Freur: Doot-Doot (1983, Wales)

Look at them fall
Flicker and fade

There’s a line in the genetics of popular music that goes: 1970s disco -> 1980s synthpop -> 1990s club electronica -> whatever it is came next in the 00s and the synthpop revival of the 2010s.

(Of course, that’s an exaggeration; there are many other strands of DNA in the 80s synthpop primordial soup: the musique concrete of the 1950s avant garde, electronic experimentation from the 1960s,  Kraftwerk in the mid-70s with their ‘German electro’ sound which then detonated like an atom bomb around the British scene in the early 80s. And if we want to get truly nerdy (and of course we do) then most of the 1990s in computer gaming  was dominated by synthy sounds otherwise forgotten a decade earlier by the analog ‘MTV unplugged’ mainstream.)

But that line weaving from disco, into synthpop and back into club dance music still intrigues me, mostly because – generally – I’m not hugely into 70s disco, and the 1990s drug-culture club music mostly left me cold. Why? I’m not sure. I think because although I love the pure tones of synthesisers, I also love the poetry of words, and a song doesn’t really register with me unless it combines both. Dance music is music that has its eyes squarely elsewhere: it’s music not intended to be primarily listened to, and it just doesn’t work if you’re not there, live.

A band that seems to exemplify this trend is Freur, who fall neatly into three separate phases. From 1982 to 1986, a Welsh New Wavey synthpop group; reformed as Underworld from 1987 to 1990 as  more mainstream pop-dance-rock; then from 1991 on, a techno/acid house electronic dance band becoming hugely famous with the soundtrack to Trainspotting. Today, Underworld continue to be beyond huge in the British scene; they ran the music for the 2012 London Olympics. That’s pretty much the definition of ‘made it’.

This was their big breakthrough hit, in 1996: the deliriously named ‘Born Slippy .NUXX‘ (best not to ask really). Absolutely world-shattering stuff; doesn’t do a thing for me, I’m terribly sorry.  This is why I’m old. Though I was 24 at the time and it still didn’t help.

Drive boy dog boy
Dirty numb angel boy
In the doorway boy
She was a-lipstick boy
She was a-beautiful boy
And tears boy
And all in your inner space boy

1988’s Underneath The Radar I find a lot more interesting. A bit long, but it’s got that 80s sound and the authentic tang of Cold War mixed hedonism/despair in the lyrics:

We kiss underneath the searchlights
And we live underneath the bomb
We live underneath the radar
There’s no way that you’re ever gonna get far

It’s perfectly acceptable. Yet for me it’s that first 1983 hit that sends shivers down my spine: Doot-Doot. Why? I don’t know! Only I have a deep memory of hearing this tune. And it has the same nostalgic melancholy for abandoned media (that seems so cute and yet so true now) that inhabits those early Buggles songs.

… And, well, just because that’s the noise that those beepy boxes of the future make, that’s why. And you’re singing along too. You might as well admit it.

Doot. Doot doot.

For extra bonus Eighties, the live version. Remember when you watch it that these people had perfectly good music careers afterwards – and still do.

What’s in a name?
Face on a stage
Where are you now?
Memory fades
You take a bow

Here in the dark
Watching the screen
Look at them fall
The final scene

And we go doot
Doot doot

Look at them fall
Flicker and fade
Gone are the screams
I put them to bed
Now they are dreams

And we go doot
Doot doot

Dollar: Videotheque (1982, England)

Slowly senses leaving me
Once the two are in 3D we play the game

I have a strange relationship with a lot of music. There are bands who are huge names, critically acclaimed cult favourites in the music literature; in many cases, these leave me cold. Or, I’ll find one or two of their songs – sometimes a single, sometimes an obscure track – which resonate with me, while the others fly completely over my head without leaving a mark. On the other hand, sometimes the only song I’ll like from a band will be the one which, in fact, was their chart hit, proving my tastes are solidly mainstream.

New Wave and Synthpop as genres are particularly fraught for me. There are giant names – Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Gary Numan, Siouxsie and the Banshees – to whom I have an almost physical allergy. Their sound is somehow too harsh for me, too bleak.  There are plenty which are just too experimental: Art of Noise. Then there are ones which are too empty, too poppy: Duran Duran maybe. Then there are ones which are on the edge, but mostly too famous: Eurythmics, Rush, Thomas Dolby, Ultravox. (They may come up later).

The Buggles, sadly, fall for me mostly into a mix of ‘too experimental’ and yet ‘too famous’. There’s that one song which if you’re of a certain age you know by heart –

— you remember, of course you remember, you have to remember, it opened MTV in 1981–

They took the credit for your second symphony
Rewritten by machine with new technology
And now I understand the problems you can see

Video Killed The Radio Star. Man, does that ever get old? It does not, and it never will.

Sidebar: VKTRS was of course itself remade in 1998 by  alt-rockers The Presidents of the United States of America, and in perhaps the single most terrifying stroke of genius of that entire sad benighted decade they rewrote those literal lines:

They took the credit for your second symphony
Rewritten by machine with new technology
And now I understand the supernova scene

So do we all. So do we all, now. I am in awe.

But everyone knows that one, did the Buggles do anything else worthwhile?


The band’s lifeforce Trevor Horn went on to start the before-mentioned avant-garde probably-geniuses-but-I-don’t-get-it The Art of Noisebecame a world famous producer, pretty much produced every record in the UK ever, got Knighted by the Queen of England for it all… so yes?

(Literally. The Buggles duo did an album in 1980 with prog-rock group Yes.)

But music all comes down to taste and,  well,  most of this music simply doesn’t connect to me. There’s a couple of Buggles tracks I maybe half like, both from 1980’s The Age of Plastic:

Johnny On The Monorail:

Oh my my, you are so sci-fi
Please will you let me ride

and Elstree:

Elstree, remember me
I had a part in a B-movie

(Sidebar: There is actually no Elstree Studio! It’s a town in England with a bunch of different studios most of which are not actually in that town.)

But (there is of course a but). In that magic year 1982, Trevor Horn wrote several songs for an otherwise fairly undistinguished pop duo – Thereza Bazar and David Day, otherwise known as Dollar. And one of them was a haunting, wonderful half-remembered song that I was startled to discover wasn’t officially a Buggles after all: Videotheque.

There’s a twining set of themes in this early Trevor Horn work –  of nostalgia, fashion, film,  illusion. For me they all come together, echoing the spirit of the early 1980s, in this song. A retro-futuristic image of holographic virtual reality (that we didn’t even have the words for then); an imagined space somewhere between film noir, disco, and cyberpunk, constructed out of the romantic ruins of lost media and the dawn of a new glimmering machine age.

In 2015, we’re approaching that space for the first time, yet it feels like we’ve been here before. And we have.

When the VJ shoots the beam
I take my partner from the screen
And hold her close, I hold her close
One more chance to make it right
Holding hands in black and white
I’ll meet you there, I’ll meet you there

Leave my mind back in my room
Maybe I will blow it soon and fall in love

At the videotheque (the videotheque)
We can dance forever
At the videotheque (the videotheque)
We control it all
At the videotheque (the videotheque)
Ghosts are only lovers on the screen

Only pictures on the wall
They don’t mean a thing at all
And I don’t care
When the visions start to form
The same illusion takes us all
And you are there, and you are there

Slowly senses leaving me
Once the two are in 3D we play the game

At the videotheque (the videotheque)
We can dance forever
At the videotheque (the videotheque)
We can fall in love
At the videotheque (the videotheque)
Ghosts are only lovers on the screen
The videotheque
The videotheque
The videotheque
Only ghosts are lovers on the screen

Tandy Morgan Band: Princeton (1984, England)

But we cast aside the reck’ning
for stars they were a-beck’ning

Music is a strange odyssey sometimes. In searching ’80s synthpop I came across this little gem: Hiroshima by the German singer Sandra. It fit the early-80s anti-nuclear mood perfectly, but it was recorded in 1990 – too late for the period I’m capturing. Or so I thought.

