2 weeks ago
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Chapter 17: ELECTRIC DREAMS: Synthpop
(Chapter 18 in the US edition)
>As much fanfare
The Human League toured with Pere Ubu (the band of 1978) and Siouxsie & The Banshees
--Bowie. Quoted in NME, 5/2/81. Human League feature
>Next big thing
Enough to provoke Virgin labelmate John Lydon to dismiss the Human League as “trendy hippies”
>failed to become pop
They were a cult band, and “cult”, as Adam Ant had mordantly put it, was just a nicer word for “loser”.
>music for …science geeks
In the rock world, synths still had a stigma attached to them--despite their increasing presence in chartpop and disco, they were still largely associated with progressive rock, summoning up images of banks of monstrously expensive keyboards wielded by the likes of Keith Emerson (who in ELP pioneered a bombastic, theatrical style of quasi-classical playing that became derogatorily known as “technoflash”). Either that, or you thought of humming kosmik mindmuzak of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. Accordingly quite a few rock bands advertised the absence of synthesizers from their records: Boston famously boasted “no synthesisers used, no computers used” while Queen's early albums were all notable for the inclusion of the phrase 'Nobody played synthesizer' in their sleeve notes. (Then again in both those cases rather than technophobia this was a defence against people who found those bands too over-produced and clean-sounding.)
Human League wittily reversed this mini-trend by putting “contains synthesisers + vocals only” on the sleeve of Travelogue.
>science fiction subject matter
See also the Philip K. Dick Ubik inspired "Almost Medieval", about time slipping backwards (so that you step outside your office and see a man on a gibbet).
>"Black Hit of Space"… 'nothing but it left to buy'
After hitting Number One and swallowing all the record shops, the single's sales go into minus figures
>clever astrophysical details
Also, the label starts going around the rim of the record while the vinyl forms a donut shape. Also, Time stops when you put the record on. Et al.
>these were the kind of people… New Scientist and Tomorrow's World
And read Omni and watched Connections (“get James Burke on the case,” Oakey deadpans in “The Black Hit of Space”).
>fully automated shows
Another brainwave--getting the Pearl & Dean cinema adverts to be “support act” on the League’s own tour--came to nothing. “Pearl & Dean wouldn’t do it, it was too weird for them,” says Marsh. “A shame because we were really into commercials--on Travelogue we even covered the Gordon’s Gin ad theme.”
Into commercials, but uncommercial--that savage irony seemed to sum up how far The Human League had advanced by summer 1980.
Tubeway Army's first single when they were still a punk band more or less
>Stumbled across a mini-Moog
“I had never seen a real synth before and, to be honest, had never really thought of them very much,” Numan said.
>“Although I liked…. half an hour,” “Luckily… ever heard”
Numan, quoted in sleevenotes to the 1998 reissue of Tubeway Army (Beggar’s Banquet)
Tubeway Army still looking/sounding pretty New Wave with second single Bombers
“I was just… keyboards… electronic songs”
Numan, quoted in Thompson, Dave. Alternative Rock (San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 2000). P. 526
>Replicas… rhythm section was human and potent
Bass guitarist Paul Gardiner and drummer Jess Lidyard
>The Pleasure Principle… flesh and blood drummer
>Sourced… his sound in Low
“the sad, edgy drone he uses for [keyboard] top lines, somewhere between viola and air-raid siren, was all over the three Bowie/Eno and two Iggy/Bowie records,” wrote Davitt Sigerson in Village Voice.
>Theatre and spectacle
On the subject of theatrical stageshows, Numan said “I don't mind contrived things. Cos if something's contrived it shows that someone has gone out and thought about something and worked for it.... Commendable, isn't it?"
“Anti-hero thing” “against everything… do”
Numan. NME 6/9/79.
>“Being the… audience”
Numan. MM, 10/20/79.
>“Showbiz… anything… cabaret”
A fan of Sinatra, he even did a version of “On Broadway” onstage
Numan: “I don’t want to… listen to a bloke prattling on about how terrible it is living on the dole”
>Menagerie of 'types'
Captured Crazies are thrown into the Park, a killing zone where they are hunted down by Rape Machines who execute cruel and unusual death sentences. This is what’s going on in ‘down in the park’, with the most chillingly line ‘down in the park there’s a rape machine… you wouldn’t believe the things they do’
>“With images of decay… in Replicas.”
