Synth Pop & Co.
Experimental electronic music had left its footprints in the 1970s and also advanced significantly commercially. While many of the international acts of early electronic music came from the German-speaking world, England was the epicentre of synth- and electro-pop. Hairstyles, attitude, super-cool synthesizer sounds and commerce entered into a special kind of symbiosis: From technically accomplished musicians to musical technicians!
A peculiarity of electronic music at that time was that suddenly those who were not virtuosos on a specific instrument could also make music. Due to the technological advancement of synthesizers, virtuoso skills, for example as a guitarist, bassist or drummer, took a back seat. Instead, the geeks and nerds shuffled into the spotlight. Those who already has some keyboard skills had an advantage at this phase.
MIDI standard and the first consumer computers
The development of computers and MIDI interfaces suddenly became rapid. For example, the Commodore 64 came onto the market, where Karl Steinberg programmed his first sequencer. The history of electronic music production is also closely linked to the Atari ST computer, which had a MIDI interface on board at the factory. MIDI 1.0, the MIDI control protocol, was introduced shortly before, in 1982.
The development of the Yamaha DX7 as the first digital synthesizer, which was affordable for the average musician and accessible to a larger group of customers starting in 1983, played an immense role in this electronic movement. For the first time, thanks to FM synthesis, sound modulation could be carried out, used for the sounds and played on the keyboard.
Many other technical and technological advances played into the hands of musicians and music producers at about the same time allowing them to weave their sounds, tones and noises together for their compositions. And they did it more than extensively:
Gary Numan – the first synth pop star
It’s May 1979, the cult show “Top Of The Pops” has a spectacular appearance: Electropop pioneer Gary Numan (and his band Tubeway Army) performs his purely electronically produced song “Are Friends Electric?” And with that he becomes nothing less than the first synthesizer pop star. Gary actually came from punk and saw himself as a non-musician. He says: “My only talent is to string noises together“.
There was his band on the stage with electric guitar, electric bass, drums, etc., which made the performance all the more curious, especially since not one of those instruments were heard on the recording. Gary laid out the red carpet for the icons that followed him. The bands like Depeche Mode, OMD, Soft Cell, Human League & Co. either had not yet outgrown their practice rooms or did not exist at all. Only a year later, the journey, which was initially provocative, began.
Gary Numan – Are Friends Electric (1979)
Around 1980, electro-pop and synth-pop, with synthetically produced songs, finally became socially acceptable and compatible with dance halls. However, the bands had to prevail against the then soaring rock and punk. It wasn’t easy. An experience that Human League had, while performing as an opening act for Iggy Pop, was rather unpleasant: The audience booed them off the stage and the band “got hit with practically everything the punk fans carried with them”.
The British New Wave (as it started being called) band was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new synths. Punk seemed lost, they wanted to revive the spirit with a DIY attitude. And they should prevail: In 1981, “Don’t You Want Me” became the best-selling single in England. They are still considered one of the most important pioneers of electronic pop music.
The Human League – Don’t You Want Me (1981)
In 1980 Depeche Mode was discovered during a concert as the opening act of Fad Gadget. The British band, like OMD or Soft Cell, is one of the most famous acts of synth pop. Depeche Mode should prove to be a gold mine. In 1988 they filled the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California with 70,000 spectators.
A year later, the New Wave freaks released “Personal Jesus”, their most internationally successful song. They were hyped especially in the USA. All the more curious, especially since the band actually expected to fall on deaf ears in America because of the provocative song title and lyrics.
Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus (1989)
Incidentally, the British synth-pop band is regularly mentioned as inspiration by the founders of Detroit techno – the Bellville Three. But more on that next time!
If you were around during those days: Do you remember the onset of the synth pop and new wave musical movements? Which bands and songs have you been influenced by?