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?