Numan, from his memoir Praying To The Aliens, quoted in sleevenotes to 1998 reissue Army Replicas (Beggar’s Banquet)
Unlike other pretty boy pop icons, though, Numan was managed not by a gay svengali with an astute sense for what would appeal to teenage girls, but by his dad; furthermore, Gary ended up marrying one of his female idolisers--a classic fan-tasy that virtually never happens!
>“The last living machine… to die”
Numan, quoted in sleevenotes to 1998 reissue of The Pleasure Principle (Beggar’s Banquet)
The initials spell out who the 'sad and desperately alone machine” is and what the song is really about.
> as a glam johnny-come-lately
One view of Ultravox was that they were just Island’s surrogate for the defunct Roxy Music. Indeed Eno even produced their 1977 debut album. Ultraxox offered a core of Roxy/Bowie spiked with some New York proto-punk aggression. They loved the Velvet Underground and New York Dolls and actually rehearsed in a place called The Doll Factory--a place where mannequins were manufactured.
>Systems of Romance… electropuonk
On key tracks “Dislocation” and “The Quiet Men” a new feel of remote-control numbness replaces Ultravox’s earlier dynamic contrasts and near-histrionic lashing-out
>“We feel European,” “The sort of background… here"
Foxx NME 9/2/78.
>Ballard-damaged 'My Sex'
Waits for me
Like a mongrel waits
Downwind on a tight rope leash
Is a fragile acrobat
Sometimes I'm a novocaine shot
Sometimes I'm an automat
Is often solo
Sometimes it short circuits then
Sometimes it's a golden glow
Is invested in
Skyscraper shadows on a carcrash overpass
Is savage, tender
It wears no future faces
Owns just random gender
Has a wanting wardrobe
I still explore
Of all the bodies I knew and those I want to know
Is a spark of electro flesh
Leased from the tick of time
And geared for synchromesh
Is an image lost in faded films
A neon outline
On a high-rise overspill
In Ballard's work--especially Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition--desire, adapting to both the brutally denatured physical environment of the city and to the image-saturated mediascape, becomes perverse and mobile, cruising and briefly fusing with fetishes and figments real and unreal, fleshly and inorganic. See also: “Someone told me Jesus was the Devil’s lover/while we masturbated on a magazine cover,” from Ultravox's “Fear in the Western World”.
More on the Ballard and Foxx connection in this interview at Ballardian
Other lyrics of this cinematographic bent:
“A glimpse of old sunlight ...”
"A figure strolled/along the esplanade/ changing in the mist and lights"
In interviews, Foxx talked about his songs as “small movies” and gave the B-side to “Underpass” the title “Film One”.
>In an even worse place than human league
Ultravox were actually ahead of the cycles of fashion yet regarded by the press as behind it--a similar predicament that afflicted Japan until the cycle finally turned in their favor.
>after being ditched by Island
After the announcement of Foxx’s imminent departure, Ultravox played a final gig at the Marquee. At the invitation of fan and fellow musician Rusty Egan, Billy Currie and Robin Simon (Ultravox’s guitarist) went to drown their sorrows at a nearby Soho club called Billy’s, where Egan deejayed a Bowie Night every Tuesday. Sipping garishly tinted cocktails, the despondent Ultravox guys perked up when Egan played “Quiet Men” from Systems of Romance. Gradually, they realized that there in the midst of a fledgling neo-glam subculture based around the same sort of ideas explored by Ultravox and Numan.
>the Blitz kid style
Other elements: bloomers ( baggy pants tapered at the ankle), headbands, ruffled high neck shirts with blouson jackets, long velvet frock coats…
>“People who work… depression”
Strange, NME 12/3/80.
>“The Euro-aesthete's ‘exhaustion from life’”
Mark Fisher. “K-punk, or the Glampunk Art Pop Discontinuum”, K-punk weblog. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/004115.html
>effete, melancholy mood
In "Ashes to Ashes", the Thin White Duke sang of "hitting an all-time low" and later described the song as being about "space men turning to junkies" (hence lyrics like "you know Major Tom's a junkie" and "strung out in heaven's high")
>appearance in the "Ashes" video
As well as Steve Strange, there were various other members of the Blitz scene, including Judith Franklin and Darla Jane Gilroy. Costing a quarter of a million pounds, the video was the most expensive promo ever made at that time, and one of the most striking-looking of its era.
