was yet to come.

Rio cover

Call it the confidence of youth, the fact that they’d already gotten a debut album under their belt, everyone’s individual talents meeting perfectly in the middle or the stars aligning just right — or all of the above and more — but with Rio Duran Duran vaulted themselves into worldwide pop fame. Certainly the videos helped with the impact of such outrageously catchy and astonishingly sleek singles as the title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” not to mention the moody ballad “Save a Prayer,” but songs like “Hold Back the Rain” showed the deep cuts also hit perfectly.

Hunting High and Low cover

To say that “Take On Me” has become not only a perfect representation of synthpop at its finest but a full-on multigenerational pop standard, period, understates, from the instantly addictive main melodic hook to Morten Harket’s breathtaking two and a half octave vocal range. But that was just the start, as Hunting High and Low showed to the full: one absolutely lovely song after another, from such singles as the awesomely melodramatic “The Sun Only Shines on TV” and the driving balladry of the title track to winning album cuts like “Here I Stand and Face the Rain.”

The Golden Age of Wireless cover

One of the more confusing releases of its day, The Golden Age of Wireless appeared in four separate versions over three years’ time, so trying to pin down exactly what version to address can sometimes vary, not least because Dolby’s breakout single, the quirky electronic love song “She Blinded Me With Science,” was first on the album in the US, as was “One of Our Submarines.” In any version, Golden Age is an engaging synthpop beauty, Dolby showcasing his chops on songs like “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” “Airwaves” and “Flying North.”

Architecture & Morality cover

OMD’s already remarkable run of singles and albums reached an astonishing high point with Architecture & Morality, their knack for fusing their Kraftwerk and related obsessions with a perfect ear for almost glam-rock levels of earworm catchiness resulting in a true classic of its time. Paul Humphreys had one of his rarer lead vocal turns on a beautiful ballad, the sparkling “Souvenir,” while Andy McCluskey’s paired singles, “Joan of Arc” and “Maid of Orleans,” were almost majestically powerful, the latter especially due to Malcolm Holmes’s strong drumming.

Rhythm of Youth cover

Especially if you’re of an age, let’s say, mentioning Men Without Hats and their massive hit single “The Safety Dance” inevitably makes you think of medieval carnival dancers and the like due to the video. But the song straight up is metronomic compulsion in the best of ways, Ivan Doroschuk’s vocals and lyrics simultaneously celebration and wry observation, and Rhythm of Youth as a whole does much the same. Standout tracks include the wonderful love song “I Got the Message,” the bubbly “Antarctica” and the anthemic “The Great Ones Remember.”

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) cover

Even if their debut In the Garden wasn’t a chart success, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s experience in working in an electronic pop vein following their years in the Tourists clearly suited them so they bore down more on their next album, maybe crossing their fingers a bit. If so, that was the right move: thanks to the stark, compelling title track, Lennox’s voice an immediate presence, Sweet Dreams became their transatlantic breakout, with more singles like the quiet pulse of “Love is a Stranger” and the sassy flow of “The Walk” further building their rep.

Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret cover

If, for whatever reason, Marc Almond and Dave Ball had only ever done an epochal cover of a Gloria Jones hit that matched cool, growling electronic tones to a desperate vocal, then their “Tainted Love” would still be legendary. But then they went ahead and created one of the best debut albums of all time by anyone, a fusion of disco, Suicide, Kraftwerk, cabaret, balladry, everything and the kitchen sink fed through a keyboard and a voice. “Bedsitter” and the epochal “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” are just two more of the highlights from this stellar album.

Wonderland cover

When the Assembly’s ‘One Day’ single stiffed, Vince Clarke decided on a new project with a new singer, and (clearly audible) Alison Moyet fan Andy Bell fit the bill, leading to a new roll of the dice with Erasure. Wonderland isn’t as remarkable out of the gate as Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s was, with the still youthful Bell in obvious debt to heroes like Moyet and Jimmy Somerville. But the steady hand of Clarke in combination with his increasingly polished, bright arrangements was enough, and with “Oh L’Amour” they scored the first of many hit singles.

Dare! cover

It’s still one of the most unlikely stories in music — a singer from a now-fractured electronic art outfit meets two patrons at a nightclub and offers them vocal roles — but with a couple of extra recruitments and Martin Rushent’s production and studio skills, Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley created a pop landmark. Dare! is still an ur-text for the idea of electronic pop in general, the stellar single “Don’t You Want Me” in particular, but also “The Sound of the Crowd,” “Love Action (I Believe In Love),” the harrowing “Seconds” and much more.

Happy Families cover

Even if Blancmange never made the American crossover as thoroughly as so many of their contemporaries, they were absolutely part of the early 80s ferment of synthpop, new romantics or whatever else you want to call it, as their energetic, spiky debut Happy Families demonstrates. Neil Arthur’s singing and guitar work both add a nervous energy, while Stephen Luscombe’s keyboard and electronic arrangements range from the serviceable to the engagingly inspired, as can be easily heard on their breakout song “Living on the Ceiling.”

Vienna cover

What seemed like a permanent split after Systems of Romance became a very unlikely comeback story when Midge Ure stepped in on vocals and guitar, Conny Plank returned as coproducer and the band ended up with a out and out smash hit single with the title track. Vienna as an album heralded the phase two triumphs of Ultravox perfectly, Ure matching and contrasting elegant electronic rock energy with his own yearning vocals, with singles like “Sleepwalk” and “Passing Strangers” further establishing their remarkable new success.