Six Simple Synthesizers: a personal history of synth pop

This is not a definitive history of electronic music. This is a personal account of the electronic music that has punctuated my life and meant something to me. You can listen along to most of the music on this Spotify playlist, or look at the YouTube clips where I’ve been able to find them (they don’t seem to play on my phone – not sure what I can do about that…)

1962. Telstar by The Tornados.

Okay, even I wasn’t born in 1962. But imagine what this must have sounded like the year before The Beatles released ‘Twist and Shout’ and four long, amazing years before the Fab Four invented the Chemical Brothers’ entire career with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Telstar was the work of eccentric genius Joe Meek, written to mark the start of the space age, named after the first communications satellite to send TV pictures across the Atlantic ocean. I discovered this song as a child, listening to old reel-to-reel tapes of Pick of the Pops that my eldest brother probably recorded. Alan Freeman was introducing it.

1963. Doctor Who theme written by Ron Grainer and performed by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

What can I say? Delia Derbyshire was a genius. Some of her other work makes the Aphex Twin look pedestrian. She was doing this stuff in the 1960s with tape loops and primitive machines. Respect is overdue. There should be a Delia Derbyshire biopic at the very least.

1972. Popcorn by Hot Butter.

I was five years old when this novelty record was a hit, and I now discover the most famous version by Hot Butter is actually a pretty cheesy cover. The original, it transpires, was a rather beautiful, gentle thing written and recorded by Gershon Kingsley – he’s an amazing man, amazing life, amazing music. Look him up. Buy his music. Right the wrongs of pop history – I’ve put some of his music in the Spotify playlist.
But I was five, and Hot Butter’s version sounded perky and fun and it sounded like the future – and that’s what we want from electronic music more than anything, right?

1974. Autobahn by Kraftwerk.

I probably haven’t listened to this properly for thirty years. I still don’t, at the time of writing, own a copy. But listen to something like Silver Sands by Stereolab, and then listen to Autobahn recorded thirty-six years earlier, and you can see who the greatest pioneers of modern electronic music are.
I first heard this visiting my eldest brother, in his space-age bachelor pad, played on a beautiful space age plexiglass and chrome turntable, amplified by the huge Fisher quadrophonic tuner-amp which now sits in my kitchen, and then out into the room through Tannoy loudspeakers that were each the size of an up-ended chest freezer.

1976. The Planet Suite by Tomita.

It wasn’t just the Sex Pistols who got banned in 1976. Japanese composer and analogue synthesizer nut Isao Tomita painstakingly recorded an electronic version of Holst’s Planet Suite – only to have the Holst estate force the record company RCA to withdraw every damn copy of the thing, which they regarded as disrespectful to the great man’s work.
But my brother had somehow got a copy, and when we were done listening to Kraftwerk, we’d put this on.
If you want to know what ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ would sound like actually in space, sung by robots – then this is the record for you. It’s mad, scary, beautiful, dramatic, hilarious.
What amazes me is the time and patience that must have been involved in making these early recordings; there were no sequencers, the synthesizers were analogue, there were no computers involved, everything had to be played by hand in real time and multitracked, put on tape loops – or in some cases individual notes were cut on magnetic recording tape and spliced together with sticky tape. I think Delia Derbyshire sometimes worked that way.
Tomita’s version of ‘Jupiter’ should be the combined Japanese-English national anthem.

1976. Oxygène part IV by Jean Michel Jarre.

Okay, everyone knows this. It was a hit single. Unlike any of the previous pieces of music I’ve mentioned, I actually owned the album, and played it to death on my parents’ Sanyo music centre, Sennheiser HD414 headphones madeof white plastic with blue foam pads clamped to my head. Lost in music. Caught in a trap. There was no turning back. I was lost in synths.

