Various Artists - Electrical Language: Independent British Synth Pop 78-84 - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Various Artists - Electrical Language: Independent British Synth Pop 78-84

by Jeff Penczak Rating:7 Release Date:2019-05-31
Various Artists - Electrical Language: Independent British Synth Pop 78-84
Various Artists - Electrical Language: Independent British Synth Pop 78-84

Before we begin, a word of caution. If, like me, the ‘80s British synth scene is one of your favourite musical eras and your record shelf is buckling under the weight of hundreds of albums and singles from the likes of everyone from ABC, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and Erasure to A Flock of Seagulls, Human League, Heaven 17, Gary Numan, Pet Shop Boys, OMD, Thompson Twins, Ultravox, Visage, and Spandau Ballet, to name but a few of the more popular representatives of this much-loved corner of the dancefloor, then this is not the collection for you. With few exceptions (and even those are unrecognizable early salvos unrepresentative of the bands’ sound), none of the above or dozens of other “obvious” choices are included in this 4CD set. Rather, compiler Richard Anderson has taken the esoteric, eclectic route and assembled 80 examples that lean heavily (one might say totally) towards the “synth” end of the title, with very few “pop” tunes in the area. Fans of his earlier Cherry Red compilation of electronic music, Close To The Noise Floor will be much more comfortable with the selections on offer here. To be more specific, as liner note composer Dave Henderson somewhat defiantly writes, this is “Not necessarily the over-polished electro-pop which has become the staple of so many garage forecourt compilations over the years, but the other side”. I guess that disqualifies just about every artist that the average collector would deem “Synth Pop”. So, we’re left with this set, where chances are pretty good that most “Synth Pop” fans will be unfamiliar with about 80% of the artists selected.

     So, qualifications and clarifications dispensed with, if you’re still with me let’s turn an ear towards what IS included. Thomas Dolby is one of the familiar names included herein, but we body swerve the obvious for a selection from his Golden Age of Wireless debut, the eerie ‘Windpower’. Mute label head Daniel Miller [aka The Normal]’s tribute to the JG Ballard classic sci-fi novel Crash,  ‘Warm Leatherette’ still sounds like it was birthed in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. Too bad David Cronenberg didn’t use it to score his film based on the same novel.

     Alex Fergusson’s ‘Stay With Me Tonight’ is a perky bopper that will suffice for Depeche Mode/Pet Shop Boys fans ruing their exclusion, but the selection of Colourbox’s original version of ‘Tarantula’ over the more reflective, memorable (and I think better) rendition by This Mortal Coil is a good signpost of where this compilation is heading. Early and/or original versions of familiar tracks (or early tracks from unestablished (at the time) artists) are highlighted over the every day, chart-friendly versions/artists one might expect from a box set with this title.

bebop deluxe

     Synth-pop trainspotters will immediately recognize the popcorn plink of The Nails’ ’88 Lines About 44 Women’ and Trio’s ‘Da Da Da’ percolating throughout Testcard F’s ‘Bandwagon Tango’, although the latter carries a punkier, more metallic, industrial sound courtesy myriad clanky percussive effects.  

Be-Bop Deluxe is another of the set’s relatively familiar acts and their final single gives the comp its title, while simultaneously perking up one of the set’s few “Hey, I know this” eureka moments. Alan Gill 

     Chain Of Command (taken from an XTC rarity) are an exciting discovery, with drum machines and synths penetrating your brain and traveling down to your feet until you find yourself heading for the dancefloor for the dark, herky-jerky, throbbing bass-driven ‘Honour Among Thieves’, which leads seamlessly into the OMD entry ‘Red Frame/White Light’ (their second single) that only hinted at the genius minimalist grooves to come. “Minimalist” is a term you’ll hear frequently throughout this review, as it seems Anderson is drawn to this side of the synth world, and The Legendary Pink Dots is another perfect example. Sounding somewhat like Television Personality Dan Treacy with a beatbox, it sounds like it was recorded in a potting shed. It was! and David Balfe are best known as early members of Teardrop Explodes, but before that, they explored minimalist Kraftwerkian electronics as founding members of Dalek I Love You. Interested parties can check out a re-recorded ‘The World’ from their debut album (the original single having been released a year earlier), but I believe Balfe had absconded to Big In Japan before this was recorded.

