As both the Human League and OMD are loathe to admit, it was Gary Numan who got there first in the summer of 1979. Here he was, as leader of former punk band Tubeway Army, fronting a UK number one single driven by synthesizers. He sang it in a robotic voice and resembled, on TV shows at the time, a sullen automaton. The song was “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” It was five minutes long. It had no chorus. And it was about an android working as a prostitute.
As writer, producer, and vocalist of the record that spent four weeks at the top of the UK chart from June to July, Numan was the first from a new wave of British electronic acts to break into the pop mainstream. He stood, of course, on the shoulders of European pioneers of electronic music, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, and Vangelis. He also drew from the experimental glam-rock of Roxy Music, and John Foxx-era Ultravox, as well as the David Bowie of “Heroes”, Low, and Lodger (1977-9), all of whom made their mark with the aid of synth-minded linchpin Brian Eno. His reading of dystopian sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick further formed the basis of the lyrics, as he paved the way for fellow experimentalists of the Minimoog, the Polymoog, the Korg MS-20, and, of course, the Yamaha CS-80.
Along the way, Numan provided a welcome tonic to Art Garfunkel’s ubiquitous tearjerker, “Bright Eyes”, and urgent relief from the irritating disco froth of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”. He also belittled the significance of M’s “Pop Muzik”, a number two the previous May, which was very synthy (let’s be honest), but in a bubblegum kind of way. This was before he consolidated his status as a pioneer of UK synthpop by scoring a number one single as a solo artist with “Cars” in September 1979. It came with another electronic riff, care of Chris Payne on the Moogs, more robotic vocals, a ‘real’ rock rhythm section, and more waxing lyrical on a futuristic theme, now drawn from J. G. Ballard. It also served as affirmation that the record-buying public was more than ready to embrace bleepy records by androgynous singers who eschewed the usual subjects of love, death, and dancing.
After Numan, there was the Buggles, with a synth-based chart-topper in October called “Video Killed the Radio Star”. But it was Rusty Egan and Steve Strange who properly set the scene at this time for the rise of UK electropop in 1980. That was by organising the Blitz nightclub in London and playing host, as DJ and MC respectively, to a burgeoning New Romantic crowd, amidst World War II posters and a photo of Winston Churchill. They created a scene, in this way, that revolved around the records of Bowie, Kraftwerk, and Moroder, and which was made up of outrageously dressed adherents of all things futuristic, theatrical, and sexually ambiguous. These hedonistic aesthetes quickly demanded more motorik sounds to dance to: more robotic beats.
Then, in 1980, John Foxx, Spandau Ballet, and Visage contributed to the significant surge of British electronic acts into the UK singles chart. They benefitted from increasingly affordable analog synthesizers and inherited from punk a DIY approach to making records. They laid the groundwork, too, for the Second British Invasion of the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1981 and 1982, which saw synth acts Human League, Soft Cell, and Eurythmics at the helm. And they did it alongside a handful of established acts then beginning to take up synthesizers and find dramatic new forms of expression.
Here, then, are ten of the best singles from the first year of British synthpop, some of which sound remarkably contemporary in view of their influence on the likes of Hot Chip, John Grant, CHVRCHES, La Roux, Cluster, and Baxter Dury. Many current artists, indeed, have sought to capture the lo-fi atmospherics of analog synths so perfectly in evidence on these groundbreaking gems.
John Foxx – “Underpass” (Metamatic)
John Foxx quit as Ultravox frontman in March 1979, after making three era-defining yet poor-selling albums with the band that led to them being dropped by their record company. He gained impetus from Numan, however, for his first solo single, “Underpass”, which reached number 31 in February 1980. He followed his lead with a big synth hook, a machine-like vocal, and a Ballardian theme sourced from such nightmarish novels as Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975). He particularly dwelt on the matter of human alienation at the hands of intense technological and urban development, while going further than Numan in his incorporation of synth bass, synth drums… synth everything! In this way, he evoked the dehumanizing experience of living in an entirely synthetic environment, which he summed up in the lyrical refrain: “click click drone”.
Foxx further distinguished himself on “Underpass” by drawing on the chilling electronic music of Wendy Carlos, specifically her score for Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian movie, A Clockwork Orange (1971). He imitated the way the American synth trailblazer made daring individual sounds with her Moog, as he forged a lo-fi and minimalist artistic path by means of an ARP Odyssey, a Roland drum machine, and a small eight-track studio in London. His first single, at just over three minutes, consequently stands as an iconic work of synthpop, which is strangely and uniquely anthemic. Everybody sing “Underpass!”
Jona Lewie – “You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties”
True, Jona Lewie didn’t have much to do with depicting bleak societies of the near future with his background as a boogie-woogie pianist, who notably performed with American Delta bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in the early 1970s. But he did record the basis of his first successful single on a Polymoog synthesizer, in his own eight-track studio. This was the cheaply made, very lo-fi “You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties”, released on the independent Stiff label. It reached number 19 in May and is often classed as a novelty hit in the way it centers on a regular bloke, with a deadpan voice, chatting away about being socially awkward and having no luck with the ladies.
Like it or not, the Jona Lewie song endures as a droll piece of synthpop, not least because it crops up regularly on TV commercials. It’s also gained credibility since the untimely death of the great Kirsty MacColl in 2000, as she is thought to be one of the backing singers featured. But its main legacy is showing how artists a lot less doom-laden and intense than Numan or Foxx could access a synthesizer and make a hit out of it.