INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Trouser Press MAY 1982 - by Jon Young
KEYS TO THE FUTURE
Roll over guitar heroes: synthesizers are here.
"Not a day goes by when you don't press a button, whether it's for a cup of coffee or to turn on the stereo or video. People are so surrounded now by electronics, of course there's electronic music." - David Ball of Soft Cell
When Devo first sputtered onto the scene in 1978 they were fond of announcing in interviews that eventually they would give up guitars and switch over to synthesizers exclusively. Devo's provocative, revolutionary idea, however, was already accepted in England: The Human League, Gary Numan, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and other daring souls had begun mounting projects that would disregard the guitar's long dominance in rock in favour of a box of wires that made strange sounds.
Of course, the synthesizer wasn't invented in 1978 to amuse Gary Numan. Throughout the '70s the instrument slowly infiltrated pop music as knowledge of its unique qualities spread. Such major creative forces as Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder and Brian Eno (with and without Roxy Music) successfully integrated synth into their songs and encouraged others to do the same - and Kraftwerk's whimsical robotics and Tangerine Dream's ethereal oozings were available long before the emergence of Britain's latest chart sensations.
But today everyone from Abba to Public Image Ltd. uses synthesizers as a matter of course. So what actually did change?
One very significant thing. Pure, unadulterated synthesizer sound now appears on (more or less) conventional pop tunes. The instrument doesn't call attention to itself, as it had with Kraftwerk and their ilk; machine and song now meet on equal terms. In Britain, at least, the public has signaled its approval. Current UK charts are studded with synthesizer bands like Soft Cell, Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, as well as groups heavily dependent on the instrument, such as Ultravox (the link between Roxy Music and Gary Numan).
What is a synthesizer, anyway? Guitars, drums and so forth are easy to comprehend, but these newfangled contraptions seem forbiddingly alien. Never fear, Scott Simon of Our Daughter's Wedding, a New York City trio that is one of the American alternatives to UK synth bands, offers a layman's explanation of how the thing works.
"The sound of a synth comes from a noise generator, which is an oscillator that puts out a signal with a wave shape. That's sent via circuit boards through fillers that change the wave shape and pitch of the initial signal. That goes into a triggering system-the keyboard. A few different things happen to the signal as it goes through the process. What makes a synth complicated is what happens between the oscillator and keyboard."
Those options, Simon goes on to explain, include being able to store exact sounds in the synth's memory bank (a dead giveaway that computers are involved), the ability to change the shape or pitch of a note, and flexibility in setting the decay, or rate at which a note drops off. The sequencer, beloved to Who fans after Who's Next, "stores notes and puts them out the same way they're put in. You can alter their shape and speed at which they're sent back out, but the notes will always be in the order you put them in."
OK? Technology buffs will find more sophisticated insights into the workings of this modern electronic wonder in next month's TP.
Daniel Miller is regarded as an elder statesman of the British synth-pop scene. In 1978 he inaugurated his Mute Records with a single by The Normal (TVOD/Warm Leatherette), which was actually Miller working alone. He went on to release an album of novelty synthesizer tunes as the Silicon Teens, and in 1981 signed and produced Depeche Mode, now a major UK chart success. He spoke to Trouser Press while in New York to mix sound on Depeche Mode's US tour.
Miller's involvement with the instrument is typical of current synthesizer musicians. "I was a fan of German bands [Can, Faust, Neu, Tangerine Dream] in the early '70s and I thought a lot about the possibilities of electronic music for someone like me, who's not a very good musician but likes playing music. I used to play guitar in really bad groups when I was at school. It was frustrating - I knew what I wanted to play but I practiced and still couldn't." Instead Miller saved up his money and purchased a synthesizer and tape recorder around the time the punk movement exploded.
Others experienced similar dissatisfaction. Scott Ryser San Francisco's Units recalls, "I'd played in rock bands before and I got really sick of the people, of the whole scene." Vocalist Keith Silva of Our Daughter's Wedding was bored with stereotypic new wave bands when he took up the synth. Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres remembers that he and Paul Humphreys simply tired of writing parts for guitars and drums in their Liverpool band: "We wanted to do our songs exactly how we wanted to do them - just myself, Paul and a tape recorder."
Punk galvanised these malcontents. Anyone who suffered through the long reign of flashy progressive bands like Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer may find the connection between oft-overused synthesizers and punk's refreshing simplicity hard to grasp. However, David Ball of Soft Cell feels that "synthesizer bands now have got a lot to thank the punk bands of '77 for. The punk thing gave anybody a chance to get up and do it. It didn't matter how well you played as long as it was fast and energetic and exciting."
"I was very interested in punk as it was non-elitist," Daniel Miller says. "It started me doing my own things. I heard a link between the Ramones and Kraftwerk. If you analyse the music they're quite similar. "
OMD's Andy McCluskey makes the connection more explicit. "In some ways it's quite strange that synthesizers were so hated in the punk era. They're the ideal punk instrument if you believe in the ethic of 'anybody can do it.' Someone who's been playing synth for ten minutes can easily sound as good as someone who's been playing for years, provided the ideas are there.
"I think a lot of English bands would say one reason they use synths is because they're easy to play."
