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Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

Photo: FranckinJapan from Pixabay

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

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.

The Human League - "Being Boiled" (Holiday '80)

Poor Human League. The original lineup of Phil Oakey, Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh, and Adrian Wright had been trying for an electronic hit single since forming in 1977, notably with "Being Boiled" in 1978, and the futuristic "Empire State Human" in 1979. All with no success. To add to their misery, the punk-inspired Undertones mocked them as pretentious poseurs on their number nine hit of April 1980, "My Perfect Cousin". Here, singer Feargal Sharkey affirmed of the eponymous relative: "His mother bought him a synthesizer / Got the Human League into advise her / Now he's making lots of noise / Playing along with the art school boys." All this because the cousin was, basically, "in love with himself". Ouch!

But no matter, the Sheffield group gained mainstream attention with their Holiday '80 EP when it reached number 56 in the singles chart in May, principally because it got them onto the UK's premier music TV show at the time, Top of the Pops. Its highlight was undoubtedly a rerecorded version of "Being Boiled", still with the nonsensical lyrics about Buddha telling people to stop their sericulture, and still with the sinister bass line. But now it was faster, more danceable, and with bigger beats and more bleeps. A lot more bleeps, actually.

Ultravox – "Sleepwalk" (Vienna)

"Sleepwalk" by Ultravox is a thrilling synth track that made for one of the greatest comeback singles ever when it hit number 29 in the UK Top 40 in August. With Foxx out, in came 'Blitz Kid' Midge Ure, of a so-far-hitless synth outfit, Visage, which included both Egan and Strange, both intent on making dance music for their club. Midge joined forces with Warren Cann, Chris Cross, and keyboardist/violinist Billy Currie, who had himself been in Visage, after touring and recording with Numan, alongside Chris Payne. Now they were a far more united group than before, resolute in their radical new direction of going fully electronic. Much like Foxx, they were all about exploring new sounds for a new decade, which led them to a new record deal with Chrysalis and a renewed alliance with revered Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank.

"Sleepwalk", then, is brim with technological creativity and melodic inventiveness, as the lead single from the Vienna album. It has urgency, drama, jittery energy, and the same kind of noirish atmosphere and sense of paranoia that Foxx himself dealt in. This is especially down to Midge's intense and constricted vocal, Currie's weird-as-hell keyboard solo, and those lyrics: "Naked and bleeding, the streetlights stray by me / Hurting my eyes with their glare." Sure, the massive "Vienna" single is just around the corner, but this is the lethal opening shot from Ultravox Mark II.

Hazel O'Connor – "Eighth Day" (Breaking Glass)

Hazel O'Connor had a rock band behind her for her breakthrough number five hit of August 1980, "Eighth Day", but enough swirling electronic sounds to call it synthpop. She wrote it for a movie called Breaking Glass, in which she starred as a rock singer determined to make it big. She also boasted Tony Visconti as a producer, who co-produced Bowie's synth-laced number two at the time (a former number one), "Ashes to Ashes", with none other than Steve Strange in the accompanying video. With Visconti on board, O'Connor managed to capture some Bowie-esque glam and tap into the theatrical electronic vibe beloved of New Romantics. She sold the song, too, with her wild look and dramatic vocal, very much sympatico with the Blitz scenesters, and setting her up nicely for her tour at the end of the year with a fledgling Duran Duran.

While the Breaking Glass film is largely forgotten, "Eighth Day" still intrigues as a burst of futuristic fury around a story that parallels the biblical book of Genesis. It depicts humans playing God and creating technological marvels ("electric scenes, a maze of beams") until it all ends in tears on the eighth day when machines take over the world. The synths brilliantly convey the Asimovian theme, but it's a shame the power of the song is undercut slightly by the way its melody recalls Sound of Music favorite "Do-Re-Mi".

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – "Enola Gay" (Organisation)

Electronic band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had already scored an initial top 20 hit with "Messages" in May, but no-one can deny that they properly broke through with "Enola Gay" in October. The Liverpool four-piece (consisting of Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys,... and two others) made it to a highly respectable number eight. And they did it with an upbeat, richly melodic, and danceable track on the subject of, well, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. They were probably the first to record a song that both questioned the necessity of the bombing and featured the kind of catchy keyboard riff that, once more, left little need for a chorus.

The success of "Enola Gay" provided the greatest proof yet that synthpop had arrived. It was huge, and its writer, McCluskey, made no bones about wanting to take the electronic minimalism and intelligence of Kraftwerk and blend it with the sheer pop magnificence of Abba. It wasn't long before the group were being called "the Beatles of electronic music", such was their popularity in the wake of this song.

