Moments Lost in Time: A Synthpop Retrohistory

It’s 2015! And I’m writing this from my flying car pocket cyberspace deck. And 80s retro is as much a thing as 50s retro was in 1985. So let’s do some.

I was a teen in the 1980s, but my memories of the music of the era are fringe and fleeting; songs heard in passing the radio, cassette tapes found without context, cryptic references in magazines. But in the last few years, thanks to Youtube, I’ve been digging back thirty years into the music that still resonates with me, that seemed then (and still seems now) to carry a sense of the strange, science-fictional future we felt crashing into us. A future that has now at least partly arrived.

The centre of gravity for me is 1982. Reagan and Thatcher had reignited the Cold War. FM synthesis and 8-bit microcomputers were on the rise. The Space Shuttle had launched and Star Wars was politics as well as art. Keyboards were the new guitars. Between the embers of Disco, the rage of Punk and the art-school alienation of New Wave, a tiny, futuristic sound appeared. By the mid 80s it had faded and stadium rock and rap replaced it. But briefly, in that window of a few years, something magical, alien and crystalline, burned in the neon night.

And because Youtube isn’t the most stable archival platform in the world, and beautiful songs vanish daily, I want to blog some of my rediscoveries, before they’re lost in time forever.

Daemion: Human Arcade (UK, 1982)

Well the people stand in line behind the glass
In the human arcade the image brigade see race and class

This one is just a mystery.

Discogs.com indexes it as the B-side of a vinyl 7″ single, Dizzy, from 1982, on “SiJenn Records”, whose only other release was a 1983 single by Rat Patrol. The band is Daemion. There are two voices, male and female.

The A-side  (preserved on at least one other Youtube but for who knows how long): is a resolutely  generic love ballad:

Dizzy, I’m so dizzy my head is spinning
Like a whirlpool it never ends
And it’s you girl making me spin

But Human Arcade! I remember that! Or at least I seem to. I don’t know how, but I have a distinct sense memory of both the song – with its sci-fi premise of a robot uprising, the chirpy music, the band name  – and, improbably, that cover image: a jester on a square-wheeled unicycle. And yes, I also seem to remember hearing ‘Dizzy’ and the disappointment of how lame it was compared to the B-side.

I seem to imagine remembering it as a 45 single rather than a cassette. A found artifact, discovered out of place on a street or in a room. But how would I have played it?

These things haunt one. Is it possible to completely fake such a memory? It seems so real.

And the song itself? Well, it seems to have lasted for others besides myself. To me, it’s a perfect little Twilight Zone episode in a song.

If it vanishes from Youtube tomorrow… at least someone may remember.

In the human arcade there are things to do
The corridor shines while I trace the lines on the mirror you
And in the human arcade there are things to see, hee hee
A penny here a penny there your very own favourite fantasy
And when the evening calls we’ll follow you
To where you have to go
But if the night comes down too fast we’ll run from you
And it’s time that you should know

That the human arcade’s been here for a while
A year or two, or maybe three
No-one is too sure you see
Well the people stand in line behind the glass
In the human arcade the image brigade see race and class
And when the evening calls we’ll follow you
To where you have to go
But if the night comes down too fast we’ll run from you
And it’s time that we should go

(robot voices) Source corrected… vector… space orbit…
Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!

And in the human arcade there is me and you girl
There is no-one left alive in here to watch us die and disappear
And in the human arcade we are on the run
Cause we remember the times when the people did jobs and machines could run
And in the human arcade there’s so much to do
Human arcade there is me and you
Human arcade lots to see
Human arcade there is you and me
In the human arcade there is so much fun
Human arcade we are on the run
Human arcade lots to see
Wander round quite aimlessly
In the human arcade
In the human arcade
Human arcade…

Spoons: Nova Heart (Canada, 1982)

At ease with the thought
That this nova won’t burn out

Spoons are a Canadian New Wave band based around the duo of Gordon Deppe and Sandy Horne, who have remained intermittently active from 1980 to today. Like many such bands, they have a website and are releasing remastered editions of their early albums as well as new material. (2011’s Static in Transmission).

From their second and breakthrough album, 1982’s Arias and Symphonies, the hit track was Nova Heart. Ominous, minimalist and yet anthemic and hopeful, it has a pulsing science fiction energy foreboding a world in the process of unimaginable transformation.  And the children for which constant change would become normal.

