Synth Britannia, the latest in BBC4’s (excellent) Britannia series airs on Friday October 16. Covering the synthpop explosion of the late seventies and early 80s, Synth Britannia features interviews with John Foxx, MUTE Record’s Daniel Miller, Gary Numan, Neil Tennant, Phil Oakey, Martin Gore, Bernard Sumner, Cabaret Voltaire, Vince Clarke, Martyn Ware, Midge Ure, Soft Cell, Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. What a great line-up!
“In the late Seventies small pockets of electronic artists such as The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle were inspired by Kraftwerk and J G Ballard to dream of the sound of the future against the backdrop of bleak, high-rise Britain.
Gary Numan’s 1979 appearance on Top Of The Pops heralded the invention of synthpop, which would provide the soundtrack as Britain entered a new, ruthless era in the Eighties.
Depeche Mode, four lads from Basildon, came to embody the new sound, while post-punk bands such as Ultravox, Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Yazoo took the synth from the pages of the NME and onto the front cover of Smash Hits.
By 1983 the Pet Shop Boys and New Order were pointing to where the future of electronic music lay—in dance.”
I’m looking forward to see this and glad to see that they included John Foxx. I’ve always felt he was unfairly obscure. Despite making some of the most vital electronic music of that time period, few know his music. The first three Ultravox albums, with Foxx on lead vocals, are some of the finest albums of the punk era, yet they weren’t strictly a punk band (violins? synthesizers?) and so undeservedly fell through the cultural cracks. I think Ultravox’s Ha!-Ha!-Ha! is THE great lost album of the punk years and I tell everyone who’ll listen to me they should hear it. It’s nothing short of amazing. When Foxx left the band, his sound became more stripped, down, colder, synthetic—more European than English, if you take my point.
Maybe I say this because Foxx’s solo album Metamatic was in my Walkman as I took a long train journey across Europe in 1983. It was the perfect soundtrack to looking out of a train window. Every time I hear his music it takes me right back to that time, especially this song, Underpass:
One group who probably won’t make it into Synth Britannia for obvious reasons, is Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, although they were most certainly working on a parallel track. Here’s their video for Computer Games, from 1980: