Where to start with ’80s U.K. synth-pop

Where to start with ’80s U.K. synth-pop

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: ’80s U.K. synth-pop.

U.K. synth-pop 101

As with many strains of music, the ’80s U.K. synth-pop scene can be traced back to David Bowie. In 1976, Thin White Duke-era Bowie released Station To Station, which embellished his soul-boogie shambling with flourishes of Moog and Mellotron keyboards. The following year’s Low and Heroes dove into full-blown futurism by emphasizing hollowed-out synthesizer atmospherics and unnerving electronic sounds. Of course, Bowie in turn was himself influenced by the primitive electronic masterminds making noise in Germany—from Kraftwerk and its keyboard minimalism to Can and Neu! and both bands’ penchant for gently undulating rhythms—and his fellow glam chameleons Roxy Music also had great affection for synthesizer experiments.

What all these acts had in common was a keen awareness that they were sketching out a whole new approach to music using the increasingly accessible (and increasingly affordable) technology. They didn’t necessarily need to rely on existing blueprints; they could create their own traditions. This way of thinking was inspirational to countless musicians—including Sheffield, England, computer programmers Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who formed a band called the Future in 1977 that later became the Human League when vocalist Philip Oakey joined. The group’s earliest music—highlighted by the bubbling-tar debut single “Being Boiled” and the Giorgio-Moroder-goes-goth surge “Empire State Human”—felt beamed in from an ice-coated planet, between Oakey’s vocal paranoia, programming inspired by Moroder’s otherworldly disco production, and robotic keyboard compositions. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bowie was widely reported to be a fan of the band.)

During this late ’70s period, The Human League was in good company. Fellow Sheffield keyboard warriors Cabaret Voltaire dabbled in confrontational industrial-punk on singles such as “Nag Nag Nag.” London native Daniel Miller formed a label called Mute Records to release a bratty, buzz-sawing single called “Warm Leatherette”/“T.V.O.D.” under the moniker The Normal; the next year, Mute released a churning electronic single called “Back To Nature” by Fad Gadget. And Gary Numan was incrementally moving away from his band Tubeway Army’s more conventional punk and embracing eerie, synth-forward music—a push-pull embodied by the desolation-orbiting outer space jam “Down In The Park” and the 1979 No. 1 U.K. single, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” on which clashing guitars melded with burbling keyboard melodies.

Numan’s inroads on the pop charts—another No. 1 U.K. single, “Cars,” became an early new wave classic—dovetailed with the success of several other 1979 electro-pop songs, including M’s “Pop Muzik” and the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.” While it’s true the latter hits perhaps succeeded due to their novelty, there was a clear stylistic shift occurring: As keyboards became less of a luxury item, more artists were able to obtain and experiment with them. Not just the technology was fascinating, however; so were the futuristic sounds these synths could create. In the wake of punk’s messy aggression, the precision promulgated by electronic music was its own kind of rebellion.

And so as the 1980s dawned, synth-pop started having a greater cultural impact in the U.K. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark built on the momentum created by its chirpy, eco-conscious 1979 single “Electricity” and released the bubbly, anti-war synth-pop statement “Enola Gay.” Recovered glam rockers Ultravox—with new frontman Midge Ure at the helm—retooled as a sleek electronic band and released 1980’s Vienna, which spawned the dramatic title track and the jittery “Sleepwalk.”

Synth-pop’s first really huge mainstream-crashing moments came in 1981, thanks to a reshuffled Human League. After Ware and Marsh left the group in 1980—reportedly in part because Numan’s success eclipsed them, as well as because of personality conflicts—Oakey recruited vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley. The first LP with this new lineup, 1981’s Dare, was a sugary smash that lightened up the group’s turgid electronic textures (the schmaltz-pop of “Love Action (I Believe In Love)”) and calibrated its propulsive disco for the dance floor (a saccharine “Open Your Heart,” the flailing “The Sound Of The Crowd”). Dare’s true genius, however, was how it never skimped on thematic substance: “Don’t You Want Me” has a well-crafted, he-said/she-said storyline, while “Seconds” addresses JFK’s assassination.

As the Human League enjoyed mainstream success, a fresh-faced troupe of synth geeks from Basildon, Essex known as Depeche Mode also started making waves. With heartthrob Dave Gahan at the forefront—and keyboard enthusiast Vince Clarke handling songwriting duties—the group put a frothy, almost teenybopper spin on synth-pop with its 1981 debut, Speak & Spell. The minimalist keyboards matched the band’s simplistic lyrics, which were charmingly abstract, if not clunky in spots (e.g., “I take pictures / Photographic pictures”). Still, the innocence of songs such as “Dreaming Of Me” and “New Life” belied twinges of melancholy, a trait for which Depeche Mode soon became known. Not all of this early synth-pop was pious. A month after Depeche Mode released Speak & Spell, Soft Cell unleashed Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. Although most known for its re-do of the soul obscurity “Tainted Love,” the LP is a peek at clubland’s underbelly—from the sax-adorned “Seedy Films” to the disorienting, lurid “Sex Dwarf.”

