Notorious for years among New York City performance circles for their audience-attacking approach, but at the same time with a full set of songs under their belt and honed by years of performance, by the time Alan Vega and Martin Rev made their debut album in 1977 they knew exactly what they wanted. They got it: with Rev’s rough, propulsive and eerie keyboards matched with Vega’s post-Elvis crooning, shrieks and wails, the unnerving scenarios on “Ghost Rider,” “Rocket U.S.A.,” “Cheree” and the epic “Frankie Teardrop” were unique compositions.
Birth of Synthpop
The history of purely electronic instruments, whether designed to replicate or extend the possibilities of acoustic instruments or designed sui generis for an electrified world, such as the theremin, was already decades old by the time of the late 1970s. In particular, electronic keyboards had been part of the possibilities of numerous musical forms and approaches in the decades prior to that time, whether it was the likes of Hammond organs, such the Hammond B-3 model that Jimmy Smith popularized, or the famed Moog synthesizers and Mellotrons which became integral parts of psychedelic and progressive rock. Stevie Wonder’s use alone of the TONTO synthesizer, a massive instrument that was key to his amazing run of 1970s albums and singles in particular, wrote such approaches directly into the wider discourse of pop music. As the late seventies approached, initial developments by companies such as Yamaha, Casio and Roland in the realm of cheaper and more portable digital synths in particular were already well under way, all while the general groundwork for what became known generally as synthpop was being laid worldwide.
No one artist or act was the core source of synthpop, much less even one scene, but notable figures had already established themselves as the 1970s were ending. In Germany, Kraftwerk had evolved over time into a purely electronic and vocals act, with a formal visual aesthetic to match their simultaneously icy and warmly catchy songs, while Giorgio Moroder and his creative team were applying synth bass work and other electronic elements to his successful string of disco productions, particularly with Donna Summer and Sparks. In New York, the underground band Suicide, themselves having been working for years as a confrontational vocal/organ duo, gained new attention in the wake of punk, while in Japan the veteran musicians who formed Yellow Magic Orchestra started presenting their own technological visions. David Bowie and Brian Eno took note of all this and more during their late 1970s collaborations, and soon a slew of UK musicians in particular were taking visual, sonic and artistic inspiration from all the above and more, a trend that started to go fully overground in 1979 and 1980. What initially seemed like a couple of fluke smashes in particular from acts like M and Gary Numan, though, was only the start of an incipient synthpop wave.
Some artists take time to find their best creative selves. In the case of Frank Tovey in the 1970s, that meant experimenting with performance art and music at university and then setting up a basic home studio when such options weren’t as easy to do. All of that meant by the time he started releasing music as Fad Gadget, as this excellent overview shows, he was already on a major artistic roll. Creepy without being off-putting, humorous without going for the easy joke, and combining electronic edge with a knack for finding unexpected hooks, on songs like “Ricky’s Hand,” “Lady Shave,” “Back to Nature” and much more, Tovey was almost without peer.
The second Human League album and last by the original lineup before Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to form Heaven 17, Travelogue shows the chilly but always powerful vibe of that first incarnation in full strength, Phil Oakey’s atypical singing voice even more perfectly suited to the dark electronic constructions around it. “The Black Hit of Space” started things off with a near horror-sf movie scenario about a song so powerful it devours the earth, while the cryptic “Being Boiled” would, in later years, provide a belated chart hit via a remix.
Didier Marouani’s inspiration to create a theme song in 1976 for a TV program about astrology turned out to be the key not only for his biggest success but much more; retitled “Magic Fly” and released as a single the following year, it became a European smash, both of the moment and foretelling the electronic dance revolution to follow. The full debut album is a mix of faster and slower energy, but the full band create an engaging sound throughout, the three keyboardists and live drummer excelling on songs like “Fasten Seat Belt” and “Flying Nightmare.”
Who knows how history might have gone if the John Foxx-led era of Ultravox was able to stick around for more releases after Systems of Romance, but given the multiple resulting projects that gained success in their own right as well as the veneration of the album among synthpop stars to follow, maybe the split was what needed to happen in the end. As it stands, Systems is a remarkable listen, Foxx’s at once precise and dreamily-delivered singing set against astonishing electronic-led arrangements on standouts like “Slow Motion” and “Quiet Men.”
Following a collaboration with Giorgio Moroder that resulted in their sleek “Life in Tokyo” single, a clear step away from the enjoyable if self-consciously trashy glam rock of their first two albums, Japan worked with Roxy Music producer John Punter to bear down more clearly on an electronic-driven approach. Quiet Life was the result, and while it’s the work of a band in transition, it’s a fascinating and entertaining one — the title track in particular audibly predicts where acts like Duran Duran were soon to follow, quick, shimmering and elegantly melancholic.
Sparks were already almost a decade into their formal career when, on top of everything else they’d already done, they collaborated with Giorgio Moroder and almost single-handedly invented synth-pop. With disco’s drive, electronics galore and Russell Mael’s angelic delivery of his brother Ron’s wryly funny observations on life, love and lust — not to mention God’s chart-topping single — it’s an explosive, shimmering delight.
