The purpose of this article is to introduce some of the key albums released between 1979-1986. Electronic music during this time grew from the smoldering embers of the initial onslaught of the punk scene in the U.K. and the U.S. Electronic music’s prominence began to emerge in many different guises: highly commercialized synthpop and subterranean movements like goth and industrial. What this article attempts to do is give the reader an overall sense of sound from that era. This is not meant to be a “best of,” for some of the albums mentioned are not even the best representation of a particular band. These albums were selected because they were pivotal in the band’s history, the album seriously changed the face of synthpop in general, the album has been completely ignored for so long, or it had some strange significance to me. Most of the bands mentioned are from the U.K. and the U.S. To be quite honest, if I were to name every great album and band from that era I would never stop writing. So, with that being stated, most of you will be familiar with most of this list, and some will be familiar with the whole thing and think it is boring. The whole point is to turn your stereo on, procure those dusty albums from the bin, and play some great music. The title of the article, Discarded Gems And The Hype Revisited, is self-explanatory. Some of these records have been carelessly tossed aside and forgotten. Other albums certainly do not need my stamp of approval, but nevertheless were included to better illustrate the historical aspects of the project and/or make a point or two. This article was written in the same spirit as the day bands like Ultravox decided to put down their guitars and play with synthesizers.
Regarding the manner of presentation, the forty two albums selected will be introduced chronologically. I did not include highly experimental work, for I thought it to be better to concentrate on the album as an amalgamation of songs as opposed to a collection of electronic soundscapes. I reiterate that this is not a “best of” list but, for better or worse, a list that truly captures the synthpop movement of the early 1980s. If I did not include your favorite album, I do apologize. If it makes you feel better, I left off some of my favorite albums just to spite myself.
1. Human League - Reproduction (1979) Where would the 1980s have been, musically, if it were not for 1979? In 1979 I was emerging from prepubescent squalor and trying to make my stand in an immense and unforgiving universe. As awkward as I seemed, my adolescent confusion could not even compare to the convoluted path traveled by the Human League. Runner-up in the “What The Hell Happened To That Band” contest (for winner see 1980), the Human League made this unbelievably great album and, not soon after, became an MTV commodity. Apparently the cure for gloomy thoughts is MONEY. For those of you with a predilection for the morose, stop worrying about brightening your wardrobe. Get yourself some cash. How does one go from singing songs like “Almost Medieval” and the “Circus Of Death” to worrying about “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” It still sends shivers down my spine. Nevertheless, Reproduction was a true masterpiece. The 1987 CD reissue contains the “Dignity Of Labour,” parts 1-4 from an earlier EP, and “Being Boiled.” Life went on as the Human League transformed from true progenitors of artistic originality to the pop phenomenon of Dare .
2. Wire - 154 (1979) What happens when a band releases an album so far ahead of its time?
According to the band Wire, they temporarily disband. This album contains a little of everything: churning instrumentals, catchy pop songs, gothic atmosphere, and a chronic desire to anticipate nearly every future trend in electronic music. That is what makes it so remarkable that the band decided to go separate ways: Colin Newman and Robert Gotobed going one way, and Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis going the other. This album is often overshadowed by Wire’s Pink Flag and Missing Chairs albums. In my estimation it is sorely overlooked.
3. Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle (1979) I actually remember pleading with my friends to “leave that song on the radio.” That song was “Cars” and my teenage brain was swimming with questions like “Is the future here, already?” and “Androids wear black eyeliner?” This song was all over FM radio back then and might not have been better than superior songs like “Metal,” “M.E.,“ and “Films.” It was, however, one the most distinctive pop songs that I can recall and sounded like nothing else on the pathetic classic rock radio stations at the time.
4. Public Image Ltd. - Metal Box (U.K.) Second Edition (U.S.) (1979) This is not a typical electronic/synthesizer album. It is more of a psychodub dance album. John Lydon’s ranting sounds like an otherworldly instrument as opposed to something as bothersome as singing. “Swan Lake,” which was eventually remixed and renamed “Death Disco,” was written by Lydon for his dying mother. The sorrowful synthesizer of “Radio 4“ closes out the album. This was an album of exponential potential, outlaw antics, and innovative noise, paving the way for a thousand copycats and a thousand more detractors. Despite being a massively influential album at the time, its force now lies dormant due to a lack of proper respect. Lydon’s public image, often as inaccessible as his music, continues to keep the admiring press at bay. Never mind another Sex Pistols reunion. Due to a constantly fluctuating membership, Public Image Ltd.’s musical output would never exceed this album in terms of artistic merit. Sadly, the band just faded away.