It’s really a song about the Singularity, in other words. The word didn’t really exist in 1982 – although only just, as Vernor Vinge was to introduce it in a January 1983 Omni Magazine editorial .  But the concept was certainly there, especially in the early years of the 1980s, very close under the skin of popular culture. They were years of extreme change both socially and technologically, and a sudden cultural shift to a “head first into the future” attitude which… well, was honestly both thrilling and terrifying at once. A kind of optipessimism I think, describes the early 1980s best. We felt were were on the verge of shattering change. It wasn’t just going to be better or worse: it was going to be all better or all worse. Or – as in Gibson’s cyberpunk – both at once, “just not evenly distributed”.

There was especially a lot of optipessimism about artificial intelligence; more than we have now in the Internet-connected world we could only dream about with our 8-bit micros. The fears usually revolved around either automation causing mass unemployment (which is coming back on the radar again in the 2010s), or automated war machines starting World War III or hunting humans (also coming back).

You can trace the shape of some of these AI ideas as an argument evolving through pop culture: Knight Rider (1982), WarGames  (1983), Terminator (1984), Short Circuit (1986). Robots would save us or destroy us, or maybe both. By the mid-80s, though, computers (and especially videogames) had become a little less novel, less scary, and the shape of the stories shifted from computer-as-God to computer-as-business-tool.

Were we just ahead of our time, or on the edge of a wave that hasn’t yet crested?

Either way, we were sure that the future was going to be way different; and now that we’re in it, a mixture of relieved, disappointed, and scared that it might yet all come true just as we imagined it.

Architects of the world
I walk your streets and live in your towns
Temporarily, architects of the world
You’ve served us well until now
But soon we’ll be on our own

And I’ll sleep, sleep in your
Nova heart
As things come apart

I’ll hide, hide in your
Nova heart
At ease with the thought
That this nova won’t burn out

Gentlemen of the world
I read your books and look at your art
Hesitantly, gentlemen of the world
You want to educate our young
But soon they’ll be on their own

And I’ll sleep, sleep in your
Nova heart
As things come apart

I’ll hide, hide in your
Nova heart
At ease with my thoughts

And I’ll sleep, sleep in your
Nova heart
As things come apart

And I’ll rest, rest in your
Nova heart
At ease with the thought
That this nova won’t burn out

 

Quarks: Mechanical (England, 1981)

But I’ve always got a battery pack
In case I get another heart attack

This kind of song is the reason the Internet exists. It appears to be a one-shot single, released in 1981 by Magnet Records (now part of Warners), with a not particularly memorable B-side: “Working Model”, which, well, here you go:

The band is The Quarks: the duo of Rod Bowkett and Martin Ansell . In 1982, the Quarks rebranded as President President and released a second single (All Good Men / b-side Skin of the Salamander), but neither of those quite do it for me. Bowkett and Ansell continued with separate careers and remain active today.

I don’t recall hearing the song itself at all before I found it on Youtube; though the cover art and the name stirs faint resonances. I’m guessing I maybe saw it in a record store, or a magazine?

At over 6 minutes it feels a little long for radio and not quite high-energy enough for dance. But as a time capsule of that brief era when it was okay to make pop songs about industrial malaise and the fear of automation… or, well, any idea at all… it’s brilliant.

If anyone can help translate all of the words, I’d appreciate it.

He said I’ve got my father’s aching hands
I’ve got ulcers too
You’ve got your mothers looks but she’s forty-five
And I’m twenty-two
We go to work and we take the strain
Slip off the head and remove the brain
The technological 80s, oh it’s growing
Mechanical
Mechanical

I could’ve sworn I saw a key in your back today
He said it might be true
We took a look in the workshop window
And I’ve got one too
We clocked out and I drove you home
We talked of metal and the price of chrome
The technological 80s, oh it’s growing
Mechanical

Mechanical

Somebody blew a fuse in our office
They told his wife
If he’d only had a circuit diagram
They could have saved his life
She cried and cried until she finally died
She wasn’t waterproof, it got inside
The technological 80s, oh it’s growing
Mechanical

We’re mechanical now, we’re mechanical now, we’re mechanical now

I have to spend a lot of time these days
Beside the sea
I have to keep well away from city life
My allergy
But I’ve always got a battery pack
In case I get another heart attack
The technological 80s, oh it’s growing
Mechanical

Mechanical

Data: Fallout (England, 1981)

Living in boxes covered in lead
In three foot of concrete to keep us from the dead

In January to May of 1980, the issue of nuclear war burst into British popular culture with the announcement and eventual publication of a secret Civil Defence pamphlet and video series – the now infamous “Protect and Survive“.

You can read an archive of some of the Protect and Survive materials here.

