Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: Synth Pop Part Four – Two’s Company…

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another pineapple-topped edition of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – our fortnightly foray into the Campari and Stella soaked world of artistes who are quite simply fabulous, darling.

This week, to cleanse our palates of the hideously hirsute and entirely un-flamboyant contents of my previous missive, and to celebrate International Asexuality Day (from midnight tonight, don’t cha know), we’ll be continuing (and quite probably concluding) our short series of articles taking a rambling look at the halcyon days of synth pop and using my alcohol-ravaged reminiscences as an excuse to post a number of fabulously flamboyant videos. And so, without further ado, laydees and gentlebodies, Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays proudly present the campest little genre in town: synth pop – part four (now with added prog and extra glam at no additional cost). Not ‘arf!

This week we’ll take a look at the surprising number of duos that rose to fame during synth pop’s high profile years. This article was prompted by some comments on Gaydio (a fabulously flamboyant radio station which, for those who are interested, broadcasts on 88.4 FM in some parts of the UK and DAB for most of the rest).

During one of their podcasts, a presenter correctly noted the unusually high number of successful duos within the synth pop scene of the early 80s and seemed to be making some sort of link between urban yoof alienation (driven by The Evil Facher Regime – particularly in the gay community) and an inability, or at least a reluctance, to form traditionally structured rock or pop bands. Duos, according to this view, being a much simpler and easier-to-manage social construct, were far more suited to the alienated yoof of the day.

This argument felt like complete hogwash to me. Firstly, plenty of new bands were formed around this time. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was in full swing and the first wave of New Romantic artists were about to hit the big time – and neither of these genres showed any tendency towards an avoidance of the traditional group structure. But what is undeniable is that synth pop did indeed churn out a significant number of very successful duos. I suspect, however, that this had very little to do with the socio-political environment of the day and everything to do with the technological environment of the day.

Put simply, duos thrived because that’s all you needed to thrive: someone competent to programme and operate the synths, drum machines and sequencers, and someone out front with a decent set of pipes to belt out the tunes. Additionally, The advantages of being a duo were clear to see for any gigging musician who had to hump all their band’s gear around (have you ever tried to lift a Vox AC30 guitar combo? Your prolapsed discs will remind you for ever). Additionally, you then have to split the gig fee with every other member of the band! So, no – you ain’t pinning this one on The Blessed Margaret: duos proliferated because industry evolution selected for them via the environmental pressures of technological change and the financial incentive of additional moolah.

Anyway, whatever the cause, duos thrived: The Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, OMD, Yazoo, Buggles, Erasure, Jon & Vangelis, The Communards, Eurythmics – and many more. The list is long, so where to begin? Well, in Merseyside, I would suggest, because one of the first duos out of the traps were not only hugely influential, they were also genuine pioneers of the oeuvre: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD).

Formed on The Wirral in ’78, OMD currently operate pretty much as a traditional rock band. But back in their pioneering synth pop days in the late ’70s, and throughout their most commercially successful period in the early ’80s, OMD operated as a duo comprised of Andy McCluskey (vocals, bass) and Paul Humphreys (keyboards, vocals). Inspired by seeing a live Kraftwerk performance, our dynamic duo decided to “throw away their guitars” and embrace the futuristic synth-based possibilities revealed by those krazy krautrock pioneers.

These days, OMD are also regarded as pioneers: of the UK’s electronic music scene, as key figures in the emergence of synth pop as a mass market genre, and also as the artists who introduced the synth-duo format to the UK’s mainstream public consciousness.

They’ve sold well over 40 million records worldwide and for me their absolute best is Dazzle Ships. Released as their fourth studio album in ’83, it was sadly considered a bit of a flop at the time. This is unfortunate, as not only is Dazzle Ships their finest album (IMHO) it is also the last of their truly experimental albums. They had helped to establish and define synth pop at the end of the ’70s, and in ’83 they were still well ahead of the game, still pushing at the boundaries of the genre, still experimenting and still exploring the music industry’s freshly minted technological possibilities. It’s easily their most ambitious work, embracing musique concrète and sound collage as tools to muse upon the rise of technology in society.

