“The music… is from a time that will never be repeated. It is raw and uncompromising, angry and desolate, the antithesis of rock ’n’ roll. Music by and for a blank generation.”
That’s how music critic Dave Henderson describes the formative period of UK electronica, in the introduction to a new and impressively curated four-CD compilation of the period (spanning 1975-1984). Close to the Noise Floor charts the emergence of proto-synthpop, techno, and ambient exploration, featuring 60 of the period’s seminal musicians and tracks. Released through Cherry Red Records, and coupled with a gorgeous book of notes and commentary from Henderson, the compilation reminds listeners of the importance of an “exciting”, “shambolic” period, one in which today’s music was born.
An Exciting, Creative Time
The bands featured on the Close to the Noise Floor compilation span the gamut of early electronica, from minimalist experimental to dark, danceable techno and synth beats to nascent goth and industrial. Some of the bands never emerged from obscurity; others achieved commercial success and some are even still going.
Blancmange, a synthpop band formed in 1979 by Neil Arthur, Laurence Stevens and Stephen Luscombe, was among those early bands. “It was an exciting time,” recalls Arthur. “After the short-lived punk explosion — revolution, whatever you may like to call it — once that had gone there was a bit of a void. The DIY culture was something that changed… the whole idea of what was possible.”
Martin Bowes is best known as the driving creative force behind Attrition, a dark electronic band that played its first show in 1980. Bowes initially got involved in the scene running a fanzine, which helped him build a familiarity with the bands, the clubs, and establish other contacts that would later help him as a musician. But what really stands out to him about the era was the chaos.
“It was a really exciting time for music, with first punk and then post-punk and then all the experimental industrial electronic scene, and there was a lot of genuinely new music happening and that really inspired us of course… But at the same time that it was really exciting, it was also kind of shambolic and nobody knew what on earth they were doing and it was hard to even get a decent place to play. People would say ‘Get a guitar!’ or something like that when we did gigs. So although it was exciting, I suppose it was pioneering. It was a whole new thing. There weren’t clubs that you could play.”
Remembering a Scene
While the artists featured on the Close to the Noise Floor compilation are now considered pioneers of the early electronic music scene, when they started out most of them were just fans themselves. What memories stand out from those early days?
For Attrition’s Martin Bowes, it was a dark night at the club in late 1979 or early 1980. The date is hazy, but the experience unforgettable. “It was Siouxsie and the Banshees, and they were supported by this new electronic band called the Human League. They were great, Human League, in those days. Slide projectors — I’d never seen anything like that — and massive analog sounds. Then I realized afterwards that it was kind of like the beginning of gothic industrial, really. The whole thing, you know, the sound at that gig was really the beginning of a whole movement, I would say. It blew me away that night.”
Blancmange’s Neil Arthur recalls memories of hot summer nights cruising the streets on his motorbike, hopping shows with his girlfriend, hitting several gigs in a night. “We’d go down to see Joy Division at the Moonlight Club, and then after we’d see the Fall somewhere else and then Throbbing Gristle. We would go and see Throbbing Gristle at the Centro Iberico, which is a Spanish anarchist centre. They would show their films… Then we’d go and see This Heat and the Young Marble Giants and all these bands who were just doing the most incredible things!”
One of This Heat’s shows stands out in particular.
“They were on stage at the ICA and we sat in the audience and they started a set with a beautiful piece… The stage was dark, and the three of them were on the stage, and one of them was playing with his back to the audience. As he turned round, he had a guitar. He turned around, and the noise coming from the guitar amp was just unbelievable. The reason it was unbelievable was because as he turned around what he was actually playing the guitar with was a huge vibrator! He had the best smile on his face, just a really kind of small smile as he turned around, because it was a great noise.”
John Foxx is an electronic musician and the original lead singer for the new wave band Ultravox, whose formative moment dates back to the late ‘60s. “I was at the 14 hour Technicolour Dream at the Alexander Palace in London in 1967. The first underground festival ever — films, music, happenings, all the manifestation of a cultural explosion — it was a tremendous experience and a sea change that marked out the way things would proceed from then on.”
As a musician, he also reflects fondly on a show at the Marquee in the late ‘70s. “For myself, playing with Ultravox — the Marquee club in Soho 1977/78 — sweat running down the walls and dripping off the ceiling, electricity in the air. Packed to the rafters. The tides were turning and everyone there knew it.”