The grossly inadequate nature of nuclear Civil Defence was already a contested topic in  the UK with Peter Watkins’ banned 1965 docudrama The War Game. But the bleak, bland, useless advice of these materials and the public scandal caused by the initial sense of secrecy (they were released to the general public only after much protest) came to symbolise a British Government that was sleepwalking into a nuclear war and failing to either inform or consult the citizens. The public’s outrage and despair exploded into a cascade of nuclear protest songs that continued across the English-speaking world and throughout the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the other big concern of British popular culture at the end of the 1970s was computers: specifically the impact of “the microchip” and “computerisation” on an economy already reeling from oil price shocks, labour struggle and industrial failures. This sense of looming crisis crystallised in the UK in the form of a series of documentaries: BBC’s “Now The Chips Are Down” in 1978,  ITV’s “The Mighty Micro” in 1979, and BBC’s “The Silicon Factor” in 1980. These led directly to the  BBC Computer Literacy Project, and the government-promoted BBC Micro computer.

“Inside here is a silicon chip, with all the important components of a computer etched onto its tiny surface. It’s called a microprocessor. “

“Most people know by now that a microprocessor, or a ‘chip’ as it’s often called, is an incredibly tiny computer. And there’s a general feeling that it represents a dramatic breakthrough in technology. But few realise just how dramatic.”

Both of these documentaries made it to New Zealand; I remember watching ‘Now The Chips Are Down’ in school, and the paperback book of ‘The Mighty Micro’ (which proclaimed that artificial intelligences, or ‘Ultra Intelligent Machines’, would replace professional jobs by the year 2000). There was a strong belief that ‘the microchip’ would either make life a paradise, automate away all our jobs… or, and most likely in the short term, just power the military weapons that would bring about World War III and destroy everything we knew.

‘Protect and Survive’ didn’t come to New Zealand – we had no expectation of direct nuclear attack and so our Civil Defence was limited to natural disasters – but its pop culture byproducts certainly did.

And so, in the spirit of both of these trends, the prize for the Most 1981 Synthpop Band of 1981 goes to: the British trio Data, with the terrifyingly catchy dance single ‘Fallout’. A sort of experimental side-continuation project for the classically-trained Norwegian (/Russian/French) singer Georg Kajanus, Data’s first album also featured the pop-classical piece “Opera Electronica”. Which was fairly normal for the era: hybrids of pop, rock, dance, classical and just straight-up art school experimentation. That’s what makes it so fascinating, even thirty years later.

Kajanus is still around, by the way. His latest project appears to be the 2007 duo ‘Noir’.

 

But. Back in 1981, Fallout is a perfect pop jewel. Listen! This is where Ladytron stole their sound from! (And that riff at 2:36 feels like it was ‘borrowed’ whole from the Doctor Who theme, so the favour is returned.)

It’s a shock to hear it again.  I thought it was new, but no, on reflection I’m pretty sure I absorbed this one in the background of 80s life. Somehow, like radiation, it just slipped through. I remember being puzzled by what a “phone [in] show” might be; and “a satellite clockwork information” really doesn’t make any more sense now than it did then.

But has there ever been a more aggressively cheerful, danceable political protest song about a grim postapocalyptic future?

There will be no three minute warning. Your input is not required. YOU WILL DANCE.

Whatcha gonna do now?  Where ya gonna go?
You always had the answers on your phone-in show
It’s never gonna happen, or so you did say
For no one really wants it – but here we are today
With a fallout
It’s a fallout

You’d better run for shelter and put yourself in a fallout suit
You’d better get yourself used to just living in a fallout suit
A satellite clockwork information is going to give you the duration
Of the fallout

So what are we going to do now, now that it’s here?
But listen to you talking about the after care
Living in boxes covered in lead
In three foot of concrete to keep us from the dead
It’s a fallout
It’s a fallout

You’d better run for shelter and put yourself in a fallout suit
You’d better get yourself used to just living in a fallout suit
A satellite clockwork information is going to give you the duration
Of the fallout
It’s a fallout

Martha and the Muffins: Danseparc (Every Day It’s Tomorrow) (Canada, 1983)

In a crowd, in a city I call my home
Undercover, on the edge I move alone

The Canadian New Wave band Martha and the Muffins are better known for their 1980 international hit Echo Beach (the name a reference to the 1977 Ultravox song Hiroshima Mon Amour, itself a reference to a 1959 French film – it’s references all the way down!)

It’s a great video, by the way. Aren’t they all so young??!

But strangely, I never actually heard Echo Beach at the time.

During the mid 1980s, the Muffins dropped to a duo and renamed themselves as M+M. (Definitely NOT to be confused with Eminem.) This was happening even by 1983 – Danseparc was titled with both band names.  But like many of their peers, they made a comeback in the synthpop resurgence of the 2000s and their latest album, Delicate, was released in 2010.