Deliciously dissed by Julie Burchill as “a poxy Roxy”, who went on to grade the members according to their looks: "a B-minus, three Cs, and a spud-faced D , if memory serves!
>the reference to Spandau
There's a story that Tony Hadley once explained the name Spandau Ballet as referring to a term used by Nazi guards at a concentration camp in Spandau for the writhing convulsions of Jews being gassed to death--but that sounds a bit far-fetched to me, and much as I'd like to think the worst of them, too tasteless. It's much more likely to be inspired by the evocations of grimness and bleakness vaguely conjured by the notion of Spandau Prison, built in the 19th Century but after the War becoming the prison for Nazi war criminals (and which after 1966 only had one occupant, Rudolf Hess, who remained there until his death in 1987).
>openly elitist ... gigs were word of mouth only
a montage of invites/flyers to Spandau Ballet's tres tres excloos gigs, from The Face, January 1981
> reverted to their soul boy roots
At a Spandau press conference in 1981 in new York, Gary Kemp declared: “all that punk ever said to working class kids was ‘you’re dirty, scruffy, with no hope, and you’re supposed to stay that way’. We came along and we say to them, ‘you don’t have to stay a scruffy nobody. You can be your own heroes.’”
>turmoil at Genetic's parent company Radar
Genetic was affiliated to Radar, but the latter’s own parent company WEA abruptly closed the label down. When Rushent tried to interest WEA itself in his proteges, they told him that synth bands were a waste of time. “You should be working with groups like Angelic Upstarts,” Rushent was advised.
>expanded the potential of machine rhythm
Before, synth musicians had to either work with the rudimentary pre-set beats on keyboards and basic rhythm generators as used by cabaret musicians, or actually create their own percussion sounds on the synthesiser and painstakingly tap them out manually--a layer of “bassdrum”, a strand of pseudo-snare, a level of surrogate hi-hat.
>coded coming out
In the video for "Homo Sapien", a rouged-up and excessively groomed Pete Shelley looks like the fifth Kraftwerk member from the homoerotic cover of The Man-Machine
NME's Sheffield correspondent Andy Gill (no relation to Gang of Four guitarist) on Ian Burden's joining the League:
"He asked me if I thought he ought to join the band. He was a keyboard player as well as a bassist, and he said 'I'll have to learn all the Human League repertoire but that would take about an afternoon, it’s all one finger stuff. But I’m not sure whether to do it.’ I said, 'For Christ’s sake yeah. At the very least you’ll get to see europe, and you might make a bit of money out of it, and it’s playing in a proper band. ' Of course when he joined he wrote 'Sound of the Crowd and 'Love Action'. He wrote the riffs and Phil did the lyrics. Steve fellowes was living around Ian’s big house later on and he was there one day when the post came. Ian opens an envelope and there’s a royalty cheque royalty just for the European royalties on ‘Love Action’ and it was a quarter of a million quid. And he was like, ' oh, more money', and just left it on the table. He didn't bank it for weeks, he’d just got so many of these cheques'. In a way it echoes the Joe Cocker--Sheffield’s most famous son, for a long while--syndrome, cos he had no head for money."
>hardcore Numan fans
At school Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall were treated as outsiders because they were into New Romantic synthpop but everyone else liked heavy metal.
>“I can’t dance…. singers”
Sulley. The Guardian 7/13/01.
Formerly of the Rezillos/the Revillos, a group for whom Bob Last once worked as a tour manager
>perfect meld of tradition and innovation
Discussing Dare’s sublime merger of technology and humanity, , Oakey declared: “I like to think we’re the first grown-up synthesiser band… I don’t think the instruments really matter anymore.”
“The Human League have always wanted to be Abba,” declared Adrian Wright in Sounds.
>“This new pride… ideal”
Oakey. NME 6/5/82.
Kept off the top spot by Joe Dolce's "Shaddap Your Face"
The three masterpieces of 1977 to 1981 that were so monstrously influential:
They wanted to limit the use of synthesizers on the grounds that the instruments capacity to simulate brass and string sounds was putting horn players and violinists out of work.
>“It’s not experimenting… time”
DeFreitas. NME 2/20/82. Echo and the Bunnymen interview.
