Close to the Noise Floor: Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984

Four musicians reflect on the DIY culture that inspired the spread of electronic music, and on what’s changed in the intervening four decades.

“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.”

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