5. Magazine - Secondhand Daylight (1979) I included this album because of the strength of Howard Devoto’s lyrics. Seriously. It is not that the album completely lacks merit musically, but it does sound dated. Think of the Damned, the Kinks, and the Pogues twisted into a colossal pretzel without salt. Devoto’s eerily amorous overture on “Permafrost” is remarkably premonitory as the advent of the Thatcher/Reagan years began to hiss and rattle. “Cut-Out Shapes” offers the romantic line: “We met at a psychiatric unit.” Now that is love. This album encapsulates perfectly the pretentiousness and posturing that consumed the marketable end of the punk era. It is an interesting bridge between the last death throes of punk and the promising sizzle of the synthetic future.
6. Chrome - Half Machine Lip Moves (1979) I have yet to find any valid explanation as to why this band is still so overlooked. Chrome brought to fruition the metallic clash of guitars and synthesizers and anticipated the industrial sound that became prominent in the early 1990s. Bringing about a world of science fiction, crazed machines, paranoia, cloning, and Chrome Police, this album was relentless in its pursuit of implosion. The band managed to keep it all together until 1983. Chrome’s fascination with chaos and wanton musical self-destruction brought about a barrage of unparalleled sound. Upon release, nothing else sounded like this. This album is timeless.
7. Simple Minds - Empires And Dance (1980) Let me just get this out of the way. Simple Minds, hands down, is the winner of the ” What The Hell Happened To That Band” award. Once the sound of suburban teen angst and brooding as per the soundtrack for The Breakfast Club, Simple Minds became just another pop band. This phenomenon occurred as they soon realized that the 1980s prime choice of pharmaceutical, MONEY, was just the little green pill necessary to chase those blues away. But prior to the commercial success of the band, they made great albums such as Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination, and Sister Feelings Call. This album happens to be the best of the lot.
8. The Cure - Seventeen Seconds (1980) This album is the bridge between the stark minimalism of Three Imaginary Boys and the dark Faith/Pornography era. Often overlooked because most Cure fans cite Faith and Pornography as the band’s strongest work, it is safe to say that without the work on Seventeen Seconds the potency of those albums might never have been realized.
9. Talking Heads - Remain In Light (1980) An absolute masterpiece, this was the Talking Heads’ best work in terms of sophistication, texture, and creativity. Certainly not their most accessible album, it remains a challenging listen. When put in an historical context, Remain In Light was a truly groundbreaking electronic album with its inclusion of funk rhythms and tribal beats. With Brian Eno contributing on bass, keyboards, percussion, vocals, and songwriting, this had “classic” written all over it upon production. It still sounds fresh today.
10. The Teardrop Explodes - Kilimanjaro (1980) Lead singer/bassist Julian Cope is another enigmatic personality. His manic approach leads one to believe that he actually had fun at parties, but his lyrics point in a direction of someone who went home after these parties and wrote diligently in his “What Happened At The Party” journal. The introspective lyrics in combination with the energy of the music make this a great album.
11. Echo And The Bunnymen - Crocodiles (1980) Though not quite as powerful as Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, or Ocean Rain, Crocodiles started the ball rolling for the Bunnymen. Ian McCulloch’s obsession with the Doors and the Velvet Underground would never be more apparent. What is fascinating is Ian’s version of “Read It In Books” as compared to Julian Cope’s “Books” version on Kiliminjaro. David Balfe, keyboardist on the Kilimanjaro album, also played keyboards for the Bunnymen on Crocodiles. And yet the two bands sound completely different. I assume Ian did not enjoy parties very much. Songs like “Rescue,“ “Villiers Terrace,” and “Happy Death Men” hint at that assumption.