>“A lot… synth”
>son of a rat catcher… dreary Catford… "It was disguise… survive"
Sylvian quote from Mojo April 1999.
On David Sylvian's background and early encounters with pop music and eventually turn to pop music as a literally escape-ist route of a prospect-less future, this chunk of the interview--by Sylvie Simmons--is very revealing and informative:
"He was born David Alan Batt on February 23, 1958 in Beckenham, Kent, the second of three children. His brother, Steven, came along the following year. Their father, according to Japan's former manager, Simon Napier-Bell, worked for Rentokil. "When you had rats he went and plastered up the holes. It was a background David certainly wanted to get away from."
"I was overly sensitive," David says, approaching the past with discomfort. "I found the environment rather brutal. I wanted to protect myself from it. I was and am very shy - crippingly shy as a child - so I'd spend a lot of time alone. Drawing and painting were my outlet at the time. We didn't listen to much music in the house. We didn't have a stereo. My dad used to repair this one wireless we had - once a year it used to work for 24 hours then break down again, but I remember music coming out of that old radio: 'Ticket To Ride', 'A Hard Day's Night', the first things that hit me as being just an amazing sound.
"My brother and I had these little toy guitars when we were around five or six and I would play them until I had blisters on my fingers. I just loved music, even though I really had no introduction to it. The next step in my musical education was when my sister, who's three years older, started bringing Motown records home. Then, when I was around 12, I got a guitar. That was it for me. Straight away I started writing my own songs - pretty folky, all strummed on two chords. Steve was getting into music too, percussion, so we'd play together, non-stop."
At Catford Boys School, David hung out with Anthony Michaelides (Mick Karn) - a virtuoso bassoonist until skinheads stole his bassoon and he switched to bass. They bonded over music - glam for the most part, the first record David bought was T.Rex's 'Telegram Sam'. Aged 14, David, Mick and Steve dyed their hair and turned up to school in make-up. Their classmates promptly beat the shit out of them….
The school finally suggested David might want to leave and so he did, at 16, with no qualifications and "no other option" than music. By that time the three masked men had morphed into a band, with Mick, the most musically proficient, as frontman. "We would spend days and days rehearsing my songs," David recalls. "We had a place above a shop we'd go to every night. We were committed. And it was the only open door on the horizon - I knew that I had to get out of that environment and that creating music was my only means of escape. Which is no good reason for making music - there aren't that many noble ideas in a young boy's mind, haha - but at that time it didn't matter."
>New York Dolls raunching out at Studio 54
Japan circa their debut album Adolescent Sex
>“art of posing… clods”
Frith, from 1981 essay “The Art of Posing”, in Frith’s Music for Pleasure. (see bibliography). P. 176.
>turning into an avalanche for Tin Drum
Morley hailed it as “the most valuable of the works continuing the cause of For Your Pleasure, Low, Another Green World."
Interviewers started treating Sylvian as a seer. At least one interview (Morley's? Penman's?) came accompanied with a reading lists of existentialist and Eastern mystic texts for bettering your mind!
Shortly after this breakthrough smash, Sylvian grazed the UK Top 30 under the name Sylvian Sakomoto with the EP “Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music” . Made with the brilliant Japanese electronic musician Ryuichi Sakomoto (an ex-member of Yellow Magic Orchestra), the gaseous synth-smears and angular programmed beats of these two tunes seemed astonishingly futuristic in the fall of 1982; still do, even now. The following summer, 1983, came the much bigger hit "Forbidden Colours" by David Sylvian and Riuichi Sakomoto, the theme song of the movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
Morley. NME 5/30/81. Japan live review.
>Mix personal experiences with film images
Mark Almond: “So in every song there is like a little film scenario… Every song is like a mini-soundtrack… You can listen to the lyrics and you can spot my favourite films”
Almond and Ball’s contemporaries included Scritti Politti and performance arty electropop pioneer Fad Gadget
>more lushly textured than the classic lo-fi debut…
Suicide's second album was also more synth-oriented; on the debut, Rev only had a Farfisa organ at his disposal
>a fan of Northern Soul
On the 12 inch of their #1 hit “Tainted Love”, the Northern Soul favorite segues straight into a cover of Motown classic “Where Did Our Love Go?”; a thrillingly seamless transition as I recall.
“I used to wonder… dishes?”
Almond. Sounds 11/28/82.
