The history of electronic music within European pop

Part 6: "Are friends electric? " Bookmark and Share

As many of you already have gathered by now the synthesizer as an instrument plays an important role in European popular music. It’s an instrument you will encounter in the European art scene, the (progressive rock scene) and entering the main stage in the eighties with the development of new wave and hi-nrg disco. But did this tradition came falling from the sky? In the coming months we will try to recreate a small history of the use of electronic music and the use of the synthesizer within the European popscene...This is part 5

Last month we highlighted five classic synth albums that would have a big influence on musical history to come. They formed a inspiration on artists that would later be categorised as synthpop, synthpunk, electric body music, industrial, house, techno…you name it. At the start of the eighties the music scene was buzzing with acts that used the synthesizer as their core instrument. What is important to say at this point is that until know the synthesizer was used to imitate or reproduce the sound of acoustic instruments. As it was originally made up by the electronic music pioneers you read about in the previous chapters. An important chance is that this idea was left with the acts in the eighties. They used synthesizers to produce mechanical sounding rhythms, vocal arrangements as a counterpoint to the artificiality of the instruments, and repetitive and osilate patterns as an effect. Also a lot of synthesizer based genres were based at the start of the eighties. In this chapter we take a closer look at some of them.

Gary Numan

As said the five albums we highlighted in the previous chapter were groundbreaking but in 1978 it almost went wrong with the punk movement who wasn’t into stylish synths at all and more into the simple guitar-bass-drums format. This also applies to the band Tubeway Army. Who’s first demo’s were punk-influenced when frontman Gary Numan send them to Beggars Banquet Records in 1978. The two singles, "That's Too Bad" and "Bombers" never charted.

Numan's fascination with dystopian science fiction and, more importantly, synthesizers let him to change course and created a synth fuelled style that would be the blueprint for the eighties new wave synth acts. Numan’s new sound could first be heard in a UK television advertisement for Lee Cooper jeans with the jingle "Don't be a dummy". Soon afterward Tubeway Army released the single "Are 'Friends' Electric?" in May 1979. The single became an enourmous hit as did the follow up ‘Cars’. The album ‘the Pleasure Principle’ was a rock album with no guitars; instead, Numan used synthesisers fed through guitar effects pedals to achieve a phased, metallic tone. The influence of Suicide was evident but Numan succeeded to make the sound more accessible to the main public.




More frontiers soon followed. In 1978, the first incarnation of The Human League released their debut single Being Boiled. In the US Devo, who had used synthesizers since their beginnings in 1975, moved towards a more electronic sound. While in Japan The Yellow Magic Orchestra released their first album although it was with their 2nd album Solid State Survivor (1979). In 1979, Giorgio Moroder collaborated with former glam rock group Sparks on their album, No. 1 In Heaven, perhaps one of the first bands to 'crossover' to synthpop.
This Zeitgeist of revolution in electronic music performance and recording/production was encapsulated by then would be record producer, Trevor Horn of The Buggles in the international hit ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. With the success of this single synth pop had firmly arrived in the mainstream and the music landscape changed for ever.

As avant-garde of Futurism (music) fused with the pop sensibilities of the New Romantics the sounds of synthesizers came to dominated the pop music of the early 80s as well as replacing 70s Disco in dance clubs in Europe. Albums such as Yellow Magic Orchestra's ‘Solid State Survivor’ (1979), Trans X ‘Living on video’ (1981), Visage's ‘Visage’ (1980), John Foxx's Metamatic (1980), Ultravox's ‘Vienna’ (1980), Fad gadget ‘Fireside favourites’.(1980), The Human League's ‘Dare’ (1981), Lio’s ‘Amoreux solitaire’ (1981) (with the late Marc Moulin), Depeche Mode's ‘Speak and Spell’ (1981), Soft Cell's ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ (1981) and Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's (1982) all typified the early synthesizer based pop sound.