What separated synth-pop from, say pop music with synths—or categories such as new wave—remained (and remains) a point of contention. For example, Ultravox’s Ure and Billy Currie had a hand in Visage’s 1981 hit “Fade To Grey”—a song not far from early Human League’s gray scale electro, but one widely labeled as a New Romantic staple instead. And the London group Japan—whose meticulous music put a modern spin on debonair glam-pop—shared the synth-pop scene’s sense of adventure, but was also lumped in with the New Romantics. Even in its infancy, the U.K. synth-pop scene was diverse and hard to pin down.

Intermediate Work

The number of synth-pop bands grew quickly in the early ’80s, buoyed by the success of these innovators. After leaving Depeche Mode post-Speak & Spell, Vince Clarke formed the duo Yazoo (known in the U.S. as Yaz) with Alison Moyet. Between the former’s moody keyboards and the latter’s husky, multi-range voice, songs such as “Only You” and “Nobody’s Diary” ached with longing; Moyet’s bluesy vocal surges on the peppier “Don’t Go” and “Situation,” meanwhile, ensured the songs became influential dance-soul classics.

Early Human League members Ware and Marsh, meanwhile, formed the production crew/band B.E.F. (British Electric Foundation) and then concurrently launched the funk-inspired Heaven 17, whose own prominent attempt at merging soul/R&B and modern keyboards–1983’s “Temptation”—hit No. 2 on the U.K. singles charts. And a few years removed from Joy Division’s tragic end, New Order released the delicate, motorik single “Temptation” (no relation); the 1982 7-inch preceded the release of 1983’s Power, Corruption & Lies, a keyboard-focused LP that brightened up the group’s dour music without losing its trademark claustrophobic introspection.

For bands, keyboards made these kinds of stylistic metamorphoses easier than ever; breaking with the past and achieving a total career makeover was actually attainable—and attainable quickly. Thompson Twins—which began life as a rather pedestrian post-punk band—decided to go full-on synth-pop starting with 1983’s Quick Step And Side Kick, after the American success of “In The Name Of Love,” and grew into global superstars. Depeche Mode ditched the fluffy veneer and descended into a murky, sparse electro groove on 1982’s underrated A Broken Frame and 1983’s Construction Time Again, with occasional flashes of accessible pop brilliance (“Everything Counts”) for balance. And Eurythmics shed their initial electro-Kraut direction—a Stereolab-presaging style that today sounds entirely forward-thinking—for 1983’s Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), a chilly electropop LP driven by Annie Lennox’s soul/gospel voice.

Thanks to MTV and the parallel burgeoning music video movement, this new technology also ushered in a whole different brand of pop star, one for which striking imagery went hand-in-hand with striking music. Lennox became known for her androgynous look, and was masterful at leveraging video to make subtle feminist statements. A Flock Of Seagulls frontman Mike Score’s triangular coiffure almost overshadowed the band’s music (a shame, since their frantic, atmospheric self-titled debut LP—which spawned the hits “I Ran (So Far Away)“ and bittersweet “Space Age Love Song”—deserves better than derision). Wales-raised musician Howard Jones, who hit a nerve with the twee “New Song” and the mysterious, chin-stroking “What Is Love?,” used a mime, colorful jumpsuits, and an impressively feathered ’do to augment his concert array of keyboard and synth gear.

Naturally, this emphasis on image ensured plenty of synth-pop space junk hit the charts, songs that were plenty original and attention-getting but had no staying power. On the flipside, plenty of ephemeral acts created indelible songs, including B-Movie (“Nowhere Girl”), Freur (“Doot-Doot”), Re-Flex (“The Politics Of Dancing”), and Kajagoogoo (“Too Shy”). But Jones’ success (and enduring career) illustrates an important point: Although synthesizer technology certainly accelerated the career ascent of many artists, ultimately it was no replacement for strong songwriting. The Human League unfortunately discovered this the hard way post-Dare. Although the sing-songy “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” and Motown-inspired “Mirror Man” kept the group high in the charts through 1983, 1984’s Hysteria LP was uneven, a forced version of what people thought The Human League should sound like.

And by this time, treading water simply wasn’t good enough: In the three years since Dare, synth-pop had become more sophisticated. ABC’s Trevor Horn-produced 1982 LP, The Lexicon Of Love, was a sleek collection of blue-eyed soul and shimmering cabaret pop driven by sharp horn stabs and Martin Fry’s keening lounge lizard delivery, while that same year’s The Golden Age Of Wireless by Thomas Dolby (who had played keyboards on Foreigner’s 4) was a well-orchestrated collection with a symphonic vibe. Talk Talk’s flippant name and middling chart success was no reflection on the band’s actual creative output; its dreamy, tempered electronic textures and Mark Hollis’ conspiratorial vocals were influential on ambient music and soundtrack work. And Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” was even more affecting; the song tells the story of a gay teenager leaving home in the wake of bullying and lack of acceptance for his sexuality. Frontman Jimmy Somerville’s fragile falsetto, when coupled with solemn percolating synths and the painful lyrics, made the tune a bold political statement.