Inspired by a tabloid headline apparently; I wonder what the story was…
>The Art of Falling Apart
Fantastic record, but too real for all but their hardcore fans: songs like “Numbers” and “Where The Heart Is” put the brakes on Soft Cell’s astonishing two-year run of singles success, and later triumphs like "Soul Inside" never quite restored them to the toppermost of the poppermost.
>“They weren’t relying… Mute”
Miller. NME 5/2/81.
>“Most bands get… the future”
Gorl. MM 12/19/81
>“Body music… too boring… mighty”
Delgado. NME 5/30/81.
>“The singing… speaking”
Delgado. NME 6/28/80.
He added that to sing in English didn't suit the songs--“English is so relaxed” compared with German.
Delgado, NME 10/30/82: “What you have is a complete alternative to normal relations. You know beating is for kissing, blood for sperm and leather for skin.”
“Lust is… economic functions”--Delgado. NME 10/30/82.
Straight out of Georges Bataille, vis this unpublished review by me of the latter's economic-philosphical-cosmological treatise The Accursed Share.
The Accursed Share, Volumes II and IIIby Georges Bataille, translated by Robert Hurley
"The Accursed Share", written in the twilight of his life, was Bataille's
attempt to pull together all his ideas and obsessions, and construct a coherent
theory of human civilisation. Volume I (also published by Zone) focussed on the
problem of economic surplus. In Bataille's view, what distinguishes cultures are
the different ways they have of spending this 'accursed share': these range from
Aztec sacrifice, to Native American potlatch (ritualised, ruinous gift-giving,
in a society where rank was determined by the ability to squander resources), to
Tibet (where excess wealth was absorbed by a large 'parasitic' class of monks
devoted to non-productive contemplation). Bataille's positing of a fundamental
human drive towards expenditure without return, challenges capitalist ideas
about the psychological motivations that govern economic activity. And while his
contention that humanity's real problems concern luxury rather than scarcity
would seem to be contradicted by our current reality of global poverty and
imminent ecological catastrophe, Bataille saw no inconsistency. The current
crisis is the result of capitalism's break with pre-Modern methods of disposing
of economic surplus, in favour of accumulation, investment and runaway economic
With the following volumes of "The Accursed Share", Bataille attempted to
integrate this provocative, if rather sketchily substantiated,
economic theory with the rest of his thought. Volume II, 'The History Of
Eroticism", is, for the most part, a rather ponderous and convoluted reprise of
the theory of sexuality previously explored in 'Erotism: Death and Sensuality'.
Bataille distinguishes between profane life (secular, bourgeois, productive) and
sacred life. Profane life is based on the denial of man's animalism, a refusal
of the animal's subjection to sexual drives and to death. All the labour and
achievement of profane existence is a futile denial of mortality, that
paradoxically condemns the profane individual to a living death, forever living
for the future rather than in the present. But sacred life is a repudiation of
the profane world's values of utility and productivity. Bataille is clearly on
the side of the beasts and the angels, rather than the bourgeoisie.
As in "Erotism", Bataille explores the affinities between sexual desire and
mysticism. Both are fuelled by a longing for total fusion, an incandescent,
immolatory merger of the self with the cosmos. The mystic and the lover desire
total consumption, pure expenditure without return; "their life is aflame and
they consume it" . Love's real object isn't the beloved, but what the
Situationists called "the lost totality" and what Bataille calls "a lost
intimacy": an end to alienation, union with the universe. And of course, utopian
thought has always aspired to this ideal state of being, sometimes locating it
in a lost golden age, sometimes at 'the end of history'. The psychological
origin of this notion of heaven-on-earth is most likely our dim memories of the
blissful inertia and kingly indolence of life in the womb.
In Volume III, Bataille defines this state of pure being as "sovereignty".
Historically, the sovereign was defined by the consumption of wealth, rather
than its production (which in Bataille's view is always servile and alienated).
Bataille expands this particular meaning of sovereignty to include any form of
existence that isn't subordinated to utility, that doesn't involve the
employment of the present for the sake of the future. It's the old utopian
and/or mystical dream of living in the now. Since knowledge is always in some
sense instrumental and thus subordinate to useful ends, sovereignty is a state
of unknowingness, accessible only in moments. These occur only when strong
emotions disrupt the chains of thought. Bataille's inventory of sovereign
"effusions" - laughter, tears, intoxication, play, festivity, sexual
ectasy, sacred terror - are all privileged moments that allow human beings to
live in the present.