There are still some gems for me from the 1990s period; 1992’s Rainbow Sign is one. Capturing perhaps that newfound sense of optimism in the wake of cancelled Armageddon that was so rare and precious to see in 90s media (which usually went for the dark, bleak and weird). It reaches my soul. But it’s a different feeling from a different time.

 

No, the Muffins song that haunted my 80s was 1983’s Danseparc (Every Day It’s Tomorrow). I probably only heard it a couple of times; almost certainly on AM radio. It has all the cyberpunk elements though… urban mystery,  science, future shock, a hint of romance… and what is that face laser scanner thing?

In a crowd, in a city I call my home
Undercover on the edge I move alone
Faces stare across at me
With eyes that look but cannot see
Out of reach, out of love, stepping out of bounds.
Every day it’s tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be
Every day it’s tomorrow and I feel someone move close to me
Every day it’s tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be
Every day it’s tomorrow and to dance with you is all I need.

(Into the thick, into the night, into your arms in the failing light.)

Danseparc!

In a park, in a city I call your name
Will the way that we dance always be the same?
Hold me fast, draw me near
Don’t let love disappear
Come to life, come together, steal me from my sleep.

Every day it’s tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be
Every day it’s tomorrow and I feel someone move close to me
Every day it’s tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be
Every day it’s tomorrow and to dance with you is all I need…

(Into the thick, into the night, into your arms in the failing light.)

Fay Ray: Different Morning (Wales, 1982)

Warning warning can’t you hear it
Leave your dreaming yesterday

The Welsh New Wave band Fay Ray (another media reference, this time to the King Kong actress Fay Wray; and completely unrelated to the current Japanese singer fayray ) appear to have released one album, Contact You, in 1982. But they must have made airplay in New Zealand because I distinctly remember shivering to the nuclear apocalypse imagery of “Heatwave”.

I watch the mushroom
As it rises in a cloud
We see the heatwave
But we hear no sound

But it’s the heartbreaking live performance of “Different Morning”, which I only know from this Youtube clip, which sells the band to me. It feels like the perfect description of the Reagan/Thatcher era – an era that feels all too close again.

I live in a country
Where the cold and bleak winds blow
Storm clouds are gathering
Sometimes i wish i didn’t know
We’ve been building a castle
To protect us from the fight
But castle walls will never,
Never keep us safe at night

Warning warning can’t you hear it
Leave your dreaming yesterday
This is a different morning
And we’ve got to break away

Warning warning can’t you hear it
Leave your dreaming yesterday
This is a different morning
Watch the future slip away

Something is changing
Look at everyone you meet
Down in the city
They’re counting numbers in the street
A thousand empty eyes
Looking for trouble in the heat

Warning warning can’t you hear it
Leave your dreaming yesterday
This is a different morning
And we’ve got to break away

Warning warning can’t you hear it
Leave your dreaming yesterday
This is a different morning
Watch the future slip away

Aphrodite’s Child: Rain and Tears (France, 1968)

Rain and tears are the same
But in the sun you’ve got to play the game

The Greek electronic composer Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, better known as Vangelis, is one of the defining sounds of the early 1980s, after his scores for 1981’s Chariots of Fire and – that nexus year again – 1982’s science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner. He of course continued to have a strong career through the 1990s and 2000s and is still (as far as I know) active today.

But let’s set the time circuits fourteen years earlier and look at a song from 1968. Aphrodite’s Child was Vangelis’s first band (as keyboard player, with three other Greek musiciabns) and Rain and Tears was the band’s first hit single. Based on Pachelbel’s Canon, it was covered by bands in many countries including New Zealand. I have memories of hearing a version of it in the 1970s-80s, but I don’t recall whether it was the Vangelis original. But it sticks in the mind.

Was that famous Blade Runner line a deliberate injoke, a reference to the soundtrack composer? I would love to know for sure, but it seems more than a coincidence to me.

There’s nothing special about the lyrics, but I love the formal beauty of the canon structure and the pure, wavering tones of the keyboard. What IS it that Vangelis is playing? Something electronic, I think, but I can’t trace what it might have been. The 60s were the dawn of synthesis; even Pink Floyd from 1968 can sound surprisingly like the late 70s or early 80s.

Rain and tears are the same
But in the sun you’ve got to play the game
When you cry in winter time
You can pretend it’s nothing but the rain

How many times I’ve seen
Tears running from your blue eyes
Rain and tears are the same
But in the sun you’ve got to play the game

Give me an answer love
I need an answer love

Rain and tears in the sun
But in your heart you feel the rainbow waves

Rain or tears both are shown
For in my heart there’ll never be a sun
Rain and tears are the same
But in the sun you’ve got to play the game