     Ice The Falling Rain is another unfamiliar act that would warrant further investigation If ‘Lifes [sic] Illusion’ wasn’t the only thing they recorded. Rumour (and Henderson’s liners) suggest it may be a moonlighting Vibrators in disguise! Herky-jerky Devo moves are extracted from Music For Pleasure’s speed-drill, ‘The Human Factor’. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Danse Society fans will recognise former members. If Toyah-meets-Siouxsie fronting a tinny drum machine is your cuppa, try Poeme Electronique. Sharon Abbot’s shouted, Germanic delivery is spot-on, and Dave Hewson’s shitload of assorted synths are rather catchy. He went on to record KPM library music for film, TV, and adverts which is worth investigating.

     Box Of Toys ooze that yearning, nostalgic vocal that was a key factor in many of my favourite synth-pop bands, and there’s a melancholic vibe throughout ‘I’m Thinking Of You Now’. New Musik appear to have enjoyed some success throughout their short tenure, but ‘The Planet Doesn’t Mind’ is a poor introduction, sounding like a weak Michael Jackson castoff. And the less said about Adrian Sherwood’s headache-inducing nonsense, ‘Technical Miracle’ from his Voice of Authority project, the better. 

chriscosey     Disc 2 tosses the dazed and confused out there a bone in The Human League, but eschews the obvious for a track off their rather dull, pre-fame Reproduction album, ‘Circus Of Death’. Another frustrating editorial decision was to offer a readily-available cut at the expense of the harder to find non-LP A-side (and arguably better track) ‘Being Boiled’. A missed opportunity there, methinks. Ex-Throbbing Gristlers Chris And Cosey check in with bubbly dancefloor magnet ‘October (Love Song)’, which is quite enjoyable even if it is essentially a ripoff of Lori And The Chameleon’s ‘Touch’, heard later in the set. Laugh Clown Laugh are basically Soft Cell filtered through Human League, but ‘Feel So Young’ proves that’s not such a bad combination!

     I don’t know where ‘Ricky’s Hand’ has been, but Fad Gadget has definitely been wearing the grooves out on his copy of ‘Warm Leatherette’ (see above) in regaling us with Rickey’s exploits. Too bad his track annotation ends midsentence, making us all wonder what he did release in 1984! The Mobiles are new to me, but Toyah fans will enjoy ‘Drowning In Berlin’ (the song, not an activity!) and Edward Ka-Spel’s eerie, neo-classical ‘Even Now’ is even better than his earlier Pink Dots entry. Even Ed acknowledges that Lily AK’s vocal utterances make the track a grower. Polka Passion’s ‘Lying Next To You’ is China Crisis lite, but it still didn’t deserve to be kept in the can for 30 years, and self-described “punks with synths” (great album title, there!) Naked Lunch are a kinder, gentler Suicide, although the latter would probably give thumbs up to ‘Rabies’.

quadrascope

     Robert Calvert is a name you’d never expect to see on a synth-pop comp, but the Hawkwind maestro is perfectly at ease in the present company with his minimalist foray into antiseptic electronica ‘Work Song’ (think Gary Numan minus the sci-fi lyrics). Quadrascope is such a Yaz copy I had to recheck the track listing to make sure they hadn’t slipped in a long lost Vince & Alison song. But no, the perky ‘Baby Won’t Phone’ is the work of one Willie Logan and it’s clearly one of the box’s highlights. Followed none too closely by the incredibly infectious stomper ‘It Happened Then’ written and produced by a couple of Radio DJs masquerading as Electronic Ensemble. Keep the heart medicine close to hand during this one! Jeanette (not the Spanish superstar) has a voice to rival Alison Moyet’s and even featured on one of This Mortal Coil’s fab albums. Her debut single ‘In The Morning’ kicked off a successful career that went south when she turned to more experimental endeavours on her third album. But this one is a keeper we’ll return to often. Finally, Those Attractive Magnets sound more like the Human League we came to know and love than their earlier contribution (see above), so fans of the latter should definitely dig ‘Nightlife’.

eigaza

 

     Disc 3 highlights include the always reliable sound sculpturists Eyeless In Gaza, who celebrate their 40th anniversary next year. ‘Veil Like Charm’ is industrial pop with Martyn Bates’ emotional distraught vocals to the fore. Camera Obscura (not the brilliant Scottish pop band) offer the emotionally draining and quite depressing (and perfectly titled) ‘Destitution’ that may lead you to the nearest box of tissues. Shame it’s their only contemporary release, although an archival issue of a scrapped album may be worth pursuing.