Paul McCartney – "Temporary Secretary" (McCartney II)

Talking of Beatles, Paul McCartney put out an electronic single in 1980 that he lifted from his experimental, self-produced McCartney II album. Like on the preceding singles from the same LP, "Coming Up" and "Waterfalls", Macca played all the instruments himself, though he failed to make this one a hit. It peaked at number 76 in October, maybe because he only released it on 12-inch. It warrants inclusion here, however, because it still shows how the most popular songwriter in the field of British music, having already scored a synth hit with "Wonderful Christmastime" in December '79, was continuing to help make electronic music a mainstream affair.

"Temporary Secretary" may irritate some folks with its nagging melody and McCartney's deadpan voice that is intended to imitate a creepy boss looking to hire a temp. But with its prominent sequencer patterns (to simulate a typewriter) and its home-made vintage-synth quirkiness, it holds an important place in the development of British synthpop. Hot Chip, for one, cite it as an influence.

Spandau Ballet – "To Cut a Long Story Short" (Journeys to Glory)

It's easy to forget that Spandau Ballet were at the forefront of British synthpop in November 1980, when they scored a number five hit with "To Cut a Long Story Short". The London five-piece, with songwriter Gary Kemp on keys, had been the resident band at the Blitz club. They were consequently New Romantic royalty when they put out their first single, and cocksure of themselves in their frilly shirts, breeches, biker boots, and wedge haircuts. They were mighty serious about their art, too, and sort of had it in mind to reinvent youth culture by giving 'the kids' a whole new positive attitude to life, based on individuality. This was after the supposed negativity and regimentalism of punk.

Spandau's first single, then, is, in many ways, the manifesto of the quintessential Blitz band, and an essential track. It is electronic, crucially, and it is anti-rock, clean, danceable and melodic, with a singer who can actually sing, in an almost operatic way. It recalls "Enola Gay", too, with its driving synth riff wrapped around some serious subject matter pertaining to war: "Soldier is turning / See him through white light." It could be about a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder. But with the dandified Tony Hadley singing "I am beautiful and clean / And so very very young", you somehow doubt it. Either way, it's unlikely the Undertones were impressed.

Robert Palmer – "Looking For Clues" (Clues)

Yorkshire-born Robert Palmer had been making records for five years before having a synthpop hit with "Looking For Clues" at the end of November 1980. It was his 13th single, which rose to number 33. And he released it after venturing into reggae, rock, and blues, with just one minor hit to come of it: "Every Kinda People" in 1978. He lifted "Looking For Clues" from his new wave-influenced Clues album, and put it out on the heels of his first electronic single, "Johnny and Mary", which, unjustly, failed to make the UK Top 40 in September 1980.

Palmer found some inspiration for his new direction in Numan, having invited him over to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to assist on Clues, as unlikely as it may seem. He wrote "Found You Now" with the ex-Tubeway Army man, and got him to play keys on "I Dream of Wires". However, "Looking For Clues", while futuristic and possessed of a sparse synth-background, doesn't sound too much like anything Numan ever did. It is chirpy, uptempo and funky, with an understated, self-harmonized vocal by Palmer, and an infectious melody. On top of that, the lyrics are not about robots or cars or aliens, or even futuristic parks, but rather the paranoia experienced from being in a relationship, delivered in a clever, mock-noir kind of way. Oh, and there is that xylophone solo.

Visage – "Fade to Grey" (Visage)

The culmination of this list is the shimmering synth classic by Visage, "Fade to Grey". The second single by the group reached number 53 at the very end of December, though it would climb to number eight in January 1981. Billy Currie and Chris Payne composed it (when they were in Numan's band). Midge Ure provided the lyrics, and produced it. Steve Strange sang it. Rusty Egan's Belgian girlfriend, Brigitte Ahrens, added the French spoken-word bits. And Rusty himself...well, it's not really clear what he did. But what a climax to a great year for all of them!

"Fade to Grey" represented the height of the New Romantics' love affair with synthesizers. It exuded the spirit of the Blitz club, now already closed, as an electronic track to which exotic youths could dance at their most moody and enigmatic. To this end, it featured one of the greatest synth riffs ever, an iconic star in Strange (highlighted to full effect in the accompanying video), and cinematic imagery of the kind Midge was so fond. "One man on a lonely platform / One case sitting by his side." The French interludes, of course, added to the artiness and sophistication.

The Visage track scaled the UK singles chart amidst a rush of John Lennon re-releases in the aftermath of one of the most tragic events ever in musical history. There was more to be depressed about besides: an economic recession, rising unemployment. But synthpop would continue to offer a way out of the dreariness after 1980 shut its eyes. The likes of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Japan, ABC, and Yazoo were waiting in the wings with some sublime synth records. To evoke the words of Churchill himself, slightly out of context, it was the end of the beginning.

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