And the world remembers his name
Remembers the flame was
Hiroshima, Hiroshima, Hiroshima

But of course there’s more to it.

I was out by 20 years. The song Hiroshima was actually published in 1971 (recorded 1969 says Wikipedia) on the album of the same name by the English band Wishful Thinking, but it was written by a DaveMorgan.

Here, have some really slow 1971 folk-rock with wibbly guitar bits in, as was the style of the time.

I can’t emphasise enough to post-Gen-Xers just how much Hiroshima dominated my thoughts as an 80s teenager. There’s plenty of terrifying things in 2015 – terrorism, anti-terrorism, government, lack of government, economic crashes, economic booms, climate change – but they absolutely pale in comparison to the grim certain knowledge we all had that were were all going to die, vaporised in a preordained apocalypse, and none of our leaders could or would stop it.

What I’m saying is there will be a lot more songs about nuclear war before this blog is over.

So who was that Dave Morgan guy? What else might he have done?  Oh, not much, he was in a little band nobody’s ever heard of called ELO. (Eleven studio albums 1971-1986, revival in 2001.)

The funny thing is for a huge 70s rock band the only ELO album I actually care for is something of an anomaly: the 1981 synth-heavy science fiction concept album Time (1981). Something about the idea of a citizen from the 1980s trapped in an alienating 21st century future works for me.

Dave Morgan did second vocals on Time, with Richard Tandy on keyboards. (Useful name that, with it being the early 80s and Tandy being one of the first microcomputers… tough crowd? I’ll come in again.)

I love so many tracks from this album, but Here Is The News is the one I remember best; it was a single, so it played on radio around 1980 and man, it was confusing hearing this coming up right before the news.

Here is the news, someone has broken out of Satellite Two
Look very carefully, it might be you you you you you

After Time, things get interesting. Dave Morgan and Richard Tandy worked on a side project under the creative name of Tandy Morgan Band: their main product was a fascinating little science fiction concept album called Earthrise. Released in 1984, this is one of those strange little gems which I know I’ve heard before but I can’t place precisely when.

Dave Morgan’s career goes quietly interesting places later; he became a born-again Christian in 1988,  went into church worship music, hyphenated his name to David Scott-Morgan when he got married in the 1990s, and pastored a church in Birmingham for ten years to 2009. In 2011 he and Tandy rereleased Earthrise , and in the last few years he’s written an autobiography and released another album. The first single, Benediction, is low-fi but charming in its way.

But let’s get back to Earthrise. It’s a loose concept album about a lonely astronaut (a concept which appears in a lot of 1980s synthpop) trying to return to his lost love. The tone is midway between 1969 David Bowie and mid-1970s Klaatu. Almost all the tracks (with the exception of the bland elevator-ballad Ria, which appears to have been dropped from the rerelease) are strange and wonderful , from the haunting opening Earthrise to the manic Zero Zero (though Escape from the Citadel feels like it belongs more on Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against The Empire).

(A rare find: the full official lyrics, on a page which may not last forever. )

The second track Under The Blue / Asteroid has the best videogame lyric in any 80s song ever:

When I was a young boy with a bullet for a brain
I used to ride the space patrol across the Martian plain
Zapping all the aliens before they could zap me
You know you can be anything you want to be
When everything under the blue
is waiting for you

The distressed computer calling to aliens in The Third Planet is its own special brand of awesome: (please excuse Ria popping up at the end)

I come from the third planet
my sky is blue
All around is great confusion
I don’t know what to do

My master knows no way of stopping
all that is wrong
I work his maths, I do his shopping
I build his bombs

But the heart and soul of the album is the epic Princeton, placed as the climax when (I think) the protagonist’s rocket finally breaks the barriers of space and time to return home. There’s something about this song – a longing, a gentle grace, an inner serenity that’s more than either epic bombast or nostalgia –  that sent shivers down my spine when I first heard it, and continues to resonate years later.