Sadly, I much as I rate Dazzle Ships, on release it met with negative reviews, poor sales and was widely viewed as a low point in the band’s fortunes. Happily, it has been thoroughly re-evaluated since those initial negative reviews and is now regarded as a key point in the development of synth pop and a high water mark for the band. It pleases me greatly to note the significant acclaim this album now attracts from both contemporary critics and artists alike.

And so on to the second wave of synth pop, with not one but two highly successful duos as spawned by Basildon’s finest bad boys, Depeche Mode. Formed in 1980, the band’s first three singles and their debut album were all successful. However, Vince Clarke – the band’s primary songwriter, synth boffin and knob twiddler (settle down at the back) decided that after all their hard work to make the band such a huge success, he wasn’t actually all that keen on the results. To the surprise and dismay of his bandmates, he upped sticks, buggered of for pastures new and started all over again.

Wanting more control than he could exert in a band environment, Clarke decided to produce his own material and hire a singer to handle the vocals. Accordingly, he headed back to Basildon, teamed up with his old schoolmate  Alison “Alf” Moyet, formed Yazoo (Yaz in the U.S.) and enjoyed almost immediate success. Yazoo produced two critically and commercially successful albums and an impressive run of hit singles. Sadly for fans of Yazoo, after just 18 months Vince got itchy feet and decided that after all their hard work to make the band such a huge success, he wasn’t actually all that keen on the results. To the surprise and dismay of many, he upped sticks, buggered of for pastures new and started all over again.

After a collaborative musical adventure called The Assembly (which never really seemed to work all that well), Vince decided to return to the duo format. He placed an ad in the music press and along came Andy Bell. They teamed up to form Erasure and promptly became one of the major selling acts in the U.K. This time, Vince decided that after all their hard work to make the band such a huge success, he was actually quite pleased with the results. To the surprise and delight of many, he didn’t up sticks, to bugger of for pastures new or start all over again. As of today, the duo have released 19 studio albums and have enjoyed a very long string of hit singles over their four decade career.

Soft Cell are also worthy of mention here. Formed in the late 70s, by Marc Almond and David Ball, by 1981 they had managed to avoid even the slightest soupçon of success. This did not greatly please their record label, who warned the boys they were supping in the last chance saloon. Deliver a hit single or else, was the ultimatum. Happily for the pair they opted to record a cover version of Tainted Love, a mid-60s northern soul track originally recorded by Gloria Jones.

And I think we can take a short glam rock diversion here, because Ms. Jones, who was known as “The Queen of Northern Soul”, was also the favourite squeeze of one Marc Bolan esq. He was apparently besotted with her and she was mother to their child, Rolan Bolan. Unfortunately, she was also the driver of Bolan’s 1275GT Mini when it collided with a rather substantial tree, killing Marc and severely injuring Gloria. Jones was subsequently scheduled to appear in court on charges associated with being somewhat unfit to drive. However, she and Rolan duly ‘ad it on their toes’ and departed Blighty for a swift return to the US before her court date arrived.

Anyway, Tainted Love was a whopping great success for Soft Cell and even went on to get an entry in Guinness Book of World Records as (at that time) the single with the longest consecutive run (43 weeks) on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. Driven by the success of this single, their wonderfully sleazy, seedy and unctuously salacious first album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, was also a big international success. As a result, the duo went on to have a short but pretty decent career until they split up in 1984.

To be brutally honest, I’ve always found that video to be somewhat unsettling. The inclusion of a child feels so unnecessary and is at times, quite frankly, a little disturbing. But I digress.

We now need to take a hard left turn and focus our attention on the damp and foetid undergrowth of progressive rock, and in particular on British prog rock pioneers, Yes. By the early 80s, Yes were a bunch of knackered old rock dinosaurs and at first glance would seem to offer little to the UK’s nascent synth pop scene. However, this was not the case, because not one but two successful synth pop acts are closely associated with these grizzled old proggers: The Buggles and Jon & Vangelis.

