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