Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: Synth-Pop – Part 1

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another edition of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – our occasional Campari and soda drenched probe into the rainbow and glitter world of artistes who are quite simply fabulous darling.

This week, for a change, we won’t be probing the inner workings of single artist, nor will we be fingering a particular instrument. Instead, this week’s FFF will act as the introduction to a short series of articles taking a look at the halcyon days of synth-pop. There will be no attempt on my part to provide a definitive history of the genre; these articles will simply be an excuse to jot down my alcohol-fuelled ramblings on a period of music that was particularly flamboyant, and will of course provide the excuse to post a number of fabulously flamboyant videos. And so, without further ado, laydees and gentlebodies, FFF proudly presents the campest little genre in town: synth-pop (part one). Not ‘arf!

But where to start? As I noted in a recent article on sampling, this is rather like the splendid James Burke TV series, Connections, in that we have to pick a starting point. It’s a fairly arbitrary decision on my part, but as we’re looking at synth-pop, I’m going to start with musique concrète – a type of audio and musical composition that utilizes recorded sounds as the raw material for the assembly of sound collages. In the early 1940s, artists such as the French composer Pierre Schaeffer and the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh began chopping up their audio tapes and set out to explore the possibilities offered by the processing, manipulation, editing and arranging of recordings of raw sounds. These early experiments were primitive but hugely influential. They influenced the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the 20th century’s most important experimental composers, and they also influenced the work of a young Delia Derbyshire, a musician and composer of electronic music working with the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. One of Derbyshire’s first works, and certainly her most widely known piece, was created in 1963 when she used the techniques of musique concrète to produce a fully electronic realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme for the BBC’s Doctor Who television series. This was a genuinely groundbreaking piece of work. Derbyshire had created what was quite possibly the most popular, accessible and easily digested output of the electronic oeuvre up to that point in time. BBC legend has it that Grainer, when he first heard the finished piece, was so amazed he asked “did I really write this?” To which Derbyshire is alleged to have replied, “well, most of it”. Grainer pushed hard for the BBC to credit Derbyshire as the co-composer of his theme. Sadly, he failed, and Derbyshire – one of the key architects of electronic music and one who is frequently referenced as “the mother of synth-pop” –  received no on-screen credit for her groundbreaking work until the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special in 2013 – sadly, 12 years after her death.

The Doctor Who theme was probably the first fully electronic piece of music to which most people in the UK were consciously exposed. However, for most musicians, no matter how enthusiastic they were, the laborious techniques of musique concrète were simply not a viable method of producing music. If the genre was to progress, something far more practical and far less time consuming would be required. Happily for our tale, in 1964, just such a beast was produced when the American electronic engineer Bob Moog introduced the world to his revolutionary new musical instrument – the Moog Synthesizer.

To be fair, a lot of electronic boffins were messing around with audio synthesizers at this time, but it was Bob Moog who first produced and released a commercially available audio synthesizer. His early synths were unwieldy beasts, but they could be played via a keyboard and so, for the first time, allowed musicians to create electronic music in real time via a comfortably familiar interface (the standard musical keyboard). More importantly for our tale, Bob’s keyboards continued to evolve and in 1970 he introduced the portable (and hugely successful) Minimoog, which has been subsequently described as the most famous and musically influential synthesizer in history. Progressive rock bands fell on it with glee, and although many spectacularly bombastic prog-rock musical shenanigans were soon to follow, that particular tale does not, for the most part, concern us here.

There is, however, one tale that does. It involves the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s dystopian masterpiece was accompanied by a revolutionary electronic music soundtrack (almost all of it created using Bob Moog’s synths) created by the American musician Wendy (then Walter) Carlos. The soundtrack is a spectacular blend of classical pieces and original Carlos compositions, and for many was their first experience of large-scale, fully-electronic music. The soundtrack album was successful (certified platinum) and proved to be hugely influential on the nascent synth scene. Two artists who will loom large in our tale, Philip Oakey (Human League) and Richard Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire), both UK synth-pop pioneers, have gone on record listing this soundtrack as a primary inspiration for their subsequent careers.

Then, in 1972, the dam broke and synthesizers finally crossed over into the mainstream top twenty / Radio 1 / Top Of The Pops / singles market. Stan Free  (using the pseudonym “Hot Butter”) fired up his Minimoog and had a top 10 hit with Popcorn, Giorgio Moroder released Son Of My Father, Chicory Tip had hits with Good Grief Christina and a cover of Moroder’s Son Of My Father – et voila – synths were mainstream and the young green shoots of synth-pop (although not yet termed as such) were introduced to the world. Unfortunately, this initial burst of synth success would prove to be something of a false dawn, as the genre, at least in the UK, seemed to stumble to a halt as it ran into the complete chart dominance of glam rock.

