The Ultimate ’80s Synth-Pop Superstar. (exclusive toon by Ho)
My taste in music is very eclectic and I have a huge number of albums by a wide variety of artists spread across many genres.
A dedicated vinyl junkie from an early age, I nevertheless finally succumbed to the tinny, soulless, glorified coaster format that is the CD in the mid nineties, surviving up until then on a diet of second hand record shops and increasingly badly made cassette tapes (a format unlikely to succeed in making a nostalgia-fueled comeback anytime soon) and now of course I have a whole pack of memory cards stuffed full of mp3 files.
My favoured method of buying music has always been to plunder second hand record shops, sale racks in local independent music stores and charity shops, looking for, well, nothing in particular.
But I’ll generally find something that I’ve never heard of (which is an important consideration; Why buy something you already know? Expand your musical horizons, there’s so much music out there you haven’t heard yet)
Whether it’s because I’ve heard an artist I liked on the same label, or I like the mix of instruments on an album, or some other indefinable something which grabs me, I’m very rarely wrong in thinking I’m going to enjoy the music I buy and I’ve discovered some fantastic things along the way.
(There is a fair sample of my vinyl and CD collection in the video I made, Klone, for which I also created the music.
If you’ve not seen it yet, you can WATCH IT HERE.)
Back in the ’80s though, things were a lot simpler.
We didn’t have dozens of sub-genres and ever-expanding categories of music types to puzzle over before we knew if were even looking in the right rack, we just had to look at the cover;
If it had men with leather trousers, open shirts, long hair and guitars (or dragons, half-naked women and flames) it was Rock.
If it had serious looking speccy nerds, trying their damndest to look surly whilst twiddling knobs on a tiny keyboard sprouting wires, (or geometric graphics/futuristic landscapes) it was synth-pop.
I’d buy 7″ and 12″ singles by bands I knew nothing about, purely on the strength of the sleeve, knowing full well that there would be some new bleepy noises and clattering electronic rhythms that I hadn’t heard before, never tiring of the range of sounds that could be achieved with this emergent new musical technology.
One of the most inventive bands from the period were a Swiss duo that featured national golfing star, poker player, industrialist and concept artist, Dieter Meier on vocals, with suave composer and musician Boris Blank on electronics, samples and pretty much everything else.
Yello are masters of peculiar noises, catchy melodies, strange vocal quirks and complex percussion patterns. Still producing their unique take on electro-pop today, they are one of the most prolific electronic groups of the last thirty years.
Sporting some of the most ludicrously styled hair in pop, A Flock of Seagulls were the indie band of synth-pop, using sweeping keyboard melodies combined with phasing guitar riffs to create some great tunes, some of which wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio today.
Here’s their greatest hits compilation, I bet you remember more hits than you realise…
Other bands I was listening to around the same time that I discovered Yello (something else my old mate Chris introduced me to) include this pioneering dance act, 400 Blows,..
…the darkly gothic electronica of Cabaret Voltaire,..
…and the oddly named Our Daughter’s Wedding
A big part of the attraction of the early synth-pop scene (or Cold Wave, to give it it’s cool genre title) was the number of earworm-heavy one (or two) hit wonders. The sort of things recently labelled “guilty pleasures”, as if we shouldn’t really be enjoying perfectly crafted, cheerfully catchy pop music, except in an ironic, patronising way.
In tribute to these glorious anthems to school disco dance floors and Christmas office parties everywhere, here are a few of my completely un-ironic favourites.
Flash and the Pan
(One of these impeccably dressed gentlemen is Karl Hyde of rave-genius duo, Underworld)
Men Without Hats
And despite not qualifying, as it falls just outside the eighties in 1979, I’m including this too.
Because in any list of great pop music, you’ve got to have Pop Muzik.
One of the things that prompted all this eighties nostalgia was the discovery of a very fine internet radio station called Soma FM and their Underground ’80s channel.
If you want to check out some more sounds from a time when all the bleepy noises were new, YOU CAN LISTEN HERE.,
Now, where did I put my leg-warmers…?