Friday, August 28, 2009

Talk About... Pop Muzik!

Including the video of Kraftwerk playing "Autobahn" in concert as part of my Theme Thursday post yesterday got me to thinking about what I was listening to way back in the "old days". The old days in question would have been the late '70s into the early to mid 80s. I had discovered synthesizers as early as 1968, when Wendy (then Walter) Carlos released Switched-on Bach; the sound of that analog Moog beast used on that recording was fascinating. Soon after that Keith Emerson incorporated a Moog modular monster in his rig and hit that wild 3-octave portamento jump in "Lucky Man", and a lot of people in the music business looked at each other and said "What the hell was that and where can I get one?"

Most of the synthesizer music being played in the '70s was experimental and to a large extent not very commercial. The Kraftwerk piece played yesterday was an example of that era; along with Kraftwerk I was listening to Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Jean Michel Jarre. This music wasn't made for Top 40 radio play - no "songs" to speak of, and a single piece of music might take a whole album. There were slightly more commercial versions of synth music, but even they weren't really radio-format dreams; Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and others tended to have long pieces (although not as long as Schulze's 4-hour extravaganzas) with surreal lyrics that were not exactly radio-friendly. They got played, but they never got a big audience.

But along came Punk. At first Punk was just a bunch of Cockney yobbos who barely knew how to play their instruments, and the instruments they barely knew how to play were guitar, bass, and drums. But as the new musicians learned to play, they started looking around and some of them discovered synths. And what the Punk aesthetic brought to the synth world was the idea of song. Alluva sudden synths were an important part of the short, edgy Punk/New Wave stuff showing up on the radio. The instrument was energized! I loved (and still love) a lot of the music that came out of that era, and below are some of my favorites from back then.

The first video is by Robin Scott, and American expatriate living in Paris who recorded as M. This is "Pop Muzik", his big hit (many of these songs were big hits in the UK and Europe; the US really didn't take very well to the new aesthetic). I love the dead-pan delivery of this hilarious satire on Top 40 radio!

I really loved the Flying Lizards, the next group. They did one album, and it basically deconstructed a bunch of iconic pop standards, including "Summertime Blues", "Sex Machine", and this one, Barrett Strong's "Money", a big hit for The Beatles. Again, note the dead-pan approach. Also , click here for the original "official" video for the song, which has had embedding disabled on YouTube; it's really worth watching. The video below is a live performance, on Top of the Pops, I think.

Another name out of the mists of time is the Human League; most people remember them for the awful earworm "Don't You Love Me Baby". But before Phil Oakley lost his mind and hired those two tweenybopper singers and entered a career (mercifully short-lived) of making treakley, happy-happy pop bubblegum, Human League was a serious experimental band, almost in the Industrial genre with their heavy, noisy treatments and synths and their dark lyrics. This tune - "Being Boiled" - is a prime example of the Human League at its best.

One of the movements within the post-Punk synth genre was known as the New Romanticism, and the ultimate New Romantic band was Ultravox. Under the leadership of John Foxx, Ultravox had been a fairly experimental band incorporating keyboards and a violin. But the lead guitarist left, and Foxx left to pursue his musical vision as a solo artist (and let it be known I'm still listening to John's ongoing musical career). But keyboardist/violinist Billie Currie didn't want Ultravox to die, so he convinced former Thin Lizzy guitarist/keyboardist/lead vocalist Midge Ure to come aboard. They'd done a project together that was pure New Romantic called Visage (yes, I own the vinyl album on that one, too), and Currie thought Ure was just what the band needed. He was right; Ultravox, and especially the yearning voice of Midge Ure, went on to be the flagbearer of the New Romantic movement. The music is yearning, and so are the lyrics, either yearning for the loved one or yearning for a better world (in the true Romantic manner). The following video is a live performance of "Vienna", a classic New Romantic piece.

Last but most certainly not least... Talk about edgy, aggressive Punk attitude incorporating the usual Punk guitars with synthesizers - Gary Numan is the poster boy for that. He's still living that life and making that music, although nowadays he's sounding a bit more like Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). Still, there's only one Gary Numan, and here's an early live TV performance of "Are Friends Electric".

And that's what I was listening to around 1980. I hope you've enjoyed it!

Text © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. ...this is exactly what I was listening to also, but not on the regular radio stations. Had to tune into the Oxford (Miami University, "London Calling") stations--and then along came MTV! Great post!!!

  2. I heart Ultravox.

    A very interesting selection, here. In 1980 I was only 11, so I didn't catch any of this part of the wave. The only records I had were my parents' (not that theirs were bad!) but I certainly can see (hear) how the bands I did find a few years later took this and ran with it!

  3. Roy, yessssss! Tangerine Dream was/is still a favourite, as is Gary Numan. Do a playlist search and you'll find some more amazing stuff!

  4. I was 18 in 1980, so was listening to all this stuff. You have an encyclopaedic knowledge! I tended to just go along with the hits, without exploring the artists' other music.

    Have you heard of Adrian Edmondson and The Bad Shepherds? I am going to see them in October- they are doing punk rock classic covers but with folk instruments- and have maart alcock on board.

    you mention Genesis- may favourite track was 'One for the Vine'- I listened to it over and over and over again!

    when are we going to get to hear you play ???

  5. I was more of a Neil Young/Bruce/Elvis C. (back when he was fab) kind of guy. I had also just discovered jazz and blues. For a while, I must have listened to Robert Johnson, Miles, and Return to Forever about ten times a day.