Doing It Yourself
The emergence of synthpop, for bands like Blancmange, was the product of punk’s DIY ethos applied to a desire to go beyond punk’s musical framework. Punk’s DIY message democratized music to an unprecedented degree: suddenly, the idea mattered more than the financial backing to record a studio album. “Before the punk thing, we had such sophisticated music that we’d all got pissed off with it,” recalls Arthur. “Punk made us — the listener and the artist who thought they might be able to express themselves musically — say ‘Ahh, we can have a go at this!’
The idea mattered more than money, equipment, or even the ability to play an instrument. Although Arthur and his bandmates couldn’t play guitar, they realized “you could make noises with these things called synthesizers.” But in the early days even that was a dream. “We couldn’t afford a synthesizer, but we liked the idea of the noises they made, so we tried to make them with anything we could find around the home…and started assembling drum loops by hitting kitchen utensils and tupperware and things like that. And so the DIY culture was kind of embraced in a different way.”
Mark Shreeve, an electronic music composer who also began recording and performing during the period (his work includes the electronic outfit Redshift), also felt the impact of DIY culture in the early electronic scene. He moved to London in 1976, at the beginning of the punk movement, when he was 19-years-old. “I had no musical training, so I suppose that I believed the received wisdom that I could never consider a future as a musician,” he recalls. “I can remember desperately wanting to own a synthesiser, any one would do really, just to muck about with.”
“I spent many Saturday afternoons hanging around the various London music shops — getting banned from one of them — and frequently pretending that I was going to buy some synthesiser or another just to be able to spend half an hour ‘auditioning’ it. I even pretended to be Pink Floyd’s keyboard roadie just to get the chance to play a hugely expensive synthesiser. No way could I afford even the cheapest synth though.”
“The fantastic thing about the DIY ethic was that some truly great stuff was created on minimal equipment,” Shreeve reflects. “In fact you could make the argument that even the best known electronica bands produced their best music with basic gear. Their imagination had to fill in the rest.”
John Foxx concurs. He points out that while the technology of the early electronic era may have seemed primitive compared to today’s standards, this simply meant that musicians had to rely on greater creativity and ingenuity. “The first thing I learnt as an art student was the value of working with a restricted palette — if you set your own strictures and stay with them you get a result. Without that basic discipline and understanding of its value, you get a mess. That was the major lesson of paint technology and visual art and it equally applies to music and other arts, too.”
“Now you can do anything sonically, the question really is what can I do that no one else is doing? In the ‘70s you had the limitations of the technology of the time – but this forced everyone to use the simple primitive synths and recording machines to their ultimate, and often in ways the manufacturers had never imagined. Ingenuity and imagination were the best tools in the box. All those makers of early electronic records instinctively pushed the sounds and the technologies way beyond their limits, so they’re only now being properly discovered – modern sound systems mean you can now hear them properly for the first time.”
DIY Through and Through
DIY culture extended a lot further than just the music, Blancmange’s Neil Arthur reminds us. Musicians had to innovate the instruments and the sounds. But they also had to improvise their fashion, their style, their entire presentation of self in an era prior to Google and transnational supply chains. “We were in a time where if you went out on the high street it wasn’t full of chains, it was full of relatively individual shops,” Arthur reflects, “You couldn’t walk into a shop and buy a dog-eared copy of Kerouac and pretend you’d read it.”
“The DIY culture extended a lot further than just music. It was down to how you wanted to look. If you wanted a suit, most of us would go down to Oxfam or somewhere and get a dead man’s suit. And that’s what we called it — dead man’s suit. There wasn’t the shops available. If you wanted to be a punk, you’d be messing around with bin liners. Very few people could afford to go down to King’s Road and spend a fortune, most of us had to make do with something we picked up at a rubbish sale and we ended up looking like we were collecting the rubbish when we went to see bands. Because you had to adapt things. It was DIY culture all the way through. It was a very, very different world.”
For Attrition’s Bowes, the importance of punk’s DIY ethic lay in the confidence it gave to new musicians and new ideas. “[Punk] was just saying anyone can do it, and do it yourself, and don’t take any crap, really. That was the big thing. I still can’t play an instrument really, you know, but I was influenced by punk… that attitude of anything will go, I think that was really important. That influenced a generation. I think we could do with a bit more of it again, a bit of a reminder sometimes. The spirit of punk was really just doing something different, and doing it your own way. I got bored with punk because like anything it became formularized.”
Has the Digital Revolution Helped or Hindered?
Mgr />Today’s world is a far cry from the DIY culture of the ‘80s. Google and the Internet allow fans and musicians alike access to a wealth of ideas and diversity without having to leave one’s room; thousands of music-related apps can be downloaded for free or minimal cost. Even hi-tech equipment is widely accessible to rent, borrow or buy second-hand. Has the surfeit of technology improved the scene? Or has it detracted from its DIY ethic?
