Close to the Noise Floor

Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984

by Hans Rollman

4 May 2016


Has the Digital Revolution Helped or Hindered?

Mgr />Today’s world is a far cry from the DIY culture of the ‘80s. Google and the Internet allow fans and musicians alike access to a wealth of ideas and diversity without having to leave one’s room; thousands of music-related apps can be downloaded for free or minimal cost. Even hi-tech equipment is widely accessible to rent, borrow or buy second-hand. Has the surfeit of technology improved the scene? Or has it detracted from its DIY ethic?

“It’s a bit of both, it’s like a double-edged sword,” says Bowes. “[When I built my own studio] it cost a fortune - just to get a noisy little digital delay would be a few hundred pounds. And now you can get a much better one as a free plug-in! And that’s great, you know, that’s fantastic.”

“Now people are a bit overdosed in massive technology and I think they can flounder in it all a bit, they don’t know what to do. You can spend hours going through thousands of snare drum sounds, whereas I used to have one on my 808 machine and I’d go and put it through effects and be creative with it. There is almost like an overdose of technology really in terms of creating music. I realize I mess about sometimes with things, experimenting, which I perhaps didn’t need to do. “

“At the same time it’s got the positive side, it enables people to do music that perhaps they couldn’t have afforded to, or just couldn’t. Or hadn’t got the space even, you know it used to take up a lot of space. And then there’s the other side of the digital revolution, you know everyone puts out their own music. Which again is great but you’re swamped with millions of songs everywhere and you almost need a filter.”

Bowes points out that in the 20th century, magazines and radio hosts filtered the music out there and helped curate it for fans. He points out the importance of people like radio host John Peel, who sought out innovative acts and introduced them to fans. In today’s world, the role of prominent curated filters for music has largely disappeared, with fans mostly hunting down their own music on the Internet. This can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to miss a lot, he reflects. He thinks the role of filters like the John Peel show will return eventually.

Foxx, meanwhile, feels that although musicians have ‘professionalized’ the genre, it may have come at the cost of originality.

“An era has clearly passed—just as the era of Hollywood or the newsreel or the radio passed. Some of these forms still survive, but in a less central role—because new technological media arrived that are better able to perform major parts of their function. In this case, other electronic media have usurped the previous role of music as cultural messenger for young people. The means of delivery also changed radically with the arrival of the MP3.”

The impact is more than just technological, however, it’s reshaped the entire financial model of funding experimental and underground music. 

“The resulting erosion of the previous financial infrastructure means there’s no money to support underground movements coming up from the street. These always fed new ideas into the music culture, gave it a jolt whenever it became conventional. Then they would then become the convention the next generation would overturn, and so on.”

“The destruction of that cycle, and the industry finances available to encourage it, as well as the dispersal into other media such as social networking, apps and games etc., means very little challenging music comes up from the streets now into pop music culture. The street is now electronic and Apple owns it. And, at the other end, no one is really listening. This means radical new ideas and attitudes won’t break through any longer—at least not through pop music.”

“So, musically, we’re back to the ‘50s with professionalised showbiz, artists with svengali managers, etc. Financial and media cunning, but no real intelligence. Technical ability is valued more than ideas. There will be no origination of new forms from them. The game is to retread increasingly mannered stuff, by means of new faces and an efficient PR machine. But nothing stays the same forever. I think we’re well due for a complete rethink. So let’s see what post-digital music culture looks like.”

Blancmange’s irrepressible Neil Arthur, meanwhile, insists that some things haven’t changed, even with all of today’s much more easily accessible technology. “Well the essential thing is an idea. It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve got elastic bands and tape loops going around chair legs and tupperware, or you’ve got the most sophisticated computer and all the plugins or whatever that may go into it. At the end of the day it’s the idea that counts, and unless you’ve got an idea it’s not really worth it, is it?”

Making Music in a Changing World

What’s changed since those early years of the electronic music scene? A lot. One thing that jumps out at Shreeve is the impression that music doesn’t always seem to matter the way it used to.

“I may well be wrong but I get the impression that music is of less importance to the average 20-year-old now than it was to my generation. From the ‘50s onwards rock and pop music gave younger people something unique to them, something they found for themselves without the influence of parents, teachers, etc—something to live for, you might say.”

“Sometime in the recent past, I would contend the late ‘80s, other things started to captivate teenagers: computer games and ultimately mobile phones with all the immense connectivity they give them. Music doesn’t appear to have the deep significance to youngsters now as it did once… It’s sad in one way, at least from my biased point of view, but understandable as a natural progression.”

When Shreeve was growing up though, music played a very different role. “From the outset, music was everything to me, it was my life.”

