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10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

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.

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)

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“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)

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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)

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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.

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