GENTLEMEN TAKE POLAROIDS

The stereo in our living area has an old Sony CD player that clunks a bit but still works fine. I could replace it, but it has a capacity that is sometimes very useful. It is a five-disc changer. For those unfamiliar with such fancy modern technology, this machine allows you to load up to five CDs at once. At once! You can play them in order or press Shuffle, thus generating a random playlist from five albums simultaneously. Try that with a turntable, Luddites!

Anyway, yesterday I was working on a large project for the record store: writing introductions to the twenty main music categories for the web site. It’s an odd list; part musicological, part marketing, which kind of makes sense if you are running a business.

The intro I was working on yesterday was the last one to be drafted: Synth Pop. Apparently it sells pretty well and thus earned itself a star on the homepage of fame. Coming up with a way to distinguish synth pop from electronica was making my brain go a bit bleepy, so for inspiration I loaded up the old Sony with a bunch of CDs, hit ‘Shuffle’ and made a cocktail. A ‘B-52’, since you asked.

These are the albums I chose:

Gary Numan — The Pleasure Principle [Beggars Banquet, 1979]

Yellow Magic Orchestra — x∞Multiples [A&M, 1980]

Echo & The Bunnymen — Crocodiles [Sire, 1980]

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark — Architecture & Morality [Dindisc, 1981]

Japan — Exorcising Ghosts [Virgin, 1984]

Really wanting to feel the era, I donned a pale blue jacket (the shoulder pads adding confidence-building centimetres to my upper body) over a lovely pink polo top—the fortuitous byproduct of a white shirt sharing the wash with some red socks. Wishing to join in the fun, Ms Connection slipped into some let’s-get-physical lycra. Having discarded her woollen leggings some years ago, she wrapped a couple of scarves around her calves. I said that the calf-scarf could catch on. She said, shut up and make me a ‘Slippery Nipple’. She really is the party animal at Chez Vinyl Connection.

And off we bopped. Well, sometimes we bopped. 

I’d forgotten how pleasingly downbeat much of Gary Numan’s early material is. There’s a stripped back, almost skeletal feel to much of the album that holds up very well forty years later. ‘Cars’ is just great; a whiney paean to isolation (as noted in a previous GN post). As is the whole album, actually. My re-issue has a bunch of bonus tracks, which doesn’t always enhance the experience but in this case did, thank you very much.

David Sylvian doesn’t really bop, does he? He kind of croons in a distracted, rather mournful way that always reminds me of rain falling on a Japanese garden. Even though I’ve not been to Japan. I have most of the Japan albums on vinyl, but this CD compilation is a fabulous introduction to their mannered, moody music. Gentlemen do prefer Polaroids, you know.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark are downbeat too, even when singing about those different but equally hot potatoes, architecture and morality. Might need to consult Alan Partridge on that one. There’s an impressionism in OMD’s music I like, and not just in the slightly tortured vocals that were all the rage at the time. Paul Humphries and Andy McCluskey are not afraid to throw some dissonance into the mix, which adds much-needed ozone to the sequenced synth lines and New Romantic vocals. “Joan of Arc” was a ripper of a single, making it into the Top 5 in the UK and Canada. The original LP has a wonderful cut-out cover, while the 2007 CD re-issue has bonus tracks and a DVD with videos and a live performance.

Yellow Magic Orchestra were formed in Japan in 1978 by Haruomi Hosono (bass, keyboards, vocals), Yukihiro Takahashi (drums, lead vocals) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (keyboards, vocals). Their extensive use of electronic instruments and effects, couple with a deadpan humour (covering the lounge exotica of Martin Denny, for example) marked them as innovators in the emerging field of electropop. I cannot locate my copy of Solid State Survivor, their best album, which is worrying. It may have fallen through a glitch in the space-time continuum or have been misfiled. Either way I may never see it again. No matter, x∞Multiples is better than many rate it, as long as your tastes run to vocoder vocals and electronic disco. Worth it for “Technopolis” and the cover of “Day Tripper” alone.

Echo & The Bunnymen passed me by first time around. Which is probably why I didn’t realise until most of the album had played that they are a rock band rather than a synth-pop band. Guitars, drums, the works. See how important research is? Crocodile is a fine album, nevertheless. I like it when Ian McCulloch does his English Jim Morrison thing, like on “Rescue” and his Joy Division thing on “All That Jazz”. And the cover art by Brian Griffin is amazing; all lurid neo-gothic woodlands and well-coiffured despair.

You’ll be relieved to hear the multi-play synth-pop session proved sufficiently inspiring and a 200 word into was duly sequenced. Here’s an excerpt…

Synth Pop as a genre really exploded in the early 80s with the arrival of small, versatile keyboards and a range of programmable drum machines. While Kraftwerk (Germany) and Yellow Magic Orchestra (Japan) are considered two of the major influencers, it was a UK scene that included Gary Numan, Japan, Ultravox and Depeche Mode that really spread the synth word through the clubs of Britain and up charts across the world.