Haughtily contemptuous of bourgeois values (deferment of gratification,
accumulation, providence) Bataille's own table of virtues are aristocratic.
Historically, the aristocracy have been the class of humans most able to devote
their lives and resources to prodigality (dandyism, combat, gambling, 'perverse'
sexuality). Appropriately, the society that's most antithetical to Bataille's
notion of sovereignty is Soviet Communism, which was created in reaction to an
obscenely wasteful feudalism. Impelled by the need to make the industrial
revolution happen in less than a decade, Stalin's economics turned bourgeois
accumlation into national policy. The result was state capitalism: a society in
which the individual's access to extravagant consumption was totally
subordinated to the goal of increasing national productivity. The ultimate goal
of Communism was an end to alienation (after the dictatorship of the proletariat
had withered away, Marx envisioned a society based around aesthetic, sovereign
activity). But in the mean time, Soviet Communism increased alienation, creating
a society whose inhabitants were less and less able to live in the present
moment. For Bataille, the real problem with Communism is its inability to
conceive of life in terms of play, only in terms of work.
Where Marxism mirrored the economicism of the bourgeois worldview, Nietzche
and de Sade are Bataille's ancestors and prophets of sovereignty.
Both were aristocrats, opposed equally to capitalist values and Christian/Socialist
philanthropy (hence their usefulness to fascism); both felt that solidarity
with other human beings debilitated them in their quest to become their own
gods. Borrowing Sartre's distinction between the rebel and the revolutionary,
Bataille recognises the reactionary nature of de Sade, Nietzche and even his own
thought. The revolutionary wants to replace a bad (because dysfuctional) order
with a good (because better-functioning) system. But the rebel only wants to
break the rules, and is secretly complicit with the order he revolts against.
His trangressions are unconstructive and childish. But because he's disciplined
and self-sacrificing on behalf of the future, the revolutionary rules out for
himself the bliss of wicked, wasteful behaviour. The rebel alone has access to
sovereignty and jouissance. "Pleasure, unjustified by any utility, is sovereign
insofar as it denies to the point of ecstasy a world that is infinitely
deserving of respect." **
Bataille's sovereignty is a sterile splendour, the unconstructive waste of
energy into the void. Chiming with in with the mystical tradition that stretches
from Taoism through the Gnostics' 'cloud of unknowing' to the philosophy of
Norman O. Brown, Bataille's final paradox is that the sovereign's last word is
"I am NOTHING". So perhaps the ultimate modern of form of sovereignty is heroin
addiction: a return to the invulnerable, solipsistic self-sufficiency of life-
in-the-womb, a total escape from the servile ignominy of the productive world,
the purest form of wasting your life. But perhaps even Bataille would have
blanched at the idea that the junkie knew how to live like a king.
>Love and Dancing cover… The entire team behind Dare
Only Bob Last was noticeably absent
>in retrospect I should have
Rushent: I’m not bitter about it, but in retrospect I should have got royalties… [In America] The NFL used the whole album as theme music for an entire season, which must have made the band a pretty penny.”
>On top of the world, and disconcerted by it
A year after “Don’t You Want Me”, Oakey seemed confused about what The Human League were. One minute he was talking about how there was no difference between them and a real MOR group like Eurovision Song Contest winners Bucks Fizz; the next, he was saying he wanted the League to do stuff with ‘substance’, become like Pink Floyd--an albums band, for adults not children.
> ABC... Vice Versa
>"(Keep Feelin') Fascination"… did feature some electric guitar
Much to Martin Rushent’s displeasure. By this point he’d swapped positions with Oakey and was the futurist-committed one who wanted to push further on the template of Love and Dancing, incorporating the remixology into the songs from the start.
