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Synth Britannia (2009) October 17, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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Synth Britannia

Synth Britannia

A bunch of people scattered across the UK, reading J.G. Ballard and watching science fiction movies, inspired by the DIY ethos of punk and newly affordable synthesizers, all doing their own thing in their own way at the same time, not necessarily aware of the others — in 1978, no one knew who they were, but by 1981 they’d changed pop music in the UK.

Last night, BBC Four aired a new 90 minute documentary and an hourlong collection of filmed performances from BBC archives. I haven’t watched all of the latter yet, but I watched the documentary and enjoyed every minute of it. Most of the people I’d want to see in this kind of program were there. There was some background on Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, two of the big influences. There was archival footage and new interview material of Daniel Miller (The Normal, Silicon Teens, Mute Records), Cabaret Voltaire, the Future/the Human League/Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Yazoo, John Foxx, Midge Ure, Gary Numan, OMD, and more.

The first part of the show is called The Alienated Synthesists and deals with the more experimental side of the music and the buildup to the moment of the first commercial breakthrough, Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric.” (I still remember how that song hit me when I first heard it; it was exactly what I’d been waiting for.) Part two, Construction Time Again, deals more with what came next, when the emphasis in synthpop was on pop as much as synth. There’s a lot of Depeche Mode, Human League, Soft Cell, and Yazoo here. The story progresses past the early hits to the mid-’80s, when so many synthpop bands broke up or changed their sound. The show suggests that New Order, with songs like “Blue Monday,” began a transition in British electronic music from synthpop to electronic dance music, and ends the show with the Pet Shop Boys as the band who completed that transition.

One bit that I found a little funny: as talking heads discuss the beginning of the end of synthpop, with trite and conventional pop songs that happen to be made with synths oversaturating the music scene, the screen shows bits of videos by Howard Jones and the Thompson Twins. Seems kind of appropriate to me; I’ve got at least one or two albums by pretty much everyone else in the documentary, but I never bought anything by those two artists, because they just seemed too much like ordinary pop bands.

Synth Britannia at the BBC is a collection of performances from various BBC TV programs, starting with Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” as a precursor to the scene, and including Numan, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Sparks, and many others. In some cases the artists are miming to recorded tracks, in others they’re actually playing live. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in that respect, and it includes one or two acts not mentioned in the documentary (e.g., Tears for Fears). The only commentary is in the form of a few text pop-ups on the screen.

I was never the type to listen to only one kind of music, to belong wholly to one scene; while I was listening to synthpop I was also listening to punk and other stuff. Still, watching this documentary brought a lot of nostalgia for an age when electronic music was something unusual and exciting. It’s not flawless; I would have liked to see Ultravox get more attention, not least because they were cited as a major influence on Gary Numan, who gets a lot of attention in the program as the first person to top the charts with synthpop. For that matter, David Bowie’s nowhere to be seen, though he was an influence on many postpunk and synthpop artists, and his Berlin trilogy of late ’70s albums would have fit in nicely. But my quibbles won’t keep me from enjoying this again.

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