Advanced Studies

By the middle of the decade, synth-pop became even more normalized. No longer were keyboards something foreign-sounding; in the technology-obsessed ’80s, they were the sound of a future that had finally arrived. The genre itself also started to sound brasher and more confident, aided by the rapidly improving (and even more accessible) synthesizer technology, as well as the knowledge that synth-pop was no longer a mainstream pariah.

Well, for the most part—as Frankie Goes To Hollywood proved, bands in the genre could still cause controversy even as they courted success. The band’s thundering single “Relax” dominated 1984, despite being banned in the U.K. by most of the BBC stations for being “obscene,” even though its lyrics were more of a suggestive (albeit obvious) tease than anything else. (A hedonistic video set in a gay bar didn’t help the band’s case, however.) Frankie’s suggestive anti-war follow-up, “Two Tribes,” also created problems; the video’s explicit political commentary held nothing back. Incredibly, the producer behind these songs was Buggles member Trevor Horn, who had signed the band to the label he had co-founded, ZTT Records. ZTT prided itself on promoting fractured, provocative takes on synth-pop—including records by the Art Of Noise, who wielded samples and a groundbreaking, cut-and-paste creative approach.

Synth-pop’s initial innovators kept up with the times, with varying results. The Human League worked with Minneapolis funk dream team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on 1986’s Crash, emerging with a contemporary-sounding LP that was perfectly pleasant. (To the band’s credit, however, the mega-hit “Human”—on the surface a plea for romantic forgiveness—has a self-serving twist that gives the song bite.) Depeche Mode, meanwhile, continued down a darker and more rewarding path, incorporating industrial-tinged sounds and aggressive synth programming, as well as pointed social critiques. Dave Gahan became an increasingly confident frontman, his commanding baritone and stage presence a contrast with Martin Gore’s wispier vocals and evocative, vulnerable songwriting. 1986’s Black Celebration remains a synth-goth totem, the perfect balance of moody disaffection and pop gems.

After his group the Assembly didn’t take off—save for the trembling hit “Never Never”—Vince Clarke hit the jackpot with his third major group, Erasure. Frontman Andy Bell’s soaring, operatic-tinged vocals and emotionally open lyrics were the perfect foil for Clarke’s glittering analog synth trills and chiming arpeggios, as heard on “Sometimes” and “A Little Respect.” Erasure’s popularity was preceded by the arrival of another duo, Pet Shop Boys. The pair—composed of former music journalist Neil Tennant and one-time architect Chris Lowe—specialized in droll romanticism and critiques of commercialism and capitalism, themes amplified by their impeccable electronic textures and crisp dance beats.

As Pet Shop Boys underscored, synth-pop and the ever-influential dance-pop movement were nearly interchangeable by the end of the decade. On some level, this was a natural progression—after all, the line between the genres was always blurry to begin with, with disco as a major original influence. And this conflation frequently produced great work. For example, the songwriting-production team of (Mike) Stock (Matt) Aitken (Pete) Waterman grew into the Max Martins and Shellbacks of its day: The trio created a sheaf of glossy, dance floor-calibrated hits for artists such as modern girl-group Bananarama (“Venus”), flamboyant electro-pop act Dead Or Alive (“You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”), Australian ex-pat Kylie Minogue (“I Should Be So Lucky”), and R&B/soul crooner Rick Astley (“Never Gonna Give You Up”).

But despite the unbeatable ear candy, it’s tough to reconcile that synth-pop was simply subsumed by other electronic genres. Synth-pop always had a more cerebral edge despite its synthetic foundation. The genre’s major players were restless and curious, and interested in critical examinations of society, politics and the status quo. If anything, synth-pop’s legacy is defined not only by its seismic musical impact, but by the thoughtful way it went about addressing (and affecting) cultural change.

The Essentials

1. The Human League, Dare (1981)
Synth-pop’s major chart crasher was also one of its finest moments, a conglomeration of tradition—including girl-group harmonies and classic soul/R&B—and avant-garde electronics.

2. Thomas Dolby, The Golden Age Of Wireless (1982)
Historians will note “She Blinded Me With Science” was tacked onto the LP after it became a hit; The Golden Age Of Wireless in its original form is a pristine electronic collection that both celebrates technology and greets it with skepticism. Cue up the wistful “Airwaves”; start the waterworks.

3. Depeche Mode, Black Celebration (1986)
A late-night record alternating between brittle ballads and industrial-sounding synth-pop—a poignant tug of war between man and machine.

4. Howard Jones, Dream Into Action (1985)
Although Human’s Lib is the more pure synth-pop specimen, this 1985 LP is a better example of Jones’ relentless optimism.

5. Pet Shop Boys, Please (1986)
Debut albums rarely sound so fully formed and confident—but then again, few groups are Pet Shop Boys, who toss off sharp-tongued, minimalist electro-pop and sparking club jams with incredible ease.

6. BBC Four’s Synth Britannia documentary
Between the vintage footage and the comprehensive roster of interviewees, this synth-pop chronicle is must-see viewing.