1977. I Feel Love by Donna Summer & Giorgio Moroder.

I almost forgot this, and I’m ashamed to say that it was only Donna Summer’s recent death that reminded me of it. I remember hearing Tom Browne introducing this on a Sunday night on what was then the Top Twenty, on Radios 1 AND 2. This didn’t just sound like the future, this sounded like nothing I had ever heard or imagined. It was fast, incessant, and I entered a trance-like state when I heard it. It was long – but somehow not long enough. And it still sounds as amazing today as it did when I was ten years old. Donna Summer’s soaring vocals perfectly counterpoint the mechanical bassline and beat. A perfect pop record. A dance record. A trance record.

1979. The Long March by Vangelis.

Vangelis is probably best remembered for his music for the film Chariots of Fire, but this tune has haunted me for years. Someone used to play it almost every day very early on Radio 2 – whoever had the pre-breakfast show gig back in 1979. I remember lying on my parents bed, listening to this haunting sad tune marching out of a small white plastic clock radio which had an LCD display. LCDs were cool in 1979. You could say this was the first LCD soundsystem. (I’ll get me coat).
It’s been bugging me for years trying to work out what this tune was, still stuck in my head. I was pretty sure it was Vangelis, but I couldn’t locate the track. Then today I typed ‘Vangelis march’ into Google and found a (frankly horrible) vocal version on YouTube that was the B-side of the single. I feel bad saying I hate the vocal version – it’s London primary school children singing to raise money for UNICEF. But they ruined a beautiful tune. And the reason I could never find it until today – everyone (Amazon, iTunes, Spotify) has the tune wrongly listed as being called ‘Chung Kuo’ – so if you want to download it, it’s ‘Chung Kuo’ you need to buy – and the iTunes sample is useless as the melody starts 1 minute and 43 seconds into the track.

1979. Are ‘Friends’ Electric? by Tubeway Army
Are 'Friends' Electric?
I cannot believe I forgot to include this in my original version of this essay, especially as I bought this when it came out – probably in Boots for 64p, though sadly the price sticker has fallen off.
This was another of those ‘hang on, nothing has ever sounded quite like this before’ records. As my English teacher at the time, the great Roland Clare, declared: it sounded great because each note doesn’t sound like it should follow the one before – each note is unexpected.

1979. Reproduction by The Human League.

I’d like to pretend that this was what I was listening to in 1979, but I discovered this album a few years later, by working backwards through the Heaven 17 catalogue. On their first two albums the Human League actually were Heaven 17, only with Phil Oakey on vocals instead of Glenn Gregory. When the band split and Phil Oakey left the guys who wrote the music to form Heaven 17, the smart money was on Heaven 17 having all the big hits. Whoops.
I’m not sure I will ever be able to explain why, but this is absolutely my favourite album in the whole history of recorded music. I like it more than Revolver by the Beatles. I prefer it to Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. It’s even better than Twenty Wombling Greats. (Incidentally the latter was the second album I ever bought. Sgt Pepper was my first). All I can say is that it sounded like nothing recorded before, or since (‘and with good reason’, I hear you cry). It’s medieval, almost. It’s mournful. It’s sixth form poetry. There are clips of Peter Marshall doing ITV continuity, there’s a clip of Jim Callaghan leaving Downing Street. One song turns into a cover of the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 hit ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’.
What’s that you say, Kirsty? I can only take one album to my desert island? It’ll have to be this one.

1980. Messages by OMD.

I never owned this until a few weeks ago, when Radcliffe & Maconie played it on 6music, I remembered this haunting tune and downloaded it on the spot. I don’t much care for OMD, but this is a genius bit of songwriting. Of course it’s also possible my addled brain was confusing it with…

1981. Lawn Chairs by Our Daughter’s Wedding.

Yes, the opening does sound exactly like Messages by OMD, doesn’t it? Our Daughter’s Wedding were American and sank without trace, a no-hit wonder. I was on holiday, stuck on my own in a crappy hotel room in some godforsaken seaside resort while my parents were out somewhere and heard this on an evening local radio show and I taped it. Yes, that’s how sad I was: aged 14 I took my Philips cassette recorder and Panasonic portable radio on holiday with me. I listened back to this song incessantly, playing air keyboard. So kill me.