Mark Fisher of K-punk on Ultravox’s albums at FACT
Mark Fisher of K-punk interviews Johnn Foxx
Mark Fisher of K-punk on John Foxx's Metamatic at FACT
Very in-depth interview with John Foxx by Simon Sellars at Ballardian, with special attention to the J.G. Ballard influence in Ultravox but dealing with the whole gamut of Foxx's musical-filmic-literary inspirations and touchstones
Interview with John Foxx focusing especially on his synthesiser use
John Foxx's own website
Mark Fisher of K-punk piece on Tubeway Army / Gary Numan at FACT
Japan fan site Nightporter
Metamatic -- the official John Foxx site
Ultravox fan site
Interview with David Sylvian in the Observer
Essay/reminiscence on the Blitz Kids / New Romantics scene in Observer Music Monthly
Me on The Future and the Human League reissue of demos and basement tapes
THE FUTURE & THE HUMAN LEAGUE
The Golden Hour of the Future
By Simon Reynolds
It began with musical vomit in the meatwhistle. That sounds gross, and possibly perverse: let me elaborate. Musical Vomit, a noise/Dada/proto-punk ensemble, was Ian Craig Marsh's first group, and it was spawned and nurtured at Sheffield's Meatwhistle, a Council-funded arts laboratory/performance space for bright teenagers. Post-Vomit, Marsh teamed up with fellow electronics enthusiast Martyn Ware as The Future. Then, with a haircut called Philip Oakey displacing original singer Adi 'Clock DVA' Newton, the Future evolved into The Human League: the first post-punk group to loudly talk up Pop as a Better Way, only to spend three years of thwarted agony as an, ugh, "cult band" (a dirty word in League lingo), all the while watching synthpop peers like Numan and OMD and even John bloody Foxx beat them to the charts. In the face of internal acrimony and creative deadlock, it took an inspired management suggestion (by Bob Last, whose Fast Product label had released the debut single "Being Boiled") to transform one quasi-pop failure into two massive, fully bona fide pop successes: the Human League of "Don't You Want Me", the Heaven 17 of "Temptation.
These 1977 basement tapes, dating from before Marsh/Ware/Oakey even had a record deal, are fascinating because they show how post-punk was in large part simply the resumption of progressive and art-rock, after the brief back-to-basics blip of ramalalama three-chord rock that was punk. It's not insignificant that the League were signed by Virgin (alongside Charisma and Harvest one of the premier prog-rock imprints, home of Henry Cow and Tangerine Dream). By 1979 Virgin had smoothly repositioned itself as a premier label for "modern": basically, prog with better hair, streamlined sonic aesthetics, and a less-is-more attitude to musical chops. So the title of one tune on this CD, "New Pink Floyd", isn't entirely ironic.
What decisively shifted them pop-wards was hearing Giorgio Moroder. Opening track "Dance Like A Star" resembles a homespun "I Feel Love", cobbled together in a garden shed. "This is a song for all you bigheads who think disco music is lower than the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with", announces Oakey, "We're the Human League, we're much cleverer than you." His sneer makes plain the streak of hipster one-upmanship behind pro-pop proselytizing: basically, highbrows aligning themselves with lowbrow pulp and against middlebrow student notions of "cool" and profundity. Driven by an idea of pop, The Human League only reached it when they found their own Moroder in Martin Rushent.
In these spindly song-sketches and buzzing lo-fi instrumentals from 1977---half-a-decade before "Love Action" and "Fascist Groove Thang"---what you hear is a group that has as much in common with Faust and Heldon as with Abba and Chic (the reference points circa Dare and Penthouse and Pavement). Much of Golden Hour is brilliant; the remainder is either charming or, at bare minimum, interesting. Standouts include the early Cabaret Voltaire-like pulse-maze of "Daz"; the doomy, tenebrous 23rd Century Gothick of "Future Religion"; an instrumental version of the Four Tops "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" that's like Joe Meek at his most ethereal; "Blank Clocks", an experiment in automatic lyric-writing, in which a restricted number of nouns ("blank", "time", "heart", "face", "clock", "talk", etc) and qualifiers ("my", "your", "the", "a") reshuffle in endless combinations. Best of all is the closing "Last Man on Earth": ten minutes of cold electronic beauty that fully lives up to the poignancy and desolation of its title. Overall, Golden Hour shows how under-rated both Human League and Heaven 17 (just check Side Two of Penthouse, essentially an extension of Reproduction/Travelogue) have been as electronic pioneers. "We are the Human League, there are no guitars…"
Me on The Human League's comeback-that-fell-flat album of 2001, Secrets
THE HUMAN LEAGUE
by Simon Reynolds
They couldn't have picked a better time for a comeback. After several false starts, the Eighties revival is finally ON. And it's not just smirky weren't-we-ludicrous retro-TV: young, smart bands from Ladytron to Adult are paying tribute the best way, by finding fresh twists to synthpop'slegacy. . Something's definitely in the air: in one of those Zeitgeist/synchronicty, before I even knew there was a new League album coming, I recently picked up Reproduction, Travelogue, and Dare second-hand on vinyl, while of all sudden friends seem to be waxing nostalgic about "Being Boiled".