Finally, here are my favourite synth pop albums from the period.

#5 Kraftwerk — Computer World [Kling Klang 1981]

#4 Yellow Magic Orchestra — Solid State Survivor [Alfa 1979]

#3 Japan — Gentlemen Take Polaroids [Virgin, 1980]

#2 Gary Numan — The Pleasure Principle [Beggars Banquet, 1979]

#1 Ultravox — Vienna [Chrysalis, 1980]

What are yours?

51 comments

  1. I enjoy Kraftwerk, but I struggle with the early 1980s synth pop that I’ve heard – I didn’t like The Buggles’ Age of Plastic or early Talk Talk. Feels like simplicity is part of the Kraftwerk ethos, but it’s a bit grating on the early 1980s records. You’ve got me interested in Yellow Magic Orchestra though, and I should check out Japan since I like Sylvian’s solo records.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article on the first music I could both dance to and listen to on headphones -Japan’s Tin Drum was my fav along with everything from Depeche/Yazoo/Erasure and Tears For Fears’ first one. Thomas Dolby’s first was also a classic. Kraftwork preceeded then all and were key -I agree on ComputerWorld being best along with Man Machine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like we hit one of your seams of youthful enjoyment, Douglas. Excellent! Are you a fan of Sylvian’s solo work too? I rate both Brilliant Trees and Gone to Earth very highly indeed.

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      1. Yes major fan – got to see him 3x – Secrets of Behive tour, Everything and Nothing tour, and Sylvian/Fripp – my fav is Gone to Earth with Dead Bees a close second – in a departure from the norm in terms of artists I follow closely, his last 3 albums for me are unlistenable and am hoping he comes back to melody!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Love the Sylvian-Fripp collaboration, Doug. Have that live album and would have loved to see it performed. Yes, I’ve drifted away from Mr S over recent albums. Still, a fine catalogue.

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  3. My parents have a similarly newfangled 5-CD player, I know that medium well!
    Fabulous post Bruce – when I get to Numan/OMD/Echo on the 1001 list, I think I will have to be sporting calf-scarves to optimize the listening experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure that will enhance the listening, Geoff. Failing that, put a sweater around your shoulders, carelessly knotted at the front. That’s sure to do the trick.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Synth pop eh? Umm… I’ll have a look and see what I’ve got… nope! Unless some Miami Vice soundtrack albums count?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funny you should say that. I got the inspiration for my 80s outfit from a pic of Crockett and Tubbs (or whatever their names were). And Jan Hammer did the music, yes?

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      1. He did aye. And it’s a beautiful thing. Like the outfits.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Have just pulled a Miami Vice CD out of hiding. Set for tomorrow’s drive to work.
      Thanks.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Behind the wheel of your Porsche and wearing pastels, natch.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Well done for featuring CDs BTW! I hear they’re coming back…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And cassettes too!

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  6. Thom Lieb · · Reply

    This brings back lots of good musical memories. But it also makes me realize I never really explored Yellow Magic Orchestra. I have to correct that situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are often overlooked, Thom. Partially because they swung between clever and kitsch on quite short leads. But worth seeking out for those of use intrigued by electronic music in all its forms.

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  7. Vince Clark, Prince of Synthpop, first with Depeche Mode, then with Alison Moyet in Yaz, and later with Andy Bell (another synthpop genius – that voice!) in Erasure. Good piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And thanks for a bit of extra data on Vince Clark. I loved Alison Moyet’s first solo album (though I don’t recall whether he was on it).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Not a big synth pop fan, and had actually never even heard of Yellow Magic Orchestra or Japan. Wish I could drop by the 80’s bar scene you’ve got going on at Chez Vinyl Connection, though…think I could probably dredge up some retro clothing in which to sip an amusingly named cocktail! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The cocktail research was a major part of this expose, JDB. And I have the headache to prove it.
      Will send an invite prior to the next retro rave up. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cheers! 😉

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  9. Wow you’re a bad influence, and not just in a fashion sense. We’re restricting our YouTube intake, after all those warnings of brain cell loss and chromosomal damage, but this post prompted me to over an hour’s exposure to OMD. A massive dose of MTV full-synthetic – – hair, keyboards, strange blouses, frock coats, etc. And I think it was nice of McCluskey to wear all those sweaters knitted by his mom in the videos. OMD has historical references!? (I was a history major) videos with the band reading books, playing chess, Enola Gay, and…Louise Brooks?! (Her silent film clips were absolutely the highlight of this video binge) Joan of Arc wandered by twice, I think. The 100 Year’s War and atomic bombs reduced to synth-pop. And then “Radio Prague” which was pretty funny.
    When they weren’t doing Pretty in Pink stuff, they actually had a very cool sound.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fell into Joan’s arc, eh Robert? Or perhaps OMD’s. Enjoyed your response very much indeed.
      Can’t say anything about the film clips, but ‘Dazzle Ships’ is an unusual and interesting listen too.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Well your post arrived slap-bang in the middle of an 80’s revival in my house, led by my son who, never having had to suffer that decade, loves it unreservedly. We’re very much in the Heaven 17 camp over here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Trying to lay your H17 camp on us, eh? We don’t need no fascist groove thang, ya ken?