And I’m glad that the man who wrote it, and made my life that much richer, has found peace and purpose in his own.

If I ever go to Princeton
I’ll bow to nature’s wisdom
if ever I’m allowed to see
the wheels within the wheels
I will turn the clock on easy
and ask the ground to leave me
If I ever get to Princeton
I’ll remember how it feels.

We were linked along a sidewalk
lost in a time-warp
We stood and counted UFO’s
tumbling headlong ‘cross the sun
And we terrorised the freeway
with a humanising heat-ray
and If I ever get to Princeton
I’ll remember what we’ve done.

And in the space between the fooling
while the galaxy was cooling
I glimpsed the greater sorrow
of tomorrow never come
But we cast aside the reck’ning
for stars they were a-beck’ning
and If I ever get to Princeton
I’ll remember every one.

Then a traveller from Venus
set a force field between us
I had the strangest feeling
I had seen it all before
In a tale by Dennis Wheatley
he saved the world so neatly
and If I ever get to Princeton
I’ll remember what it’s called.

If I ever go to Princeton
I’ll bow to natures wisdom
and wonder how on earth
I had the nerve to let it fly
For in Princeton I ran into
a planet I’d not been to
and in Princeton I was happy
for a moment of my life



Nancy Nova: The Force (1981, England/Italy)

Magnetically pulling my soul through the atmosphere

May the 4th…

Star Wars had a huge impact no not just cinema and TV, but pop culture in general in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that of course includes music.

Carol Ann Holness, daughter of British TV presenter Bob Holness, had by 1978 become a minor planet in the sort of … British New Wave / Italian Disco scene, which needs a lot more elaboration but appears to have been totally a thing… under the wonderfully cyberpunk stage name of Nancy Nova. ( Nancy’s still around and has a website. )

Her first breakthrough hit, Akiri Non Stop, sounds like it ought to be something chrome and neon-rainy, but no… it’s a theme tune to an Italian music show. But points for mixing Japanese, English and Italian in one song:

In 1981, however (after Empire Strikes Back had been released, so the world was experiencing a double dose of Star Wars fever), she released this song.

It works quite well aligned against a certain Star Wars scene.

Perpetual invention
A gentle persuasion
Mechanically transmitted thoughts play upon my mind
So how I am mystified
Or cunningly hypnotised
Unwittingly drawn to its side by the light of immortal eyes

A startling reaction
A cool satisfaction
Magnetically pulling my soul  through the atmosphere
A presence that’s so divine
And yet there’s no space or time
Confusion is ruling I’m lost and control is no longer mine

Lightning may have striked me
But somehow it seems more likely
It’s the Force
May have lost my reason
But to me it feels so pleasing
It’s the Force
When you feel it coming
And your heart can’t keep from drumming
it’s no good to go on running
From the Force
Stirring up your senses
In a mist of present tenses
And yet sparing no expenses
That’s the Force
Feel the Force


Modern English: After The Snow (1982, England)

I thought of home and times gone by
And laughed aloud at the crimson sky

Modern English are a, well, English, yes, 80s New Wave band. In the usual pattern for these things, they hit their stride around 1982 with the album After The Snow, did some more work into the 90s, have stayed on the fringe of the music scene and reformed around 2010 with a new album (Soundtrack), about most of which I have very little to say. They have a decent website with some band history.