Electronic Body Music

The term electronic body music was coined by Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk in 1978 to explain the more physical sound of their album The Man-Machine. The Neue Deutsche Welle band Deutsch Amerikanischer Freundshaft (DAF) changed the term into "Körpermusik" (body music) to describe their danceable electronic punk sound present on their third album ‘Alles ist gut’. Relentless monotone beats, almost militaristic, and dark vocals were the trademark.

In 1982 their style was followed and perfected by Belgian band Front 242 with the EP ‘No Comment’ and their debut album 'Geography'. With effect. In the second half of the 1980s, American and Canadian music groups such as Front Line Assembly, Nitzer Ebb and Ministry (who already released a mediocre synthpop album and quickly changed style) started to use typical European EBM elements. In 1989 Nine Inch Nails cross-pollinated EBM and industrial starting with the succesfull single ‘Head Like A Hole’ (1989).



Even more dark then EBM, Industrial incorporates the elements of new wave and garagerock into their style. Acts like Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Leather Nun, Factrix, Cabaret Voltaire and Z'ev were amongst the pioneers of the genre. One of the first acts adding a more theatretical pop element to the genre was shock act Alien Sex Fiend. Their 1983 album ‘Who’s been sleeping in my brain?’ can be considered a blueprint for the whole electro-industrial genre to come. In Germany Einstürzende Neubaten combined electronics and a diversity of 'found' metal objects to create their percussive version of Industrial with their 1981 debut 'Kollaps'.

While EBM has a minimal structure and clean production, electro-industrial has a deep and layered sound, incorporating elements of ambient industrial. The style was later finetuned by for instance Canadian act Skinny Puppy and is widely present in the goth scene that is still present today.


Italo disco

But we’re getting to underground so back to the mainstream with the disco genre. Because also there the experiments with synthesizers and other electronic effects were present. Influenced by Giorgio Moroder, French producer Cerrone and San Francisco producer Patrick Cowley (who produced hits for Sylvester and Paul Parker). Disco started to get the rework in Italy in 1980. Italian artists started releasing completely electronic songs using drum machines and other equipment. The songs were simple but with catchy melodies, and were often sung using vocoders and overdubs. Much of the genre featured love-song lyrics sung in English with heavy foreign accents. English was more often than not the artists' second language, creating lyrics that were often considered to be almost nonsensical. Along with love, italo disco themes deal with robots and space, sometimes combining all three in songs including ‘Robot is Systematic’ (1982) by 'Lectric Workers and ‘Spacer Woman’(1983) by Charlie.

The international breakthrough of the genre was in 1983 with the world wide hit ‘Dolce Vita’ for Ryan Paris (born Fabio Rosci). This paved the way for acts like Fun Fun (‘Happy Station’ with singer Spagna), Gazebo ('I like chopin'), Richeira (‘Vamos a la playa’ and ‘No tengo di nero’) and Baltimore (‘Tarzan Boy’). It was also the year that the term Italo disco was reputedly coined by Bernhard Mikulski, the founder of ZYX Music (Germany), when he released the first volume of ‘The Best of Italo Disco’ series.

(for a fun website about Italo music also check: www.italo-interviews.com where Zelko Vujkovic has gathered an impressive archive of interviews with former Italo stars)

During the late 1980s Italo transformed into the Hi-NRG / Eurobeat genre which dominated the European charts until house-music made its definite appearance in 1987/88. Artists like Modern Talking, Divine, and Den Harrow as well as the many Stock Aitken Waterman acts used the benefits of the synthesizer to produce a string of hits.






The accessibility of the synthesizer as an instrument as well as a means to lower productions costs (since only a keyboard player was needed instead of a whole band) created an environment where many European (traditional) artists and record producer started to use the technique to create cheap albums, in budget as well in sound. This left a bad stigma on the synthesizer which we want to reflect on in our next chapter.

Go back to part 5: "1977: frankie teardrop, i feel love"

Next time: part 7, "Where did it al go wrong!"