      Liked by 1 person

  11. not really a fan of any of these aside from a sneaking admiration for (and fond memories of)The Bunnymen and, as you say, they’re not big on synths. One band I do like is Yello who might fit into the category. Whatever, they were great fun, something missing from most synth pop. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50pl9u6tyTc

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yello do indeed fall under the synth pop umbrella. Or perhaps that should be inside the synth pop envelope? There’s quite a lot of straight-faced fun with YMO too, though generally the New Romantics were a pretty po-faced lot. 🙂

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  12. Very nice. I could feel the multiverse closing in on me as I took the synth pop turn in the eighties instead of the navel gazing prog rock turn I took in real life. I do however love OMD and the Bunnymen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A kind of Sliding Doors experience, Neil? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh! A nod to Sliding Doors. Terrific film. In fact, the only film I have on DVD and have actually watched twice.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Synth pop, eh? I have a Gary Numan record (Replicas, though that’s almost a Tubeway Army album, huh?) and, well, I think that’s it. Does some of Robert Palmer’s stuff count? Y’know, cause Clues is kinda synth pop, right? That would be my favourite. And Duran Duran aren’t really synth pop, are they?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A big tick for all of those, J. And indeed, your contribution emphasises how those 80s synth flavours influences bands outside that (rather limited) designation.
      As I recall, ‘Clues’ was one of the first synth-pop hits I actually really liked!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As you know, I’ve only recently discovered Clues, but I’ve been really taken by it. It’s an exceptional album. Worth revisiting if you find time.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t have it, but based on our interchange and the memories of the two singles, I reckon I’d grab it in a moment if I saw it, J.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Excellent, and if I see another copy during any of my digs I’ll send it over to you! (there’s no limit to the efforts I’ll make to spread the Palmer enthusiasm!)

          Hurrah!

          Liked by 1 person

        3. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for clues…

          Liked by 1 person

        4. Seems I missed a Looking for Clues opportunity there. Gah.

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Familiar with some of these. The Sylvian/Fripp thing has been on my radar.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Yellow Magic Orchestra – brilliant piece of classic electronica.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Tis indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. A “B-52” for a cocktail. Great name! That Gary Numan album was required in every dorm room at my college, I’m positive. 😉 – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seems like of those UK synth-pop bands, Gary did better than many in crossing the Atlantic.
      You want I should send you the B-52 recipe, Marty? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll never turn a good cocktail recipe down, Bruce! snakesinthegrass2014@gmail.com

        Liked by 1 person

  17. FYI – the copy of Xoo Multiplies you’ve got is the American version, which was actually a hybrid of the original release and Solid State Survivor. I believe the original SSS never came out in America. The “real” Xoo Multiplies is an odd beast, with comedy sketches (some in English) and a cover of “Tighten Up”. There exists a very strange video of them performing it “live” on Soul Train which is one of the most truly bizarre videos on YouTube.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you sir! I’m in your debt for solving a mystery. I think that is why I culled Solid State Survivor many years ago – the duplication (still a dumb move, though). Everyone should check out the video too, it’s absolutely balmy and brilliant. And the Kraftwerk influence made overt too!
      Don’t often receive new data on things I post, so I’m most grateful.
      – Bruce

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  18. As you belatedly realized Echo and the Bunnymen not synth pop by virtue of not having a keyboard player (used to have a drum machine in the early days though). No pastel colors for them, singlehandedly they revitalized the overcoat. On the other hand their Liverpool rival The Teardrop Explodes could just about make a claim for a great synth pop band.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being much more familiar with Julian Cope’s solo output than his Teardrop Explodes era, I’ll bow to your greater knowledge there moulty.

      I like overcoats, so I”m glad to have finally got on board with Echo and the B-men.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Thought of another couple specific albums I would call synth pop – the first Tears for Fears, about 2/3 of Blancmange’s catalog and the second Colourfield record, Deception which is an enduring favorite

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t know Colourfield, so thanks for the lead!

      Like

  20. I can believe the Sony 5-platter CD changer but you’ve got to be kidding with the cocktails and the dressing up, right, VC?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sings: “Would I lie to you?”

      Liked by 1 person

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