It might seem that there is nothing new to say about the UK electronic pop music scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Retrospective critical assessments and numerous biographies and autobiographies of participants have already covered the events of that era, sometimes over and over again. This Is Not Retro founder Richard Evans set himself a challenging task in writing yet another account of that very well-documented period, but Listening to the Music The Machines Make: Inventing Electronic Pop 1978-1983 deserves to be acknowledged as one of the definitive histories of the period and the genre.
Evans’ approach incorporates two very practical features. First, he sets fairly strict boundaries for his narrative. Listening to the Music The Machines Make covers a defined time period and focuses on electronic pop in the UK. The time period is broadened somewhat in the prologue and the conclusion so that Evans can contextualize the beginnings and the aftermath of that time in electronic pop, but otherwise, the focus is on those six significant and intense years.
Evans starts at a place that few others have identified as the touchpoint: “the blue acoustic guitar that filled the screens of millions of television sets as Top of the Pops beamed across the nation on the night of July 6th, 1972″, when David Bowie, in his Ziggy Stardust persona, performed “Starman”. Evans convincingly contends that this seminal moment “resonated particularly with the generation this book is about, those in their early teens, struggling to make sense of the world and their place in it, and in search of something to call their own.”
The narrowed timeline allows for a comprehensive examination of how UK electronic pop emerged, grew, and expanded and illustrates how bands, songwriters, and producers influenced each other’s work and challenged each other creatively. It also demonstrates how an unlikely confluence of technologies fuelled this genre. New and increasingly affordable electronic instruments allowed untrained musicians to write songs and perform them. Electronic percussion and sampling further expanded musical possibilities. Video recording technology unleashed the potential of music videos, and the arrival of cable television channels allowed music videos to reach worldwide audiences. Indeed, that elements of UK electronic pop eventually found their way into the sound of artists as different as ZZ Top and Herbie Hancock shows just how wide-ranging the impact of the music was.
Evans’ limited geographic focus highlights the importance of local scenes, such as those in Sheffield, Manchester, and Liverpool, whose output gradually spread across the UK and inspired budding musicians in other places. Events such as the weekly Blitz club nights in London also became the genesis of significant national and international music, fashion, and visual art trends. As Evans occasionally broadens his chronological focus, he also occasionally expands his geographic range – for example, the work of UK musicians such as Gary Numan and Duran Duran cannot be fully explained without acknowledging the influence of Kraftwerk.
The final stage of the narrative outlines the worldwide popularity of more than a few of the acts that emerged from that era. In 1980, no one would have thought bands such as Depeche Mode would be playing arena-sized venues anywhere – much less that they would still be doing so decades later.
Evans’ other choice in framing the narrative is to let the voices from that era speak for themselves. In his acknowledgments, he states, “Instead of relying on asking this cast of extraordinary characters for new recollections of events from forty years ago, I would instead revert to original source material wherever possible.” The extensive archival research is the greatest strength of Listening to the Music the Machines Make. Evans draws on articles from Melody Maker, the NME, Smash Hits, Record Mirror, and other UK publications and presents quotes from interviews with the artists and reviews and commentary. It’s striking not only how nasty, albeit hilarious, some of the press coverage was – like Adrian Thrills in the NME dismissing Ultravox in 1978 as “abject futuristic baloney” and “wretched, strobe-bathed new Europeans; humourless, plastic and musically dire” – but also how having that many publications covering the scene and competing with each other were a huge boon to the development of electronic pop. The only downside to Evans’ archival approach is that occasionally the narrative slips into a slightly predictable descriptive routine of single/chart placement/TV appearance/tour/next single, but there are enough intriguing characters and pithy illustrative quotes to keep the reader’s interest.
I read the book with headphones on so I could stream songs or artists that were mentioned that I was unfamiliar with. I discovered many new delights, even though I lived through this musical era and thought I had heard most of its influential tracks. I was wrong, and I’m glad to have had my horizons expanded. Listening to the Music the Machines Make is commendable as an essential reference work and a thoughtful and affectionate in-depth examination of a vital musical genre.