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.

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 mainframe-music.info 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

MTV.com 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.

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