We now need to cast our gaze upon the knob twiddlers of Europe, and in particular to Germany and the emerging Krautrock scene. In the early ’70s the lingua franca of rock and pop music was, by and large, English. In Germany, instrumental progressive rock became particularly significant as it allowed bands to circumvent this linguistic limitation and enjoy considerable international success. As a result, innovative and often largely instrumental German bands and artists such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Can, Faust and Klaus Schultze (a personal favourite of mine) not only enjoyed great success outside of their native Germany, but also proved to be hugely influential on the subsequent development of synth-pop.

Of course it wasn’t just in Germany that synths were being adopted. As the use of synths spread, the mid-’70s saw their exploitation by artists such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Rick Wakeman, Tomita, Mike Oldfield, Keith Emerson, Stevie Wonder, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band and many, many more. Even Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam), the acoustic guitar strumming uber-hippy, was busily experimenting with synthesizers. Although, to be brutally honest, his synth-driven output felt horribly like the musical equivalent of dad-dancing. However, as successful as many of these acts were, collectively they seemed to have very little impact upon the pop sensibilities of the day. Simply put, the synth noodling of artists in the album charts wasn’t having much impact on the poptastic singles charts or on the day-to-day output of mainstream pop radio. That, however, was all about to change, because in 1975 the sharp-dressed men of Kraftwerk rocked up (well, bleeped and blooped up is probably a more accurate description) on the UK’s shores and set out to play their first concerts in Blighty. These shows (and an appearance on the BBC television programme Tomorrow’s World) had an enormous impact on the nascent UK synth-pop scene. Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys (of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) have both claimed it was the emergence of Kraftwerk that directly inspired them to “throw away their guitars” and become a synth act, and many others have credited the rise of Kraftwerk as a major influence on their synth-pop careers.

Soon after Kraftwerk hit the big time, David Bowie’s influential Berlin Trilogy (all featuring Roxy Music’s electronic music producer, Brian Eno) was up and running, and Giorgio Moroder released his groundbreaking electronic Eurodisco song “I Feel Love” (featuring Donna Summer). We won’t dwell here on the enormous contribution Mr. Moroder made to the development of synth-pop, as we have already examined in some detail his splendid and highly influential work in a previous episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays. However, Moroder’s work felt like the final piece of the jigsaw. The groundwork was now complete, the foundations were in place, and all the necessary technical and musical resources were strategically positioned on the board. Finally, the UK’s music scene was ready for the synth-pop assault to begin.

At this point we need to give some credit to punk rock for the part it played in the creation of the synth-pop movement. It should be remembered that synth-pop emerged at the height of punk, at a time when guitar-based rock seemed utterly dominant. However, the no-skills-required and do-it-yourself attitude of punk rock had already filtered down to the young synth popsters. Additionally, as simple monophonic synths (synthesisers only capable of playing one note at a time – i.e. no chords) were pretty much the only synths our young bucks could afford, these one-fingered would-be keyboard maestros took full advantage of the punk ethos, stopped worrying about their lack of keyboard skills, embraced the many technical limitations of their equipment and simply got stuck in.

As an example of this attitude (and an important one for our tale) the punk-influenced band, Tubeway Army, fully intended their debut album to be a traditional guitar-driven affair. However, bandleader Gary Numan, with almost no experience of playing keyboards, had started experimenting and was soon hugely inspired by his monophonic fumblings and noodlings on a Minimoog synthesizer. His experiments radically altered the musical direction of the band, and the fruits of these labours were a successful synth-heavy debut album and the ground-breaking hit single “Are Friends Electric?”. The video below is a recording of the debut appearance of Mr Numan and Tubeway Army on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test and is generally regarded as the performance that kick-started mainstream success for the UK’s synth-pop movement.

In truth, the synth-pop scene had been building momentum for a number of years and it would only have been a matter of time before artists such as The Human League, The Normal, OMD or Cabaret Voltaire made the initial breakthrough. Nevertheless, Tubeway Army were first out of the traps and so get the credit. Their single was a big success, topped the UK charts and felt fresh, futuristic and innovative. Soon the UK music press had coined the phrase “synth-pop” and the genre was officially up and running. The ’70s were drawing to a close, the 80s were on the horizon and it felt like the future had arrived.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays. In part two of this series we’ll take a look at some of the early synth-pop pioneers and we’ll wrap things up for tonight with a splendid cover of one of Kraftwerk’s lesser known masterpieces.

TTFN Puffins – Not ‘arf!

Featured Image: Alberto Garcia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

© Ivory Cutlery 2023