Bowes reflected on the differences as well. It was harder to find clubs that were open to new forms of music, he notes. Another significant difference is the role of merchandise at shows today. In the ‘80s, he says, no one thought of selling t-shirts or even albums at shows. Shows were about listening to music, not purchasing things. In retrospect, he thinks that a bit of commercialization in the early era, like today’s merchandise sales, could really have helped some of the struggling bands.

Arthur says that bands today need to be less concerned with worrying about what people want to hear, and more concerned with making the music they want to make. “Because if you believe in it, it’ll start to show in your music. If you absolutely believe in it, it will come true. Other people will believe it. That’s the only way you can succeed. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, because if you’re doing music that you think other people might want to hear, you’re failing. Don’t do it, don’t try and second-guess what other people might want. Just do what’s in your head. It’s a very difficult, very difficult thing. I mean I’m still learning.”

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Almost 40 years have passed since many of the bands discussed here first took to the stage. What do they feel about the way the world has changed since then? “I feel that on a general social level there is less prejudice around now,” reflects Shreeve. “There’s still plenty of it of course, but maybe not quite as virulent as 30 or 40 years ago.” Still, he notes, his generation had a lot of advantages that he doesn’t see today’s generations growing up with.

“I feel lucky that I have lived in the era that I have. When I was young our generation had everything—no world wars, free education including university, job security for most, a stable national health service, relatively cheaper homes. That’s pretty much all gone now, and who knows, it may even be the fault of my generation, we took it all for granted really. The world situation is going through one of its periodic scary phases… It may get better, it may not.”

“I think the problem is that throughout history human civilisation has been advanced by the actions of a relatively tiny number of very intelligent people. It sometimes seems like the rest of the human race would quickly return to savagery if the fragile constructs of that civilisation were removed. This has happened at various points round the world through time. It’s almost as if there are people who can hardly wait to physically express their nasty little prejudices, the only reason they don’t is because of the law… not because they have humane views.”

“Ignorance is the fuel of prejudice and nationalism, education is the key to civility.”

Attrition’s Bowes adopts a philosophical attitude: a lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same as well.

“You hear all the time that there’s a lot of terrorism. We did a show in Belgium just a few days after the bombs were there—we played a festival in Antwerp, and there was soldiers on the streets. Of course it’s terrible. Then I thought, well actually we used to have worse in England in the ‘70s. I remember being a kid and there was IRA bombs going off everywhere. It’s almost forgotten sometimes, you know. So I don’t think it’s better or worse.”

Blancmange’s Arthur is also torn between fear for the future, and his irrepressible conviction that humanity has no choice but to rise to the challenge. “I think if you asked people who are leaving their teenage years and entering their early twenties how they see the future they would say ‘I’m bloody terrified!’ So I’m absolutely with them on that, the future is terrifying…but from a creative point of view, great time to get creative! Great time to get creative! You know, now I’m going to have to dig REAL deep, because it is fucking terrifying!”

Terrified or not, he’s still excited and full of hope for it. How can he be simultaneously terrified and optimistic? In response to that, he turns fatalistic.

“We have no choice. We’re all going there. It might not be optimism when you see the news and read the papers, but we’ve no choice. We can’t go back, we’ve got to go forward, and deal with whatever is coming. There’s some dreadful things happening in the world but we have no choice but to move forward and face the challenge. But from a much less important point of view—meaning a personal point of view—in terms of creativity… I’m optimistic about what the future holds creatively. But they’re two very separate things. One a lot more serious than the other. We’ve got no choice, we’re all going there.”

Keeping At It

Unlike some of their peers on the compilation, the musicians discussed here are all still producing music, still driven by the inspirations that pushed them into the field decades ago.

After a quarter century hiatus, in 2010 Blancmange’s Arthur and Luscombe got to chatting and sharing songs again, and before they knew it they had more than enough for a new album. “Twenty-six years later it felt like we’d just gone out of the room for a little while, gone out for a cup of coffee or a beer, and then come back in and carried on,” recalls Arthur, an enthusiastic grin in his voice.

The final word goes to Attrition’s Bowes. Today, he makes his living from a variety of sources, much of it unrelated to his work with Attrition. He runs his own studio, and has taught music technology at the college level. So he balances his time between Attrition, paid studio work, and side projects. But it’s touring that he especially loves, and that show how much he’s gained from his musical career.

“Just the driving, I like spending twelve hours doing nothing and looking out the windows at the mountains. You have to be into doing it, I think. We went to Siberia a few years ago. We went on the Trans-Siberian Express. They were knocking the ice off the wheels every time it stopped—it was in January. There was peasants fishing on frozen rivers and bringing the fish on the train when it stopped to see if anyone wanted to buy any. It was weird. It was soldiers, and peasants, and lots of vodka. It was three days on the train to get to Siberia!”

“We played the gig and then we took the train back. Things like that, I don’t think you’d ever do as a holiday. There’s things about being in a band that are just amazing. They form your life, you know.”

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