It’s the After The Snow album, though, which stays with me. Apparently it wasn’t a huge success; the single which did do well (I’ll Melt With You) I find okay, but nothing I’d otherwise cross the road for. A fairly generic love ballad with some world-weary apocalyptic overtones (and Flock of Seagulls hair/boilersuits in the video! and what is that keyboard?) Only at the edges are the shifting harmonies that show what they’re really capable of:

I’ll stop the world and melt with you
You’ve seen the difference and it’s getting better all the time
There’s nothing you and I won’t do
I’ll stop the world and melt with you
The future’s open wide

The opening track, Someone’s Calling, is a lot stronger. A dark vision of a fascist-feeling political rally that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pink Floyd album. A deeply felt anger at the Thatcher era with pure tones and complex keyboard/drum riffs in the background; this, to me, is the punk in cyberpunk, but both are here equally balanced.

The flames were dancing as the people shouted
The streets they were alive as the stage was mounted
A thousand cries of jubilation
From the throes of this great people’s nation

And as our bridges burned to dust
A useless feeling was quite enough
I felt a chill run with the knives
Someone’s calling in the night

I stop to think
I stop to cry
The choice is always mine
But I’m too scared to judge

It’s the title track, though – After The Snow itself – which takes my breath away. The keyboard comes into its own. A deceptively simple repetitive ascending-scale motif while arpeggios unfurl like fractals of modem static. The melody and chord structure absorbs and resolves all the musical themes from the other songs on the album, building to its own climax of transformation. It feels sleek, ultramodern, cybernetic, and yet it’s also an uplifting anthem that finds itself centred in the beauty of the natural world. It’s not about sex, it’s not about violence, it’s not filled with ennui or dread or loathing. It’s just beautiful and hopeful. This song ought to stand proudly in history beside Martha and the Muffins’ Echo Beach, and yet…

Sometimes we just doesn’t notice the right things.

The rhythm of the rain gives an off beat on the window pane
Like an angel crying from the sky

I can see its beauty
After the snow
I can see its beauty
After the snow

The temperature’s dropping rapidly
Normal service will shortly be resumed

I can see its beauty
After the snow
I can see its beauty
After the snow (has gone away)
After the snow

I stood and watched the dark sky rise
With glaring sunlight in my eyes
I thought of home and times gone by
And laughed aloud at the crimson sky

After the snow
After the snow
After the snow
After the snow

After the snow there’s something more
After the snow there’s something more
After the snow there’s something more
After the snow there’s something more

After the snow
After the snow

The rhythm of the rain gives an offbeat on the window pane
Like an angel crying from the sky

I can see its beauty
After the snow
I can see its beauty

Mainframe: Radio (Will Bring Me Home) (England, 1983)

You think I live on the wild side
But it’s just a normal day

Mainframe were exactly one of those blink-and-you’ve-missed-it events that, looking back on the ’80s, I find hard to believe were real.  Did I only imagine them? Fortunately, they’re also one of the exceptions to the rule of synthpop bittrot: in this case a fan site exists with copies of their an LP and singles.

Mainframe were the duo of John Molloy and Murray Munro. They were active in England only from 1983 to 1985, producing one album, a handful of singles,  some 8-bit micro software… and a digital synthesiser/sampler board for the Apple II, the DS:3.

In other words, these guys were right at the epicentre of the British microcomputing scene – probably the only serious musicians to have been so deeply hobbyist-geeky at the time. At least, they were the only ones who hit so close to my sphere of interests. I remember reading an article in a British computing magazine (which I still haven’t tracked down, but is likely up on the Internet Archive somewhere) describing the band, their synthesiser, and their magnum opus: the 1983 LP,  Tenants of the Lattice-Work.

And Tenants – in its entirety – is up on the site so go download it. (I’m not sure about the track titles; an earlier MP3 version that I downloaded had no track titles, and forum comments suggests that the album tracks were originally untitled).

It’s a science-fiction concept album – with a concept that is never quite spelled out, but as far as I can tell is a Matrix-like story about a corporate employee who discovers that the world he knows is a computer simulation, and escapes.

