Electrical Language: Independent British Synth Pop 78-84 begs a philosophical question, one that is familiar to anyone who has spent time in an antiques mall: Do age and even scarcity lend intrinsic value? If so, Electrical Language is a positive treasure trove. Over five hours of playing time, it presents 80 tracks by as many different acts, many of the tracks obscure enough to be licensed directly from the artists themselves, all of them at least 35 years old.
And none of them came close to being a hit. When it comes to early ’80s UK synthpop, Electrical Language features none of the usual suspects. And did “Just Can’t Get Enough”, “Tainted Love”, and “Cars” need to be compiled for the hundredth time? Electrical Language means to dig deeper, to, in the words of the introductory essay, “capture something of the scope and ambition the synthesizer inspired…during that time…the independent underbelly” of those canonized hit singles. To that extent, it succeeds. A variety of musical approaches and styles are represented here, though the recurrence of familiar synth chirps, percolating bass, and drum machine thwacks reflects the limited amount of relatively affordable equipment that was available at the time. And it’s doubtful even the most ardent aficionado or crate digger is familiar with the likes of Jesus Couldn’t Drum, Passion Polka, or a Popular History of Signs.
As far as collecting the old and rare, Electrical Language is excellent. But does old and rare equate with good? That’s the catch. Conventional wisdom has it that early synthpop, in particular, was interchangeable, that anyone with a Minimoog and a lopsided haircut could do it as well as anyone else. The technology did bring with it a certain freedom of opportunity. One could create bona fide pop music with a pair of headphones and a basic tape machine rather than a stack of amplifiers and a multitrack console; a single digit on a keyboard could eke out a melody just as well as the most complex guitar fingering. But the melody still had to be written. If anything, Electrical Language suggests that for the most part the A&R people, the public, even fate itself generally got things right. Some people were better at synthpop than others, and most of those are the ones you’ve heard of.
Electrical Language does feature a handful of genuine classics. Not coincidentally, most are less-than-obscure. The Normal’s brutally deadpan, J.G. Ballard-inspired “Warm Leatherette”; Fad Gadget’s darkly irreverent, Depeche Mode-inspiring “Ricky’s Hand”; pre-Dare Human League’s thrillingly melodramatic “Circus of Death”; Colourbox’s effortlessly giddy “Tarantula”; and Chris and Cosey’s playfully breathy “October (Love Song)” are simply essential for fans of any pop music, regardless of milieu. Also, there is a layer of very good songs that, if not exactly lost masterpieces, are well worth (re)discovery. “Xoyo” from the Passage is exuberantly hedonistic. Legendary Pink Dots’ Edward Ka-Spel delivers the pretty, whimsical Syd Barret-isms of “Even Now”, while the smooth arrangement and disembodied harmonies of Freeze Frame’s “Your Voice” are sublime and, unlike much of Electrical Language, genuinely should have been a hit.
Some worthy material comes from solo works by associates of better-known bands. Hawkwind and Gong member Tim Blake’s “Generator” cranks up some Giorgio Moroder-style energy and grace. Josef K frontman Paul Haig croons his way through the sharp, nervy “Time”. And there are tracks that, while good, are ringers for better-known bands. Ice the Falling Rain’s “Lifes Illusion”, with its icy staccato synths and coed vocals, could be a post-Dare Human League track. The aforementioned Passion Polka channel OMD, right down to the earworm chorus and Andy McCluskey’s emotive voice, on “Lying Next to You”.
Elsewhere, readers of the thoughtful, track-by-track liner notes might appreciate appearances by influential producers like Daniel Miller (Depeche Mode, Yazoo) and Tony Mansfield (A-ha, Naked Eyes) as well as the likes of future KLF man Bill Drummond and dub legend Adrian Sherwood. There are plenty of interesting threads of trivia like that. Unfortunately, though, most of Electrical Language is merely trivial. No amount of trivia, though, could justify the worst of it, including awful versions of “Paint It Black” and “Happy Xmas”. Any curation job that includes these while leaving out the likes of Wire, BEF/Heaven 17, and I Start Counting deserves to be questioned.
The old box set cliché holds true. There is an excellent disc or even two-disc-length compilation to be found in Electrical Language. The rest is an antique mall.