     Legendary Liverpudlian scenester Jayne Casey rekindled Pink Military as Pink Industry for a number of albums and Peel Sessions, although this talented artist never received the recognition her former Big In Japan mates (Bill Drummond, Ian Broudie, Clive Langer, Holly Johnson, Budgie, David Balfe) enjoyed. (Comparable in one sense to the Yardbirds’ singer, ol’ whatsisname?) ‘Taddy Up’ would be an annoying headache of percolating industrial beats if it weren’t for Casey’s soothing vocals. The Fast Set’s claim to fame is the initial release on what would soon mutate into 4AD (Axis), although their Bolan cover ‘Children of The Revolution’ is more of a Gothic take on metallic electronica. The mysterious Two’s ‘Trace Of Red’ sounds like Human League let loose in a video arcade, and Section 25 were New Order before New Order regrouped following Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ suicide on the eve of their US debut. Curtis produced their debut single and New Order’s Bernie Sumner produced ‘Beating Heart’, whose 12” mix is included here for you to decide who influenced whom? 
pink industry

     The final disc opens with another Hawkwind alum, Tim Blake, although his proggy take on Synth Pop, ‘Generator (Laserbeam)’ belies his days in Gong and comes off sounding like the Bay City Rollers with synths. [And to emphasise the esoteric slant of the box set, who would have expected a “Synth Pop” compilation to include two solo efforts from former Hawkwind members!?] Lori Lartey sounds like a cuddly little pre-teen gushing over her newfound Japanese boyfriend Kato on the delightful tale of young romance, ‘Touch’ from Lori and The Chameleons (actually, Lartey, Dave Balfe and Bill Drummond). It’s a brilliant slice of giddy dancefloor pop with an insanely catchy bubblegum synth backing and another box set highlight. I first obtained it on a Stiff compilation and have been loving it ever since. Now here’s your chance to join lori and the chameleonsthe fun.

     In some perverse universe, ‘Even Roses Have Thorns’ seems like the perfect title for the debut single from Jesus Can’t Drum, a downbeat Depeche Mode copy band who actually released four albums and as many singles throughout the latter half of the ‘80s. And while you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Techno Pop give ‘Paint It Black’ the Devo treatment, it’s the Klaus Nomi-esque operatically en-goose-d vocal from a stunned Gary Burrows that seals its infamy. Kevin Harrison’s heart pounding intro ‘Chase The Dragon’ sounds like it may have inspired Harold Faltermyer’s ‘Axel F’ theme from Beverly Hills Cop, and Freeze Frame’s ‘Your Voice’ is a melancholic dancefloor ditty with similarities to contemporary superstars Tears For Fears.

     The Toy Shop’s ‘Live Wires Kill’ is essentially Hot Butter’s old ‘70s synth chestnut ‘Popcorn’ grafted onto The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ (see above) and Paul Haig’s ‘Time’ sounds like a Human League outtake, but Science’s ‘Look Don’t Touch’ is an infectious earworm and Charlie’s Brother have learned much from their Yaz records, with ‘Situation’ forming the obvious blueprint for ‘The Wishing Tree’. Mainman Jamie Trott (aka James Harry) rechristened himself again (as Llewellyn) and now specialises in recording relaxing healing music! Finally, Eddie + Sunshine give us the sensationally goofy paranoid pop of ‘There’s Someone Following Me’, which is equal parts Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, and the Rezillos/Revillos with a daytime TV theme song quality running loose in the background. An upbeat way to end a sometimes difficult, but often fun trawl through the underbelly of synth songs that you were never likely to see on MTV.

     Cherry Red’s typically diligent track annotations (many by the artists themselves) will help you explore your favourites further and help put the whole project into historical perspective. And while this level of material (let’s call it the National League contenders) doesn’t really warrant four CDs, there is a pretty decent double disc in here should you wish to investigate the more adventurous, experimental, and eclectic electronic acts of the period. Just remember, this is more “Synth” than “Pop”, so act accordingly. Now where’s that “garage forecourt compilation” I came here expecting to enjoy? Sony’s 3CD Synth Pop and the soundtrack to BBC 4’s Synth Britannia are probably good starting points! Also of note (and not in a good way) is the rather frustrating packaging which makes it damn near impossible to return the discs to the booklet after you’ve ripped them out. One shouldn’t need an engineering degree to extract the music; so be forewarned that a struggle with technology is in store!

Comments (1)

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Thanks very much for the review. Saved my time and investment in yet another sprawling retrospective.

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