“It’s a bit of both, it’s like a double-edged sword,” says Bowes. “[When I built my own studio] it cost a fortune – just to get a noisy little digital delay would be a few hundred pounds. And now you can get a much better one as a free plug-in! And that’s great, you know, that’s fantastic.”
“Now people are a bit overdosed in massive technology and I think they can flounder in it all a bit, they don’t know what to do. You can spend hours going through thousands of snare drum sounds, whereas I used to have one on my 808 machine and I’d go and put it through effects and be creative with it. There is almost like an overdose of technology really in terms of creating music. I realize I mess about sometimes with things, experimenting, which I perhaps didn’t need to do. “
“At the same time it’s got the positive side, it enables people to do music that perhaps they couldn’t have afforded to, or just couldn’t. Or hadn’t got the space even, you know it used to take up a lot of space. And then there’s the other side of the digital revolution, you know everyone puts out their own music. Which again is great but you’re swamped with millions of songs everywhere and you almost need a filter.”
Bowes points out that in the 20th century, magazines and radio hosts filtered the music out there and helped curate it for fans. He points out the importance of people like radio host John Peel, who sought out innovative acts and introduced them to fans. In today’s world, the role of prominent curated filters for music has largely disappeared, with fans mostly hunting down their own music on the Internet. This can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to miss a lot, he reflects. He thinks the role of filters like the John Peel show will return eventually.
Foxx, meanwhile, feels that although musicians have ‘professionalized’ the genre, it may have come at the cost of originality.
“An era has clearly passed — just as the era of Hollywood or the newsreel or the radio passed. Some of these forms still survive, but in a less central role — because new technological media arrived that are better able to perform major parts of their function. In this case, other electronic media have usurped the previous role of music as cultural messenger for young people. The means of delivery also changed radically with the arrival of the MP3.”
The impact is more than just technological, however, it’s reshaped the entire financial model of funding experimental and underground music.
“The resulting erosion of the previous financial infrastructure means there’s no money to support underground movements coming up from the street. These always fed new ideas into the music culture, gave it a jolt whenever it became conventional. Then they would then become the convention the next generation would overturn, and so on.”
“The destruction of that cycle, and the industry finances available to encourage it, as well as the dispersal into other media such as social networking, apps and games etc., means very little challenging music comes up from the streets now into pop music culture. The street is now electronic and Apple owns it. And, at the other end, no one is really listening. This means radical new ideas and attitudes won’t break through any longer — at least not through pop music.”
“So, musically, we’re back to the ‘50s with professionalised showbiz, artists with svengali managers, etc. Financial and media cunning, but no real intelligence. Technical ability is valued more than ideas. There will be no origination of new forms from them. The game is to retread increasingly mannered stuff, by means of new faces and an efficient PR machine. But nothing stays the same forever. I think we’re well due for a complete rethink. So let’s see what post-digital music culture looks like.”
Blancmange’s irrepressible Neil Arthur, meanwhile, insists that some things haven’t changed, even with all of today’s much more easily accessible technology. “Well the essential thing is an idea. It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve got elastic bands and tape loops going around chair legs and tupperware, or you’ve got the most sophisticated computer and all the plugins or whatever that may go into it. At the end of the day it’s the idea that counts, and unless you’ve got an idea it’s not really worth it, is it?”
Making Music in a Changing World
What’s changed since those early years of the electronic music scene? A lot. One thing that jumps out at Shreeve is the impression that music doesn’t always seem to matter the way it used to.
“I may well be wrong but I get the impression that music is of less importance to the average 20-year-old now than it was to my generation. From the ‘50s onwards rock and pop music gave younger people something unique to them, something they found for themselves without the influence of parents, teachers, etc — something to live for, you might say.”
“Sometime in the recent past, I would contend the late ‘80s, other things started to captivate teenagers: computer games and ultimately mobile phones with all the immense connectivity they give them. Music doesn’t appear to have the deep significance to youngsters now as it did once… It’s sad in one way, at least from my biased point of view, but understandable as a natural progression.”
When Shreeve was growing up though, music played a very different role. “From the outset, music was everything to me, it was my life.”
Bowes reflected on the differences as well. It was harder to find clubs that were open to new forms of music, he notes. Another significant difference is the role of merchandise at shows today. In the ‘80s, he says, no one thought of selling t-shirts or even albums at shows. Shows were about listening to music, not purchasing things. In retrospect, he thinks that a bit of commercialization in the early era, like today’s merchandise sales, could really have helped some of the struggling bands.