12. Joy Division - Closer (1980) Released two months after lead singer Ian Curtis’s suicide, Closer remains a testament to the dark mystique that shrouded the band. Despite the danceable rhythms, the only songs on the album that closely resemble an electronic sound are “Isolation,” “Decades,” and “The Eternal.” There was always something more going on with Joy Division than with most bands. It certainly was intangible, yet it was very real, timeless, fleeting, sacred, sad, and fragile. Both Closer and Unknown Pleasures (1979) have influenced many bands since, leaving Joy Division as a constant comparative source for critics and fans.
13. Colin Newman - A-Z (1980) Described by many as the fourth great Wire album, in many ways it was. Newman’s band, consisting of Desmond Simmons, Robert Gotobed, Mike Thorne (Wire’s producer and keyboardist), and himself., was essentially a makeshift Wire act. The songs written by Colin Newman for A-Z were originally intended to be included on the fourth Wire album prior to the band’s demise. The differences between A-Z and the previous Wire albums were the longer song format and instrumental excursions such as “Seconds To Last.” Once again, this album has gone largely unnoticed outside of Wire fans. A-Z is fascinating from start to finish.
14. Visage - Visage (1980) Part Ultravox (Billy Currie, Midge Ure), part Magazine (John McGeoch, Dave Formula, Barry Adamson), Steven Strange, and Rusty Egan, Visage guaranteed their place in synthpop lore with the release of this great album. With icy robotics, manic dance floor appeal, and creative musical arrangements, this album offered far more than the huge hit “Fade To Grey.” With the release of Ultravox’s Vienna album, it is safe to say that 1980 was a good year for Midge.
15. DAF - Alles Ist Gut - (1981) If everything was fine, then the world was going to Hell real fast. Never shying away from scandal, DAF’s “Der Mussolini” was released as a single, and subsequently banned due to the perceived fascist imagery (dance the Mussolini, dance the Adolf Hitler) and religious iconoclasm (dance the Jesus Christ) stated in the lyrics. After the public got word of Pasolini’s demonic dancing fascists in his 1975 film Salo, there seemed to be no room for humor regarding the topic. I included this album because of the political and economic climates in the U.K., U.S., and West Germany at the time. As always, by pointing at an existing problem does not necessitate condonation or condemnation. This album portayed an undercurrent of cruelty and violence just below the surface of humming machinery, explosive percussion, and seemed to mirror perfectly the brewing violence of the world. The joke was that everything was fine as long as you kept dancing. The punch line was not quite that funny.
16. Kraftwerk - Computer World - (1981) Due to Kraftwerk’s popularity in the U.K.at the time, it is fitting to refer to the English language version of this album. Anticipating the co-dependent relationship between the personal computer and its human counterpart, Kraftwerk was the one band that fully realized and exploited the musical power of the machine to its most perverse conclusion. “Computer Love” remains the pinnacle of electronic achievement in pop music. Computer World was Kraftwerk’s last great album and a jarring reminder that all good things must come to an end.
17. New Order - Movement (1981) What was amazing about Movement is the band’s attempt to recreate themselves into something new. Upon Ian Curtis’ death, Joy Division was no more. The loss of their fallen singer/songwriter created a void in the band that could only be filled with sound. From this sorrow came New Order, with Bernard Sumner taking over the vocal duties. Still clinging a bit to Curtis’ vocal style, the makeover was rather incredible as the songs began to brighten a bit and a new direction for the band emerged. “Truth” could have been another Joy Division song, but “Dreams Never End” and “Denial” hinted at what was yet to come.
18. Moev - Zimmerkampf (1982) Madeleine Morris’ voice sounded a lot like Siouxsie, but that is where the comparison ends. This Vancouver band never garnered the critical acclaim they truly deserved. The pulsing bass of “Rotting Geraniums,” and the grinding dance of “In Your Head” highlight this overlooked album.
19. Yaz - Upstairs At Eric’s (1982) With one of the most distinctive voices during the early synthpop era, Alison Moyet along with Vince Clarke (and a little help from Daniel Miller), created one of the best synthpop records ever recorded. Yaz was Vince Clarke’s second successful venture in a line that included the beginnings of Depeche Mode and, later, Erasure. Songs such as “Don’t Go,” “Only You,” and “Goodbye Seventies” were synonymous with the classic synthpop sound from the U.K.
20. Blancmange - Happy Families (1982) Happy Families is another forgotten album that needs to be resurrected from oblivion. Some of the songs are reminiscent of the Talking Heads. Mostly, Blancmange managed to walk along the New Romantic line, yet avoided the trappings of pure commercial pop that plagued bands like ABC and Spandau Ballet.
