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?

Well…

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 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)