1981. New Life by Depeche Mode.

What is Depeche Mode without Vince Clarke? Like the Beatles without Lennon and McCartney, that’s what. I taped this off what was by now the Top 40. Lots of air synth in my bedroom to this. Perfect pop – and genius songwriting. As OMD’s Andy McCluskey once pointed out, the machines don’t write hits. You still need to do that yourself.

1982. Six Simple Synthesizers by Man Parrish.

Oh I love this song so much. It was pretty much the only music my first girlfriend and I had in common. She liked Supertramp and Genesis and I was all into The Smiths, Lloyd Cole and New Order. I can’t even remember how or when I discovered this album (it would have been in around 1985), but it’s lyrically and musically a perfect bit of synthpop. Man Parrish is another neglected genius of synth, taking it forward into the realms of techno. Everyone knows about Afrika Bambaata, New Order and Arthur Baker – but no-one talks about Man Parrish.
One large computer putting out a pulse
It can play Stravinsky, Brahms or Bach or Holst
…and eight little faders help you mix it down.

1999. Spare Parts Express by Orbital.

Bit of a jump in time. Was there no synthpop between 1982 and 1999? Not for me there wasn’t. I went all indie and NME C86. Acid House passed me by, I could see the appeal of 808 State, but none of it really meant anything to me. Until Orbital. There was something about Orbital. I can still remember the utter joy when I heard Spare Parts Express for the first time, hearing fragments of sounds and half-recognising them, and then realising where they were from: the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s original theme tune to John Craven’s Newsround. The Hartnoll brothers would later pull a similar trick with their cover of the Doctor Who theme – I still think the BBC should have used Orbital’s version over Murray Gold’s (he dropped the middle eight, FFS). For one thing, it was truer to the original.

2012. Genesis by Grimes.

I know nothing about Grimes. The artwork for the album is horrible. But the synths and the voice – a great combination. I love this song. You can hear a direct line from early Kraftwerk to this. First time I heard it, I thought ‘there’s someone keeping the flame of synthpop alive, and kicking it on a bit into something new’.

2012. Night & Day by Hot Chip.

Seeing Hot Chip perform this on Later with Jools Holland is what got me started on this essay in the first place, trying to explain to a friend and myself quite why certain synth sounds affect me on such a fundamentally low level, why I can spend hours noodling with the free ARP Odyssey plugins I found for GarageBand – when really, truly, I like folk music as much as I like anything.
Hot Chip had always left me cold, but I had to watch this over and over, just like when I taped ‘Lawn Chairs’ when I was 14 and played it to death. They just have bits of everything I like about synthpop – the beat, amazing synth sounds, slightly offbeat lyrics. One of them looks like he should be in the original Human League line-up. Plus I’m a sucker for a female drummer, so getting Sarah Jones of New Young Pony Club in is a brilliant idea. I love the little smile she gives at the end of that clip.
Who would have thought they would be so good live? I have got to see them live. Which is a very un-synthpop thing.

postscript

I’ve now watched the rest of Hot Chip’s performance on Later… back, and I’m prepared to admit their last song was really quite dull. Thanks to Bethan for pointing that out, and for also sendimg me the video for Night and Day, which is certainly not dull:

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3 Responses to Six Simple Synthesizers: a personal history of synth pop

  1. Ashley says:

    Great music!
    Do you still have the BBC Monograph on the Radiophonic Workshop?
    Been playing with synths on the iPad with ThumbJam, Fairlight, Animoog and GarageBand.
    Even had an ex-member of Chicory Tip trying to play guitar on GarageBand on my iPad at the club!
    Did you see the BBC4 programme Synth Britannia?

  2. lisa says:

    wow. spectacular list, and liner notes!

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