[28 April 2011]
Da Vinci was famed for many things. Technological ingenuity. Pioneering anatomical designs. ‘Quite good’ paintings. Side-splitting mother-in-law jokes. One lesser known fact is that Leo also drafted preliminary sketches outlining the four-stage lifecycle of the classic synth band. Today, we will attempt to put these ideas to the test. Don’t worry, I have a lab coat, goggles, and a ‘Verified Scientist’ certificate printed from the interwebs. Experiment #1. A prime legacy of synth pop born and bred in the 21st century: the Liverpool-via-Glasgow-via-Bulgaria-via-Metropolis quartet known as Ladytron. Fire up the Whoopee Machine and let the experiment commence…
All synth pop begins with what is termed ‘the Bontempi Years’, named after the bargain bin keyboards discovered in the bowels of every dusty, street corner thrift store. Our penniless visionaries ‘n’ hunger artists plug-in said machines and gingerly begin pressing buttons and twisting knobs, praying for that divine flash of synth pop alchemy, all whilst cultivating asymmetrical haircuts. Having been switched on during the Great Electroclash War at the fall of the last century, ‘Les Enfants Ladytron’ reflects much of the bedroom art happenings of Client, Fischerspooner and Broadcast. Council estate tales of northern nightclubs, neon loneliness, and nicotine played out over throbbing Cerrone and Moroder valentines. “Discotraxx”, on which Bulgarian-born Mira Aroyo growls like the sexy niece of Bond villain Rosa Klebb, and the Pulp-like storytelling of “Playgirl” are wonderfully charming, vulnerable naiveté. “Sleep your way out of your hometown”, offers lead Lady Helen Marnie slyly on the latter. The smart and sassy shoulda-been-massive “Seventeen”, with its payoff “They only want you when you’re 17 / When you’re 21 you’re no fun”, shows a band conjuring more mercurial magic than mere light and trickery. Darkening skies of urban decay, alienation, and grubby sleaze foresee their later tread into more sophisticated Cronenberg-style terrain, whilst the tough rattle of “Blue Jeans” captures a band sharpening its pop claws. There are guffaws to be had, though, at the anaemic “Cracked LCD” with its zombified ‘Sat Nav’ vocal guiding us to an “Alpine retreat off the A40”.
Clearly, by 2005’s Witching Hour, Ladytron had graduated from ‘The School Disco’ and evolved into that most desired stage of the synth pop lifecycle, ‘The Imperial Years’, aka the Land of the Immortals. All dream of reaching this electro Utopia, but few live to see its glorious reward. Armed with confidence and a shitload of dough wrestled from the greasy hands of record company big wigs, the world as you know it briefly stops spinning and starts dancing to your TR-808. You can do no wrong and everybody wants to be your mistress. You have perfected the balance between “Pop” and “Art” and gleefully flip your loser peers the middle finger.
Undeniably, “Destroy Everything You Touch” scales this Olympus of synth genius. A four-minute warning sending out a clear message to get your bony asses out, there’s a new Sheriff in town. MARVEL at the design! GASP at the ‘can-do’ attitude! SWOON at the newly acquired barnets and clobber! HOLD ON to your teacup as its megawatt drums shake the dancefloor and send ripples through the Poposphere. It’s the song which will be encrypted into their stainless steel tombstones. Luckily, it’s not alone. “International Dateline” is Kraftwerk remodelling the Specials’ “Ghost Town”, their Ballardian apocalyptic manifesto now perfected. “Let’s end it here!” declares Marnie, fist aloft. “Soft Power” meanwhile recalls Hansa-era Bowie (“Broken glass is luxury / Daylight is the enemy”). It’s simultaneously mournful, euphoric, glamorous, and ridiculous, like only the finest synth pop. A victory march through the ruins of fallen empires… whilst wearing silver PVC cat suits and oversized sunglasses obviously.
Spurred on by their burgeoning success, Ladytron re-emerged a more professional, tougher, well-tailored gang with 2008’s Velocifero. The polished, gliding “Tomorrow”. The glam-stomp of the hypnotic, Dr Who theme-inspired “Ghosts”. The punchy, tribal “Runaway”. The absolute treasure, though, was the sleek dark disco panther called “Deep Blue”. Foolishly ignored for single release, it still prowls majestically and shows why ‘Those Who Know’ (Reznor! Depeche! Goldfrapp! Aguilera?) were starting to ask questions about these “Ladybird fellas”.
But alas, all good things must end, and this is typically where synth pop enters Stage Three: ‘The Grizzly Adams Wilderness Years’. Many never survive this stage. They foolishly decree synth pop as ‘facile’, ‘fake’ and demand to be taken ‘seriously’ (whatever that means). A band will chuck their beloved synths into a neighbour’s skip and ‘manfully’ stride toward the enemy. Rock Horribilis. I’m talking guitars and (shivers) real drums (spits). Things often deteriorate so rapidly that ‘The Artist’ will soon decide to enhance their new look with a beard. Luckily, ladies, by their very design, struggle with this part.
Let’s hope a year spent in Aguilera’s dungeon counts as Ladytron’s ‘Wilderness Years’ and they leap straight to Stage Four, the ‘(Born Disco, Die Disco!) Neon Lights Retirement Home for Synth Pop Royalty’. Having sold zip records after betraying the Kidz with Stage 3, you reclaim your electro birthright and, although you may struggle to reach the dizzy heights of ‘The Imperial Years’, the world cheers and welcomes you back to medium-sized venues. Some fall so far by this stage that “Fifth on the bill below Howard Jones” is seen as ‘The Comeback’. But Ladytron may have dispelled Da Vinci’s theories. The two newies here—a pulsating, disco-friendly cover called “Little Black Angel”, with its assuredly striking command, “I want you to burn down freedom’s road!”, and the elegant ‘n’ ethereal recent single “Ace of Hz”—suggest Ladytron may yet still occupy their Imperial phase. Pah! What did the Renaissance know about Korgs anyway?
00-10 isn’t quite flawless. The non-sequential tracklisting results in a few ‘ouch!’ moments (Super eek! at the clumsy airkissin’ handshake between “Cracked LCD” and “Deep Blue”). Plus you’ll have to shell out for the swanky double-disc edition if you want the real best of Ladytron (“Beauty *2”, swoons). As an example of ‘The Great Pop Synth Band’, though, it unearths many fine museum-worthy pieces and captures a band in both their ‘Bontempi’ and ‘Imperial’ phases. As for the future, album five is apparently poised and ready to launch. If the artwork sees Aroyo and Marnie holding flying V’s and sporting ZZ Top face fur though, run for cover and damn you, Da Vinci.