The album forms a seamless whole and is part instrumental, so it really needs to be heard as a whole, But (since the MP3s have been released for free) I’ve put my favourite track up on Youtube so you can listen:

From the random lines a room began to form
So much stranger than before
All around I saw machine beside machine
And I fear there could be more

Hold on, we must explain
Changes are all around
Hold on, this world’s not true
Changes surrounding you

And in the silent room the air began to glow
Shadows cast a human form
Someone turned to me, someone called my name
Then they told me I was wrong

Hold on…

And all they whispered to me I could not believe
I had to shout to hold my course
The truth they talked about I could not receive
This must be a dream

Hold on…

This is 1983, remember. A year before William Gibson released Neuromancer (though a year after Burning Chrome, his first Matrix story, had been published). Though I haven’t found a written citation, the term ‘latticework of computers’ was, I’m sure, already out in the popular computing press (alongside ‘matrix’ and ‘grid’) to describe the early ARPANET and what it might evolve into. But it’s worth reiterating that the idea of living inside virtual worlds wasn’t by any means original even at this point. It was ‘in the air’ to anyone in the computing community in the early 80s with a science fiction imagination (which was all of us).  And, to a large degree, the music community, at least those discovering samplers and sequencers.  Mainframe and Tenants gives us one more data point of how these three communities overlapped.

I remember – and at least one Discogs commenter agrees – that the album was released as part of a competition, advertised in the 8-bit computer magaznes. (This being 1983 in the UK, almost everything was a competition – the 1982 adventure game Pimania had accelerated the trend).

Talk To Me, also in 1983, was a cross-media project that involved programs for 8-bit micros of the time, and was – I’m sure – advertised in the same magazines. I never managed to buy/play it, but at least the single survives. It remixes many of the themes of Track 6  of Tenants:

Blinding illusion
So much stranger than before
It’s feeding my confusion
And I feel there could be more

Can you talk to me
Or do I stand here alone?

In 1985, Mainframe literally had their five minutes of fame with ‘5 Minutes’, a sample-heavy single that doesn’t really do anything for me, but got far more commercial airplay than the beautiful Tenants. Which I find sad, but that’s showbiz for you. In any case, here it is. And this time do read the Youtube comments!

You stole my five minutes of fame
You told me time would heal the pain
This world would bring me something new
And like a child I trusted you has a brief biography of the band which notes that John Molloy – overlapping creative communities once more – went on to design the 1988 adventure game Fish! for Magnetic Scrolls. There are other fond memories scattered across forums. It seems John is still alive and out there, somewhere, but Murray is still missing.

The other two singles from 1983 – The Room Part 2 and Radio (Will Bring Me Home) also feel like they’re part of the same universe as Tenants. Radio could be a replacement for Take The Road, and The Room Part 2 seems to be along the same lines as Machine Beside Machine / Talk To Me.

But I’ve picked Radio as the defining track for this band for two reasons: one, it’s radio-friendly when Tenants isn’t; and two, I remember actually hearing it on the radio in the 1980s. (New Zealand’s National Program had a total thing for British synthpop at the time). It left me with a deep sense of confusion… and that’s what makes the memory strong.

After computers and nuclear holocaust, ‘radio’ is a third theme that winds deeply through a lot of 80s synthpop. It was, after all, what we had back then instead of the Internet.

Out of München the traffic hunts me
All the eyes switch to green
Staring out, the pylon haunts me
And the moment fills my screen

You think I live on the wild side
But it’s just a normal day
I’m trying to make some miles
Over this land of motorways

He said, when the clearing shows
(Hotel – Oscar – Mike – Echo)
Radio will bring me home
(Hotel – Oscar – Mike – Echo)

And I’m switching from town to country
All the pressure’s left behind
Corporation’s power haunts me
A wave of guilt fills my mind

You think I live on the wild side
But it’s just a normal day
I’m trying to make some miles
Over this land of motorways

He said, when the clearing shows
(Hotel – Oscar – Mike – Echo)
Radio will bring me home
(Hotel – Oscar – Mike – Echo)

XL Capris: World War Three (Australia, 1980)

Keep me away from the enemy
Please leave me out of the war

The 1969 Ford Capri 1600XL – ‘the car you always promised yourself!’ – was an extremely popular two-seater sporty coupe designed by Ford to break into the UK and European market. And Australian, apparently, as 15,000 of them were produced from 1969-1972 in Sydney.  So… a car like this was the natural name for a 1978 Sydney indie-punk band.

