1984 was a transitional period for electronic music, as this compilation conveys shrewdly.
1984 proved to be a liminal period for pop music, the first potential break in what had been a relentless period of innovation during the postpunk movement. Independent rock in R.E.M, the Smiths, and a nascent stage of the Jesus and Mary Chain had already begun to push backwards towards an idealized past vision of rock, while the pop present (Wham, Phil Collins, Culture Club) had used the futurist potential of synthesizers to sanitize all the experimental edge of synthpop and dry out the libidinal energy of rock music. The synthesizer was becoming ubiquitous and almost oppressive, the all-digital Fairlight CMI becoming an economic tool for artists looking to compete in a market that was now saturated by a broader-than-ever variety of new acts given legs by a jejeune MTV.
Inventive techniques were still being developed in underground electronic music, but these are historically viewed as transitional elements that allowed for the explosion of house and techno in the ensuing two years, rather than fully formed features of a readymade dynamic. Part of the reason this activity is ignored is because much of it was centralized in industrial dance music (formerly known as EBM-electronic body music), a genre whose entire '80s output has been “written out of continuity” (to borrow a phrase from Rob Sheffield) until recently. However, recent trends for minimal wave and dark un-techno electronic music make a 1984 compilation such as this one all too prescient to a backwards leaning 2011.
Mike Maguire’s Bustin’ Out series has charted the course of underground synth music pretty well in the preceding three volumes, balancing well between well-celebrated names (Liquid Liquid, New Order, Man Parrish, Gary Numan) and more obscure ones (Portion Control, Colourbox, The Jonzun Crew, Tuxedomoon), even throwing in the occasional delightfully defiant curveball. Maguire is perhaps best known as a member of the psy-trance unit Juno Reactor, a unit perhaps best known for producing “Control” by Traci Lords, a cut now universally known as that song from Mortal Kombat. It’ll be interesting to see if Maguire’s series will ultimately wind up being a justification for Goa-style progressive trance music, a style that’s perhaps even less fondly remembered than industrial nowadays, or whether it will chart the era’s developments in all their broad-scoped variants.
1984 represents a moment of rupture between departing scenes. Guided by acid and other less-romantic street drugs, industrial dance in the late 1980s pushed the arpeggios to their progressive limits, forming elliptical patterns that seemed locked in like a K-hole and require complex arithmetic to escape from. These hypnotic patterns, which eventually paved the way for Juno Reactor and their ilk, were like contaminants, eradicating funk, obstructing soul, and obscuring rhythm. Its artiness was an intentional difficulty, a barrier that reinforced a kind of internal exclusivity, the kind that the Belleville Three techno crew originally proposed but rave eventually rejected. Traces of this style can be seen on this collection via Cabaret Voltaire’s “Sensoria” and Severed Heads’ “Dead Eyes Opened”, but these tracks, though big club hits, were a bit anomalous around this time.
Rather than complexity and esotericism, Techno pushed for austerity and boldness, eventually resulting in its own acid-fueled subculture via Britain’s acid house explosion, a scene which exploited machine error and atonality, much like the early industrial scene itself. However, in 1984, there was only a vague semblance of what was to come. Jesse Saunders’s “On and On”, featured here, is sometimes thought to be the first house record pressed to vinyl, and already one can here rumblings of acid house in its arrangements. Long patches of unaccompanied mechanical rhythm may be borrowed from electro and there’s a bit of a hip twang to Saunders’s vocals, but the eccentric intentionally misplayed keyboard notes sound more a product of John Cage’s prepared pianos than a Boogie Down Bronx aesthetic. As Saunders prattles on and on about the beat going on and on, the repetition becomes a kind of spiritual tedium, a Steve Reich zen, the mysticism of it all re-emphasized by the twinkling synth sounds that float above the main melody.
Saunders is the only participant on this collection who sounds even remotely lo-fi in his production, which is a difference between 1984 and other editions of the Bustin’ Out series. Postpunk in all its DIY glory, once prominent in this series, has been completely phased out. Likewise, Strafe’s terrific iconic party anthem “Set it Off’ is the only pocket of hip-hop remaining. It’s worth noting that 1984 proved a point of divergence in that genre, too. Electro was fading as a force in the hip-hop scene, as a more sample-based style was primed to take over in the following year with the massive successes of Run DMC and LL Cool J.
The rest of the album is a series of singularities, each song foreshadowing the future with one foot trapped in the recent past. Most interesting are a pair of weirdo hybrids. Flowerpot Men’s “Jo’s So Mean to Josephine” is like Alan Vega fronting DAF (the way he sings “Joey-Joe-Joe-Joey” is so close to Suicide’s “Johnny” that it’s likely considered plagiarism in several states). The song’s barely dancey, even for its pre-four-on-the-floor day, but it is confrontationally dark, culminating with the Cinema-of-Transgression-level creepy line, “He was lying in her bed just looking at her / with a gun in his hand and a gun to her head”. As an album opener, the track is marked by industrial guitars so violent that they make the shivery synths sympathetic. At the other end of the album is Skinny Puppy’s “Smothered Hope”, which seems to appropriately forecast an industrial future rooted more in that scratchy guitar sound than the driving synths of groups like Front 242 (who make their fourth Bustin’ Out appearance here with their overlong “Commando Mix”). The other notable hybrid on Bustin’ Out 1984 is Anne Clark’s “Our Darkness”, a palpable fusion of EBM and Patti Smith, which is not a wholly original conceit but certainly an untried one, and one that holds resonance even today.
1984 may not have been the cultural epicenter of any burgeoning scene, but Bustin’ Out 1984 proves that there are ideas ruminating even in periods of lull. Maguire presents a number of potential pathways from which the series can proceed in the post House/Techno moment (though the title does kind of indicate a culmination in New Beat, it didn’t really start with New Wave either). In everything outside of Detroit and London, the late '80s in electronic music is often seen as a kind of dead zone. Maybe Maguire can help prove otherwise.