A delightful concept album in the best sense of the word, I Remember Yesterday found Summer and her key collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte creating a tour through the history of 20th century popular dance music through the lens of disco, all within the space of 35 minutes. The salutes to big band and soul and r&b were certainly great but the killer touch was the final number representing the future: “I Feel Love.” An all-electronic anthem aside from Summer’s voice and kick drums by Keith Forsey, it was a smash hit that became a standard.
Seeing the arc of Cabaret Voltaire over the course of these years and styles is one of those slightly disorienting experiences, in that even with the notable lineup change occasioned by Chris Watson’s departure in 1981 it’s all clearly the same band using carefully different approaches as they see fit. And who can blame them: whether it’s the defiantly lo-fi “Do the Mussolini,” the blasting “Nag Nag Nag” or the later, almost surprising commercial successes of “Just Fascination” or “Sensoria,” their command of electronic aggression was unparalleled.
John Foxx’s split from Ultravox allowed him to focus on an even more purely electronic approach when it came to his solo career, and his resulting debut effort, Metamatic, turned out to be a defining example of synthpop’s incipient years, down to the iconic cover of an elegantly spare Foxx touching a glowing screen. Mysterious but always catchy meditations on identity and technology, heavily informed by J. G. Ballard’s work, formed the core, with singles like “Underpass” and “No-One Driving” matched by deeper cuts such as “He’s a Liquid” and “030.”
The debut album by M is a curious beast in respects, in that it’s very audibly the work of someone whose more singer-songwriter roots are on bemused, quizzical display, sometimes to a fault on songs like “Moderne Man/Satisfy Your Lust” and the deeply wry “Moonlight and Muzak.” But whatever the effect of the dabbling, on “Pop Muzik” in particular he hit a total bullseye, his style perfectly matched to the electronics to create not only a classic one-hit-wonder of a single but one that lasted, an early synthpop classic almost in spite of itself.
David Bowie barely lost any time in following up Low with the same core creative team, all while he was assisting on Iggy Pop’s own new standouts in The Idiot and Lust for Life and helping him tour them. “Heroes” as an album is now almost overshadowed by its title track, as majestic a sorrowful anthem for ‘regular people’ as has ever been written, with Robert Fripp’s guest guitar the final touch. But highlights abound on the album, from the energetic openers “Beauty and the Beast” and “Joe the Lion” to another clutch of reflective, subtle instrumentals as on Low.
With The Man-Machine Kraftwerk approached a new refinement of their aesthetic, the switch to an all electronic approach now complemented by a more honed focus on individual songs and less on murmuring instrumental experiments. In combination with the clean, sleek images on the precisely designed cover, acting as “The Robots,” as the opening song details, Kraftwerk codified the idea of electronic pop as being simultaneously inhuman and incredibly human, as striking songs like the future UK chart-topper “The Model” and “Neon Lights” demonstrated.
The debut effort by Visage turned out to be a near-instant synthpop classic, the equivalent of a supergroup for an electronic scene but perhaps crucially one formed by up-and-comers rather than jaded veterans as such. With Steve Strange as a surprisingly engaging frontman, able to both deliver big and with quiet focus, as on the smash single “Fade to Grey,” the collective worked up a series of great performances, such as the scuzzy clip of “Tar,” the quietly unsettling “Mind of a Toy” and the bravura title track, an opening number acting as overall theme song.
With the success of their self-titled effort under their belts, the central trio decided to go all in on the Yellow Magic Orchestra, with even more access to new electronic instruments and general support to go along with their ambitions. It paid off in the most remarkable way, with Solid State Survivor becoming a landmark success in Japan and further building their reputation worldwide. Songs like “Technopolis,” “Absolute Ego Dance” and “Rydeen” had the alienated pulse of Kraftwerk mixed with a strange giddy joy, and they could even cover “Day Tripper” just because.
Riding high on his breakthrough success with Replicas, Gary Numan entered the studio for his follow up with an expanded backing band and doubtless hopes that he could achieve even more the next time around — which turned out to be a hell of an understatement. Thanks to the international success of “Cars,” a spectacular example of electronic pop possibilities in the form of a chilly, heavy jam, The Pleasure Principle became a new wave standard, including such key Numan songs as “Metal,” the brooding punch of “Films” and the unsettled ballad “Complex.”
Enthralled by Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine, Trevor Horn and his Buggles collaborator Geoff Downes aimed to create an English equivalent on their debut album The Age of Plastic, something which the cover art alone definitely nodded to in various ways. Certainly the sonics and subtle humor were there as well, as numbers like “The Plastic Age,” “I Love You (Miss Robot)” and more showed, but one number dominates above all: “Video Killed The Radio Star,” their funny, danceable monster hit single that famously was MTV’s first broadcast choice ever.