Entering that barely populated category of the non-disgraceful comeback, Secrets sounds just great: the confidence, conviction, and sense of renewed delight in their own existence is palpable. Opener "All I Ever Wanted" has almost the exact same creaky robot-fart bassline as "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" (the 1998 cult hit by neo-electro outfit i/F that kickstarted the techno scene's interest in all things Eighties). "Love Me Madly" is a marvellous blast of controlled hysteria, with great rhymes ( "you're really making me anxious/you know everybody blanks us") and OTT metaphors like "I'm tethered to a trainee hellcat". On "Shameless", the squeaky-clean synths, crisply reticular beats, and chittering 16th-note basslines make you flash on Computer World and the Moroder-produced Sparks of "Beat The Clock" and "Number One Song In Heaven".
Secrets is retro-nuevo, the League staging their own revival ('cos who could do it better?). State-of-art FX coexist with pure-1981 one-finger synth-tunes and rudimentary arpeggiated refrains. Oakey & Co have found a way to modernize their classic "Love Action"/"Fascination"--era sound without losing its distinctive League-ness. And that distinctiveness resides in a certain unsupple, boxy quality. Today, electronica producers just press a button to make their tracks "swing"; computers can give the music "feel" by adding tiny rhythmic irregularities. Paradoxically, it's their stiffness and squareness that makes the League human. But--and here's the weird thing--the one place this isn't happening anymore is the vocals.
Something's been lost, a certain shaky fallibility. Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley especially sound characterless, the girl-dancing-around-her-handbag-at-the-disco charm ironed out. Mostly likely the culprit is Autotuner, a studio device that corrects errors in pitch. Maybe such perfectionism is necessary to compete in the pop marketplace of fembots like Aguilera and Spears, but it brings a certain Bucks Fizz-like plasticity (bad plastic-ness, as opposed to good plastic pop) to the backing vocals, and Susanne's lead vocal on "Never Give Your Heart".
As a result, Secrets is incredibly strong--there could be six or seven hit singles here--but it's limned with a certain hollowness. Human League have never exactly torn their songs from their hearts. The group was one of the inventors of pop-about-pop, the missing link between M and Saint Etienne. Massive popular success was an essential component of their music, it would have been embarassing, humiliated, without it. Despite this Abba-if-they'd-read-Nik-Cohn self-consciousness, the League's classic-era songs managed to connect with people, be "moving". But it's hard to imagine punters today using Secrets songs to soundtrack their lives. The love/hate tunes like "All I Ever Wanted" and "Liar" are standard-issue romantic scenarios. And when Oakey tries to "say" something, the results are either opaque or clumsy. "The Snake" seems to be some kind of rallying call to a new consciousness ("come and join us" on a "journey of the mind"), and "Reflections" gestures confusedly at the kind of E-piphany that's granted to people of the night but dissipates as the chemicals leave the system next day: "fragments of meaning" indeed. State of the Nation address "Sin City" is a diatribe about Blair's Britain ("confidence at a standstill", "tension you could handle", "our principles blurred") and attempts a reckoning with the lost utopian rage of punk and/or Socialism. But it reminds me of Weller's "Town Called Malice" (there's even a line about "a town without pity") and is ultimately the sort of statesmanlike speaking-out that doesn't really suit Oakey (remember "The Lebanon"?).
Ironically, some of the best things on Secrets are the seven all-too-brief instrumentals: the Kraftwerk-circa-"Neon Lights" intricacy/delicacy of "Nervous"; the pulsatronic drive and filtered bass booms of "Ringinglow," which could mash up the venue at Gatecrasher, Sheffield's temple of trance; the butterfly wing-flutter of "Lament". On these tracks, Human League situate themselves on the continuum that runs from Moroder to Paul Van Dyk: the quest for an authentically European soul, clean, serene, non-earthy, unearthly. A qualified triumph, Secrets reminds you of the League's pioneer stature as electronic musicians, as much as their brief reign as a meta-pop dream come true.
All non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated