About a decade ago, I visited my Queen is Dead pen-pal/co-author Steve Zeeland when he was living in the largely-forgotten US Navy town of Bremerton, WA. Forgotten, that is, save by the self-described ‘lover of sailors’.
In the early 1980s, before he discovered his true, bell-bottomed love, Steve had been the frontman for industrial-electro band Zyklon (‘America’s answer to Throbbing Gristle, according to one critic). He still had several synths and sequencers which we fooled around with at his place in a 1940s apartment building, conjuring up aural ghosts from the 1980s.
For some reason Steve got it into his head that I should record a cover: ‘Mark, you have a lovely speaking voice – I’m sure your singing voice is even better.’
As the careers of several mediocre UK pop acts bears testament, Americans can be absurdly over-generous to their transatlantic cousins.
Despite a heavy cold and very English reluctance, I eventually complied – choosing to cover Divine/Bobby O’s 1983/4 hit ‘Love Reaction’. Which of course was a kind of re-gayed, Hi-Energy cover version of New Order’s de-gayed, low-energy ‘Blue Monday’. One the Mancs liked so much they reportedly played as an encore at one of their own gigs. Or perhaps they were just being ironic.
I’m decidedly no Divine, so I decided to take my cover of ‘Love Reaction’ in a more Bernard Sumner/Dame Edith Sitwell direction.
This – after tireless editing and remixing by Steve – was the result. I’d like to think of it as my own stab, two decades too late, at early 80s synthpop. (The doggie-style concrete ballet vid, dancing around whirring blades, was shot by Steve out of his apartment building window, after I returned to the UK.)
From the gender-bending of Eurythmics, Culture Club & Marilyn, to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, & the Human League, 1983 was, argues Mark Simpson, a high-water mark for pop experimentation.
IN 1983, THE YEAR THAT MCDONALD’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when huge NATO exercises were mistaken by an extremely jittery USSR for preparations for a nuclear first strike.
More ominously still, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t actually end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for bringing about something much, much worse: the end of pop music. (Though it was going to take a while.)
Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor – since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music eva.
1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally — my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED(!) and LCD(!!) equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total surface area was no bigger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.
But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s ‘Love Is a Stranger’ that its cunning salesman slapped on – at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:
“And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”
Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glamorous, sleekly designed car, tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, and their first hit, ‘This Charming Man’, also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride (albeit with guitars not synths playing on the radio). This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was.
The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Improvisation was king. Eurythmics recorded their smash-hit album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings ‘Hold your head up/ Keep your head up.’
In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop ‘Love Is a Stranger’ from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)
This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single ‘Relax’. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)
Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.
The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.
Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track ‘Blue Monday’, which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a transporting track like ‘Your Silent Face’, whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album). It became the best selling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-‘Blue Monday’ world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.
Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death either in the common room or in my bedroom included the deliciously silly ‘Blind Vision’, by Blancmange; the surprisingly political ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)’, by Wham!; the sublimely whiney ‘Everything Counts’, by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky ‘Rip it Up’, by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious ‘Visions in Blue’, by Ultravox; the hair-prickling ‘Song to the Siren’, by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song ‘Soul Inside’, by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the lazy lyricism of ‘Christian’ by China Crisis; the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping ‘Too Shy’, by Kajagoogoo; the plaintively insistent ‘Come Back and Stay’, by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of ‘Electric Avenue’, by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of ‘All of My Heart’, by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delightfully absurd synth-goth of ‘The Walk’, by the Cure; the stolen kisses of ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’, by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet ‘Church of the Poison Mind’, by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure ‘Burning Down the House’, by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’, by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash ‘Let’s Dance’, a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.
With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?
Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible; he was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’, dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his Serious Moonlight tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.
The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single ‘Girls on Film’ was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly ‘day version’ was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and ‘The Reflex.’
The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s famous KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)
It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for ‘Everything Counts’, the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in an especially twinky Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.
For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was preposterously pretty, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — a sexual ambiguity vibrated in the sequenced air.
Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but yet unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the wonderful whingeing of ‘Pale Shelter’ — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such openly homoerotic lyrics — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”
And then there was cute Merseyside duo China Crisis, whose video for their single ‘Christian’ was so knowingly homoerotic that I actually missed how much it was at the time. I was, believe it or not, too innocent. Apparently shot in a Roman gay sauna, it features saucy column stroking (c. 0.12), mud masks and Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon gazing into each others eyes through an ejaculating fountain. It’s almost as if they had a bet on with OMD, also from Merseyside, to make an even more homoerotic video than their Brideshead-inspired 1981 promo for their dreamy ‘Souvenir’ single.
But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single ‘Calling Your Name’. The pop charts now had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself, entirely accurately, as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”
But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted ‘Victorian values’ were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the ‘Evil Empire’, as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.
The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was probably more often known in the US — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.
Marilyn’s second single, ‘Cry and Be Free’, a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the catchy and ironically prescient ‘You Don’t Love Me’, stalled at number 40 in the U.K. charts. Effectively the career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over before it had begun.
And so, essentially, was new wave, banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing in the U.K. charts in 1984.
Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track ‘Relax’ finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes’, which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with ‘Relax’.
My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also having it’s last big fling. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.
I ended up playing the Smiths on it a great deal — ‘This Charming Man’, with it’s inviting male driver, smooth leather, guitars and yearning, yelping vocals from its awkwardly pretty, skinny lead singer in a woman’s blouse and beads, was released at the end of 1983. Their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’ The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.
In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an über fan of 70s glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame now, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s – barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay. Which was only right, seeing as they represented a resistance to much of what pop music became in the latter half of the 80s.
The Smiths were essentially semi-underground new wave – otherwise known as ‘indie’.
IN THE EARLY YEARS of the 1980s stretch jeans were all the rage. Stretch jeans and The Human League’s Dare. Both were revolutionary but practical and, when wrapped around youth, snugly-smugly invincible.
I was sweet 16 when Dare was released in 1981 and it confirmed all the psychoses of teenagerdom. We thought the future belonged to us and our arrogant thighs, with our denim/spandex mix and new-fangled dance-orientated synth-pop. We thought we were so fucking clever. So fucking fuckable. And we were so fucking right, even if our future didn’t turn out to be quite so cool and snug and fun as we thought it would be.
Dare had the effrontery to stretch the sparse, avant-garde, electronic dreams of the early, pre-1980 split, art skool Human League around pop music, disco and everyday desire. It was a perfect, thrilling, highly sexy fit. There’s a simple, timeless test of whether pop music is any good or not: can it be played really loudly at a fairground while you’re being spun around by a tattooed lad on the Waltzers?
To this day, whenever I hear the opening bars of ‘Love Action (I Believe in Love)’, the bit which sounds like flying saucers talking to one another before the hip-wiggling bass line kicks in, the hairs still obediently rise on the back of my neck and I’m all giddy and spotty and about to spew up my Merrydown again.
Dare is one of the greatest pop albums ever made, and quite possibly the greatest UK dance album. It changed what pop music could be. It changed what the world was going to be. This thrice-platinum album was wildly successful and influential, cool and high street, arty and commercial, on a scale that has never really been repeated and can never be, now that pop music is essentially a spent force. And this cultural colossus (with a little help from Virgin Records) came out of the post-industrial wreckage of ‘Steel City’ aka Sheffield. Not London, not Manchester, but the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Tyke pop.
The Vogue-styled album gate fold cover, with The League’s devastatingly pretty and provocatively made-up lead singer – and now unchallenged creative director/dictator – Phil Oakey as front-cover girl, with Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, the pretty schoolgirl dancers/backing vocalists famously recruited by Oakey in a Sheffield nightclub called Crazy Daisy’s, barely managing to compete on the inside. (Philip Adrian Wright, the only surviving non-Oakey member of the pre-split Human League, was not given the Vogue treatment.) It was a work of pop art that Factory Records, just over the Pennines, might have envied – if they weren’t so post-punk puritanical.
Listening today, over thirty years on, almost nothing has aged about this album, recorded at the very apogee of synthpop and its analogue daydreams of a digital world – this, after all, is what ‘synthpop’ was before digital technology actually finally arrived years later, and ruined everything. Those Korgs and Rolands were analogue. It is much, much easier to make synthpop music now, and almost everyone does. But none of it has any heart.
The first track, ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, an anthemic invocation of desire, exhorts the listener to ‘do all the things you ever dared’. The stirring football chant chorus—‘These are the things! These are the things! The things that dreams are made of!’—is undercut by the almost banal modesty of the detail of those dreams: ‘New York, ice cream, TV, travel, good times’. But that’s the intoxicating drama of Dare: a utopian soundtrack with a down-to-earth, suburban ‘good time’ vibe. ‘Everybody needs love and affection. Everybody needs two or three friends.’ By the austere, highly political post-punk standards of a Thatcher-ravaged, deeply recessed 1981, Dare demanded the impossible.
The new, purged Human League’s first offspring was very much Oakey’s baby. It really was Phil talking, having rid himself of dissenting voices of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who went on to form Heaven 17 (and take on that fascist groove thang). Phil’s inimitable baritone suffuses the album – a voice as distinctive as the sound and the look. A voice so distinctive, in fact, that like many from that era, it’s impossible to imagine it succeeding today. Except perhaps as a novelty act to be voted off before the semi finals.
Martin Rushent, the synth-pop producer brought in to make good the loss of the technical skills of Ware and Marsh, should almost be credited as a fifth band member on Dare. His virtuoso deployment of synths and sequencers effectively adds another lead vocal to the tracks, while the introductory bars are micro overtures that instantly announce the irresistible genius of each song. Is there an album anywhere that has better, hookier, more outrageously sashaying intros? ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘The Sound of the Crowd’, ‘Open Your Heart’, ‘Love Action’, and the Sheffield nitespot operetta of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’ – da da da-da dum da da da DUM!
You know exactly what’s coming and you can’t wait. Much like love itself.
The final track ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ became of course the Human League’s best-selling single and 1981’s Xmas Number One, selling over 2 million copies worldwide. It is also the most perfect pop song ever made, running the sublime gamut from epic to trashy and back again, with a sing-along chorus that is the purest distillation of all pop lyrics ever: ‘Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, OHHHHH!’
After that there really is nothing more to be said on the subject.
‘DYWM’ brings perfect ‘closure’ to Dare’s theme of pursuing dreams. Oakey plays a Svengali figure spurned by his creation, voiced pitch-perfect by Susan Anne Sully, and threatens: ‘Don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now and I can put you down too.’
She’s ‘dared’ – and doesn’t need him any more. But the biggest Dare of all was Oakey’s. Everyone thought boffins and band founders Ware and Marsh were the brains of the outfit and Oakey would fall flat on his pretty-boy face after the 1980 split. Phil was working not as a cocktail waitress but as a hospital porter when Ware found him in 1978, and turned him into someone new.
But his worst turned out to be better than their best.