21. The Fixx - Shuttered Room (1982) “Stand Or Fall” will always remind me of mornings before school. Because I had the habit of leaving the radio on all night, this song would inevitably wake me from my peaceful slumber, gently reminding me that the grim and godless brick fortress institutionally known as SCHOOL was awaiting my presence. So, of course I went out and bought the album. Then I discovered “Red Skies,” and I was in heaven. Reach The Beach was much better, but Shuttered Room, for me, holds more sentimental value.
22. Duran Duran - Rio (1982) Out of all the bands listed here, Duran Duran undoubtedly would be considered the most commercially successful of the lot. Unfortunately that fact, along with the whole puppy love pretty boy band image, leads one to overlook Rio as a formidable release. Musically, the band was quite good, too. MTVs chronic need to overplay the videos, coupled with radio programmers all over the country numbingly obsessed with Duran Duran, made the band, at the time, seem just another lame entity. “Save A Prayer” and “The Chauffeur” are great songs that cannot be denied.
23.. The Church - Seance (1983) The Church is my favorite hippy band, although they really were not hippies. They just went through a paisley phase, and I am sure there was a valid pharmacological reason for this. But who am I to judge. Nevertheless, despite the consistently excellent guitar work of Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes, the Church decided to go with synthesizers, a gothic album cover, and some catchy tunes by Steve Kilbey.
24. The Legendary Pink Dots - Brighter Now (1982) If anyone is familiar with this album, you might wonder aloud as to its inclusion on this list. It certainly is not the Pink Dots’ best work. It is, however, their first “real” album. Up to this point the Pink Dots’ musical output comprised of some limited edition cassettes from which these songs were culled. This was the start of all the sudden stops, twists, and turns of, if nothing else, a prolific and undeniably interesting band.
25. The Glove - Blue Sunshine (1983) Blue Sunshine was a collaborative effort from Steven Severin (Siouxsie and the Banshees) and Robert Smith (The Cure). Vocalist Jeanette Landray’s prototypical gothic voice is reminiscent of, but had more range than, Siouxsie. This album was no mere Banshees or Cure clone and was truly a team effort. Robert Smith’s lead vocal contributions were limited to “Mr. Alphabet Says” and “Perfect Murder.” What Blue Sunshine allowed Severin and Smith the opportunity to do was break away from the constraints of their successful bands and write instrumentals such as “A Blues In Drag,” “Relax,” and “The Tightrope.”
26. The Cocteau Twins - Head Over Heels (1983) Head Over Heels, along with This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears (see 1984), solidified what became to be known as the 4AD sound. Highlights are “Sugar Hiccup” and “Musette And Drums.”
27. Heaven 17 - The Luxury Gap (1983) First off, “Let Me Go” was not included on the original version of the Virgin/Arista album, but was included on the later Caroline CD reissue. “Let Me Go” was originally released as a single. Inexplicably, that same reissue does not include “Let’s All Make A Bomb” which is a great song. Both recordings, however, do include “Temptation.” Despite the confusion, this was an interesting combination of synthpop, pseudo- Motown flair, and funk rhythms.
28. Soft Cell - The Art Of Falling Apart (1983) Things actually were falling apart for Soft Cell by 1983. Marc Almond had released the incredible Marc and the Mambas’ Torment And Torreros album that same year, and a permanent solo career was looming not too far ahead. The Art Of Falling Apart contained the bonus 12 inch single “Martin” (great song) and “Hendrix Medley” (not so great).
29. Depeche Mode - Some Great Reward (1984) I never quite understood the Depeche Mode bashing that has gone on from the industrial crowd. I always thought this attitude was a result of macho posturing, buffoonery, and a complete lack of musical knowledge. Martin Gore is a great songwriter, David Gahan has a great voice, and the band put together one of the best albums of the 1980s with Some Great Reward. Depeche Mode were too dark to be pure synthpop, and not dark enough to be accepted into the industrial scene. Perhaps the bashing allied itself with the fact that Depeche Mode stood out from the crowd. Alone.