Meanwhile,  in 1972 New Zealand, a band named Dragon led by Todd Hunter and his brother Marc had formed and was putting out some pretty strange, Syd Barret-era Pink-Floydian psychedelia. As I’m discovering, time moves in strange loops and yes, I do remember hearing their first single Universal Radio. My reaction then was pretty much as it is now: ‘this is awesome! … wait… what… …. o_O  …. I don’t even….’

I returned to find the village dead
I was all alone, said fearless fireman Fred
Yes the situation’s getting grim
Someone tell me please just what it was I said
Universal radio, please don’t let me down
Universal radio, send someone around
Hello hello, I see you…

30 years later or so, I still don’t even. It’s about a fireman? And a dragon? And a radio? And a whole lot of vague self-indulgent Floyd-like synth and drum noodling in the middle? It’s not really science fiction and not really fantasy but it certainly says 1972 and probably inspirational consumption of herbal products. Take a listen if you want.

(But who the heck is that robot guy on the cover? Is it Darth Vader, five years ahead of schedule? Just shows there really aren’t very many unique visual ideas in science fiction.)

Anyway, it’s nice, but this is not the sound I’m looking for. Moving along into the 70s, Dragon and the Hunter brothers moved to Australia, dropped the prog-rock psychedelia, got famous, popped out some classics like 1979’s April Sun in Cuba which will never ever leave the New Zealand airwaves even after a nuclear war and is still not the sound I’m looking for, Marc got in trouble and the band fell apart.

In the fallout, Todd Hunter got together with Johanna Pigott from the XL Capris… and long story short, they’ve been together ever since, Dragon reformed, Pigott wrote the other Dragon classic everyone knows – 1983’s Rain –  with it’s vaguely apocalyptic acid-rain / fallout imagery –

Don’t you go out in the rain
Don’t go out in the pouring rain

If you go out in the rain
We’ll never have that time again

and a bit more upliftingly, she wrote John Farnham’s 1988 anthem Age of Reason, which still gives me chills today.

So why can’t we be still why can’t we love each other
Is kindness an ancient skill buried by our blindness
And if we look behind us there’s a wind blowing in
To create the age of reason

But the first single the Hunter / Pigott partnership produced was this one. And yes, I remember hearing it as a kid. I was younger than sixteen, and it resonated deeply. At the time it felt deeply implausible. Everyone knew World War Three would be mushroom clouds and over in seconds.

And yet.

It’s not synthpop but it is punk, with echoes of cyber, but more importantly, it catches the feeling of the time. Like Fay Ray. The simplicity, the honesty, the beauty, the terror of that lost decade, when it felt like the whole planet was spiralling into darkness with no hope in sight.

And somehow, unthinkably, we escaped.

Darkness falling on a battlefield
Darkness falling on some dream down there
Black oil slick on a headland
Me in battle gear

Creeping on my knees down Main Street
Underground assault on the undisclosed
My best friend lost me in the haze
Shockwave rips up the road

Oh, World War Three, World War Three
Sixteen years closing in on me
Keep me away from the enemy
Please leave me out of the war
Please leave me out of the war

Battle front rages on the news stand
TV, he soften the blow
We’re still planning our futures
We were never meant to know

World War Three…

Player One: Space Invaders (Australia, 1979)

Surrounded by soldiers glued to the screens
Hold back the invaders, their infernal machines

The years 1977 to 1981 were a watershed of sorts for public interest in space. It was less than a decade since the height of the Apollo landings, and the hardware was still in orbit; human space flight wasn’t old enough to be retro yet, but the glamour had already worn off .  Apollo 17 had left the Moon for the last time in December 1972, an Apollo had docked with a Soviet Soyuz in July 1975, and the imminent death of Skylab was filling the news (it had flown and been abandoned in 1973-1974), as the American space program waited for the launch of Apollo’s successor: the dangerous, over-budget and endlessly delayed Space Shuttle, which would still never be capable of reaching even the Moon, let alone beyond.