The Buggles, of course, had only a couple of hits, but their influence was huge. This was largely because Trevor Horne (vocals)  and Geoff Downes (keyboards), who were both members of the early 80’s version of Yes, were one of the first UK bands to completely master the dark arts of sampling. Horn subsequently deployed these studio and production skills to such great effect that he has been called “the man who invented the 80s”. However, as we have examined his influence and innovation in a previous missive, we won’t dwell here. Instead we shall turn our attention to the second synth pop duo associated with Yes – Jon & Vangelis.

Jon Anderson was the original vocalist for Yes and the one Trevor Horn had replaced. In the early 1980s, Anderson teamed up with Greek keyboard maestro, Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou to form Jon & Vangelis. And, although they were a very successful synth pop duo, their output was completely at odds with the dark and brooding early monochrome wave of UK synth pop and just as detached from the second wave of bright and breezy primary colour synth pop.

Jon & Vangelis (perhaps inevitably, given their prog rock roots) felt like a hippy, drippy hangover from the pre-punk mid 70s, lavishly drenched with patchouli oil and seasoned with the fragrant aroma of sandalwood joss sticks. Nevertheless it was still synth pop and it was very successful synth pop – and it also provides me with an excuse to post this rather splendid arrangement of one of their better tracks.

By the way, if any of you are hardcore Yes fans and unfamiliar with the work of Todmobile (see video above), I urge you to check out this magnificent arrangement of Awaken, because it is jaw-droppingly good. I won’t embed the video here, because as good as it is – and it is very good indeed – it has bugger all to do with synth-pop.

I’m afraid I’m going to gloss over the Eurythmics in a somewhat cavalier and thoroughly unjust manner. Formed in 1980 by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (when their previous band, The Tourists, imploded) they released their first album, In the Garden, in 1981. It didn’t do very well at all. This is a real shame as it was a rather splendid mix of psychedelic, Krautrock and synth pop influences. It is, by far, my favourite album of theirs. However, by their second album they had moved a long way from their original sound to produce a lush and luxuriant (and, IMHO, seriously overproduced) collection of very successful, middle-of-the-road pop songs that didn’t really sit comfortably with the (then current) sensibilities of the synth pop genre. This disappointingly lack lustre second album was called Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). It was a massive critical and commercial success, sold by the truckload, and amply demonstrates that I know the square root of naff all about music and would almost certainly have been the world’s worst A&R man.

And so onto The Communards – a duo formed in 1985 after singer Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles jumped ship from Bronski Beat. Coles was soon, of course, to become the BBC’s favourite trendy vicar, and is also a pretty decent multi-instrumentalist. He and Somerville first collaborated on an award-winning lesbian and gay youth video project called “The Revenge of the Teenage Perverts”. Once they teamed up as The Communards they had a pretty successful run of hit records, but only lasted three years before Somerville went solo and Coles began his journey to become ordained as an Anglican priest.

And I think we’ll wrap things up for this evening with the Pet Shop Boys. We shall not dwell upon the inspiration for their name, neither will we comment on the proclivities of Mr. Slave or the fate of Lemmiwinks. We shall, however, acknowledge that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are, by quite some distance, the most successful synth pop duo of the lot. They have sold more than 50 million records worldwide and are widely regarded as the most successful duo in UK music history. And that’s not a bad effort at all. They are still active, still recording and still touring, and over the years have collected a sack-full of awards, including gold and platinum albums and a string of prestigious music industry awards.

I was wondering how to sum up the Pet Shop Boys when I realised that journalist Steve Harnell had already done so quite succinctly: an ear for commerciality, the desire to create something a little more highbrow, and a love for language and obscure cultural references that combine to produce an eloquent and very British brand of popular music. As a summary, I think that is very astute indeed.

And as we mentioned him above, we’ll finish this evening with a very short but rather splendid video of Marc Bolan and David Bowie, recorded live for an ITV children’s TV show. Mr Bolan is clearly, um… relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, that he promptly falls off stage. However, this being the ’70s, the production team clearly thought, ‘nah, it’ll be fine’, so that’s how it was broadcast. You gotta love the 70s.

And I think that’s yer lot for this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday. I’m off to hunt for a copy of Revenge of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Perverts, so I shall wish you all a splendid evening and a happy International Asexuality Day. May your pillows be tasty, your gardens inclined and your puddles well jumped.

TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!

Featured Image: Ceoil, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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