Arthur says that bands today need to be less concerned with worrying about what people want to hear, and more concerned with making the music they want to make. “Because if you believe in it, it’ll start to show in your music. If you absolutely believe in it, it will come true. Other people will believe it. That’s the only way you can succeed. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, because if you’re doing music that you think other people might want to hear, you’re failing. Don’t do it, don’t try and second-guess what other people might want. Just do what’s in your head. It’s a very difficult, very difficult thing. I mean I’m still learning.”
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Almost 40 years have passed since many of the bands discussed here first took to the stage. What do they feel about the way the world has changed since then? “I feel that on a general social level there is less prejudice around now,” reflects Shreeve. “There’s still plenty of it of course, but maybe not quite as virulent as 30 or 40 years ago.” Still, he notes, his generation had a lot of advantages that he doesn’t see today’s generations growing up with.
“I feel lucky that I have lived in the era that I have. When I was young our generation had everything — no world wars, free education including university, job security for most, a stable national health service, relatively cheaper homes. That’s pretty much all gone now, and who knows, it may even be the fault of my generation, we took it all for granted really. The world situation is going through one of its periodic scary phases… It may get better, it may not.”
“I think the problem is that throughout history human civilisation has been advanced by the actions of a relatively tiny number of very intelligent people. It sometimes seems like the rest of the human race would quickly return to savagery if the fragile constructs of that civilisation were removed. This has happened at various points round the world through time. It’s almost as if there are people who can hardly wait to physically express their nasty little prejudices, the only reason they don’t is because of the law… not because they have humane views.”
“Ignorance is the fuel of prejudice and nationalism, education is the key to civility.”
Attrition’s Bowes adopts a philosophical attitude: a lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same as well.
“You hear all the time that there’s a lot of terrorism. We did a show in Belgium just a few days after the bombs were there — we played a festival in Antwerp, and there was soldiers on the streets. Of course it’s terrible. Then I thought, well actually we used to have worse in England in the ’70s. I remember being a kid and there was IRA bombs going off everywhere. It’s almost forgotten sometimes, you know. So I don’t think it’s better or worse.”
Blancmange’s Arthur is also torn between fear for the future, and his irrepressible conviction that humanity has no choice but to rise to the challenge. “I think if you asked people who are leaving their teenage years and entering their early twenties how they see the future they would say ‘I’m bloody terrified!’ So I’m absolutely with them on that, the future is terrifying…but from a creative point of view, great time to get creative! Great time to get creative! You know, now I’m going to have to dig REAL deep, because it is fucking terrifying!”
Terrified or not, he’s still excited and full of hope for it. How can he be simultaneously terrified and optimistic? In response to that, he turns fatalistic.
“We have no choice. We’re all going there. It might not be optimism when you see the news and read the papers, but we’ve no choice. We can’t go back, we’ve got to go forward, and deal with whatever is coming. There’s some dreadful things happening in the world but we have no choice but to move forward and face the challenge. But from a much less important point of view — meaning a personal point of view — in terms of creativity… I’m optimistic about what the future holds creatively. But they’re two very separate things. One a lot more serious than the other. We’ve got no choice, we’re all going there.”
Keeping At It
Unlike some of their peers on the compilation, the musicians discussed here are all still producing music, still driven by the inspirations that pushed them into the field decades ago.
After a quarter century hiatus, in 2010 Blancmange’s Arthur and Luscombe got to chatting and sharing songs again, and before they knew it they had more than enough for a new album. “Twenty-six years later it felt like we’d just gone out of the room for a little while, gone out for a cup of coffee or a beer, and then come back in and carried on,” recalls Arthur, an enthusiastic grin in his voice.
The final word goes to Attrition’s Bowes. Today, he makes his living from a variety of sources, much of it unrelated to his work with Attrition. He runs his own studio, and has taught music technology at the college level. So he balances his time between Attrition, paid studio work, and side projects. But it’s touring that he especially loves, and that show how much he’s gained from his musical career.
“Just the driving, I like spending twelve hours doing nothing and looking out the windows at the mountains. You have to be into doing it, I think. We went to Siberia a few years ago. We went on the Trans-Siberian Express. They were knocking the ice off the wheels every time it stopped — it was in January. There was peasants fishing on frozen rivers and bringing the fish on the train when it stopped to see if anyone wanted to buy any. It was weird. It was soldiers, and peasants, and lots of vodka. It was three days on the train to get to Siberia!”
“We played the gig and then we took the train back. Things like that, I don’t think you’d ever do as a holiday. There’s things about being in a band that are just amazing. They form your life, you know.”