Meanwhile a small cancelled TV show called Star Trek (1966-1969; you’ve probably never heard of it) had ascended to immortality in syndication and merchandising, and was slowly and painfully struggling towards a sequel series (which would eventually diverge into the movie series and the Next Generation).

But the trigger point came in 1977 with the release of two blockbuster space movies: George Lucas’ Star Wars in May, and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in November.  Both were huge successes for their studios, and the result was a shower of space and science fiction themed media products over the next few years. 1978 brought Superman, Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Mork & Mindy. 1979 saw Alien, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,  James Bond jumping on the spacewagon with Moonraker, and the disappointing but spectacular first Star Trek movie. The scene was set for the 1980s model of science fiction drawing large audiences.

In our real skies, the nuclear-powered Russian satellite Kosmos 954 fell to Earth and scattered radioactive debris over Canada in January 1978; Skylab crashed over Australia in July 1979; and Columbia, the first Space Shuttle, finally launched – only 20 years after Yuri Gagarin – in April 1981.

There was something spacey in the air in music too. A strange little 1976 song by the Canadian band Klaatu – (who had a bit of a Beatles sound) – was remade in September 1977 by Karen and Richard Carpenter and became an instant hit. A musician named Dominico Monardo went disco on the Star Wars soundtrack as “Meco“, and that became a megahit too. (It was sort of the ‘Crazy Frog’ of its era).

In fact let’s just have some disco Star Wars right now because why the heck not, right?

In September 1978 Jeff Wayne, a working composer and producer, dropped a musical version of the War of the Worlds on everyone and that became a megahit too. (The odd thing though, like Klaatu, is that he started in 1976: before the Star Wars phenomenon. What was it in the air?)

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said…”

And in yet another strange case of synchronicity, a Japanese videogame developer named Tomohiro Nishikado was working on a space themed shooter game, and also drew on War of the Worlds for the imagery of the alien lifeforms. It seems to be pure coincidence that his game crashed into a pop zeitgeist freshly primed to watch the skies. But the world would never quite recover from the advent of these strange… invaders… from space…. I’m not quite sure what we should call them.

WHICH BRINGS US TO THE MAIN EVENT. The Australian musicians Russell Dunlop and Bruce Brown – like Jeff Wayne and Dominico Monardo, career producers and engineers, rather than stars – briefly jumped to immortality in 1979 as ‘Player One’ with a quickie single which is probably the best videogame parody ever (don’t look at me like that, there’s so many that it’s actually a genre. Don’t make me break out Pac-Man Fever. ) The B-side, ‘A Menacing Glow in the Sky’ is, to my mind, much better:  a subtle, realistic take on the UFO invasion.  But it’s so rare that it’ll probably evaporate. Take a look while it’s still up:

Player One followed the single with an album which I would love to get hold of: ‘Game Over’ which, if Menacing Glow is an indication of the quality, would be right in the tradition of experimental 1980s art-synthpop that so intrigues me now. But in its absence…

Ladies and gentlemen, the one, the ultimate, the legend in the Pacific: SPACE INVADERS.

You may dance when ready.

 Through dark sunken eyes
I see another pale sunrise
Surrounded by soldiers glued to the screens
Hold back the invaders, their infernal machines

We fight to survive
Running to stay alive
Our bodies aching and tired
There’s nowhere to hide
Our cover’s been blown away

Space invaders, space invaders, space invaders, space invaders

They’re closing in on me
Dark forces cold and unseen
Oh my hip pocket nerve is aching again
I must go back in and fight it out to the end

Space invaders…

We fight to survive
Running, running to stay alive

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. 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