30. Talk Talk - It’s My Life (1984) Once you get past Mark Hollis’ obvious worship of Bryan Ferry, you realize how great a band Talk Talk was in its prime. Songs like “It’s My Life” and “Such A Shame” are incredible songs.
31. The Art Of Noise - Who’s Afraid Of . . .! (The Art Of Noise?) (1984) Synthesizers, a manic beat box, samples, edits, loops, car ignitions, noise, found sound, pipe organ, echoes, footsteps, church bells, nasty bass lines, randomization, spoken snippets, and percussive guitar riffs all debugged and compiled equaled the Art Of Noise. “Close (To The Edit)” was the most popular song from this album, but my preferences are the shorter pieces like “Momento” and “Realization.”
32. Cabaret Voltaire - Micro-Phonies (1984) Part paranoid dance rhythms, part ice cold Euro-film noir soundtrack, this album even boasted a funky tribute to James Brown surprisingly entitled “James Brown.”
33. Fad Gadget - Gag - (1984) This was not the best Fad Gadget album, but Gag was Frank Tovey’s last album using the Fad Gadget moniker. Roland S. Howard (Birthday Party) guested on guitar. Sadly, Frank Tovey passed away in April, 2002 from a heart condition that plagued him his entire life. He was certainly one of the pioneers of the aggressive electronic sound that would later be adopted by many of the industrial bands of the 1990s.
34. This Mortal Coil - It’ll End In Tears (1984) This Mortal Coil was a collaborative effort of band members from the 4AD roster: Cindytalk, the Cocteau Twins, Colourbox, the Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, and X-Mal Deutschland. Also guesting was Howard Devoto (Magazine), and Martin McGarrick and Gini Ball (Marc and the Mambas). The unearthly beauty of this album cannot be expressed by mere words. Simply, all I can say is that this album is absolutely stunning.
35. Shriekback - Oil And Gold (1985) Most of this album is too funked up with big chunky basslines to be considered electronic. And then you listen to moody synth songs like “This Big Hush,” “Faded Flowers,” and “Only Thing That Shines” and the whole mood of the album changes. The band uses the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) on “Coelocanth.” Shriekback is still an underrated band in my book.
36. Love And Rockets - Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven (1985) I saw Love And Rockets live sometime between 1985 and 1986. It was in a club on the eastern end of Long Island and they were totally awesome. In an attempt to shake away the cobwebs and dust of Bauhaus and Tones On Tail, the guys lightened and tightened their sound and released the first in a series of great albums.
37. The Pet Shop Boys - Please (1986) This is a classic synthpop album with the recognizable Pet Shop Boys songs that some love to love and some love to hate. Perhaps Please is not their best album, but it was where it all started..
38. Sigue Sigue Sputnik - Flaunt It (1986) Included more for its homage to corporate greediness by parodying the advertising space campaign craze, and for also having a really cool Japanese anime album cover. This is a good party album if you want the guests to leave soon. Atari anyone?
39. Ministry - Twitch (1986) This album takes off out of nowhere, leaving Ministry’s synthpop past behind and taking the music to a higher level of intensity. The first time I heard this album I thought it was amazing. It completely changed my opinion about what was possible with synthesizers and percussion. The album closes with the nasty medley of “Where You At Now?/Crash And Burn/Twitch”
40. Severed Heads - Come Visit The Big Bigot (1986) While guaranteeing their place in musical obscurity the minute they chose their band name, Severed Heads actually produced some interesting experimental albums. Come Visit The Big Bigot is a collision between these experiments and danceable beats. The derivation from that equation is sometimes fascinating, sometimes not.
41. Coil - Horse Rotorvator (1986) A dark and brooding masterpiece that, due to its disturbing intensity, necessitates the album be digested in small doses. I recommend listening to this when your extremely good mood becomes intolerable.
42. Various Artists - Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Sid & Nancy - Love Kills (1986) I end this list with a soundtrack. And why not? And why this? Well, for two reasons. One reason is the aforementioned link between punk and the early synthpop movement. The other reason is that the synth music (Pray For Rain) on this soundtrack is excellent, albeit short and embedded between the Circle Jerks, and Gary Oldman doing his best Sid singing Iggy and Sid singing Sid. Throw in a couple of songs by the Pogues and one from John Cale and you have a great soundtrack for a great film.
Copyright 2002, Michael Casano