You'll get no argument on that count from the overly modest youths in Depeche Mode. Andy Fletcher looks back on their early days two years ago and remarks, "We couldn't play hardly at all then; we can't play very well now." Not that they under-value their work. Singer Dave Gahan notes, "In pop music nowadays you don't need technical ability, you need ideas and the ability to write songs. That's the main thing."
Easy access to synthesizers has given them a bad image as a stale, monotonous instrument. Since practically anybody con play one, a lot of dullards have gotten involved. Andy Fletcher observes that "because you can get such good sounds on the synth you can get away with murder. You can have an awful song and make it sound quite good. Quite a lot of bands do that."
Some "sophisticated" musicians also don't understand how their own equipment works. "We're not Kraftwerk," Andy Fletcher says, acknowledging the obvious. "Kraftwerk built their own computers and keyboards." Dave Gahan adds, "If someone gave us a computer and said, 'Use that,' we wouldn't know what to do with it."
Andy McCluskey laughs at the situation. "We and a lot of other bands who use synths have this technological image that few bands actually deserve. For Kraftwerk, it's a total ideology; it's the way they work. The fact that they use synths is important to them. But as for a lot of new English bands-we don't understand how the hell the things work! Paul [Humphreys] did study electronics, so he knew the principles behind it, but I had to learn by hit and miss."
Those not deterred (or bothered) by electronic complexity and other attractions in addition to the synthesizer's pleasing sound and ready availability. Small, cheap synthesizers used by a beginning band are invariably more mobile than the guitars and cumbersome amplifiers necessary for even the most rudimentary rock bands. (A synthesizer can be plugged directly into the house P.A.) Our Daughter's Wedding boasts that at first their synths were carry-on luggage on airplanes.
Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan says the logistics of getting to London gigs from their home town of Basildon twenty-five miles away was a determining factor in their switch from guitars to synths. Andy Fletcher adds "Until about six months ago we used to go to and from gigs by train. The audience would see us play and they'd see us on the train afterward with our instruments!"
The band also raves about how easy it is to conduct a pre-show soundcheck. Once Depeche Mode's three players tune their instruments to a synthetic drum tape it's all systems go. Andy Fletcher says the precess usually lakes no more than an hour. By comparison, he notes, "When we supported Ultravox at The Rainbow, they were soundchecking for about five hours."
"I couldn't stand being in that sort of group." Soft Cell's David Ball cringes at the thought of playing in a "traditional" rock band. The instrumental half of Soft Cell (Mark Almond furnishes vocals) usually needs no more than an hour to get ready for a show.
Both Depeche Mode and Our Daughters Wedding held early practice sessions in small suburban bedrooms. Since they didn't need amps, it was a simple matter to plug headphones directly into the synth and commence creating. (And no nasty noises to annoy Mom!) By the same token, Depeche Mode doesn't even use the big room in a recording studio; the band just plugs directly into the control room con- sole. How's that for simple?
All well and good, you say, but what about the sound of synthesizers? Anyone who's been exposed to Gary Numan's whiny drone [Singing or playing? - Ed.] for more than three minutes may well conclude the synthesizer is an evil menace to rock, designed to eviscerate all feeling.
Rachel Webber, who shares the Units' synthesizer duties with Scott Ryser, probably speaks for the wary American public when she voices reservations about the current crop of British synth bands. "In general - 'cause I like Orchestral Manoeuvres - those bands can get pretty similar. I don't like the Gary Numan type of scene."
Scott Ryser adds, "It doesn't seem like there's much depth to it. I like it for dancing, but it's hard to take very seriously."
Webber feels a lot of groups "just get a basic sound they know will work. Those cute little squiggles do work, as far as what people like, but it's not very challenging."
Don't blame the poor old inanimate synthesizer for appearing on a lot of boring records. Blame the musicians. Layne Rico of Our Daughter's Wedding obsesses, "A lot of people are against synthesizers and say, 'All you have to do is press a button' - which in a way is quite true. It's all down to how each individual plays the instrument."
Bandmate Keith Silva adds, "Some people use only what's easy to get out of it, but if you search there's a lot you can do."
The "new romantic" movement, with its watery dress-up ideology and simplistic dance motifs, has probably done a lot recently to give synths a bad name. Tedious stuff is being ground out with the aid of synthesizers - but what else is new? There are plenty of mediocre guitarists too.
Andy McCluskey recognises the dangers. "Over the last twenty years or so kids who've wanted to be musicians have decided, 'I've gotta be a guitar player. I wanna be an axe hero.' They'd adopted what were new ways of playing at the time, but because they were copying they'd just start adopting cliches.
"In the last ten years it seems like there have been very few new methods of playing guitar. Everybody's just trotting out the same old cliches, pulling the same faces, striking the same old rock 'n' roll poses.
"The synthesizer now has a history and there are already cliched ways of playing it. You can sound like Gary Numan on a Polymoog. You can do lead solos like Billy Currie on an ARP Odyssey - that wailing, no-melody type of riffing. There are popular guidelines for playing synthesizer laid down by people who were around before.
"Recently I talked to a young guy from Liverpool who played us a demo. I asked him why it was so unmelodic and discordant; he refused to play melodies. He said, 'The trouble is, every time you play a melody on synthesizer you sound like Orchestral Manoeuvres!"'
McCluskey laughs, no doubt thankful he got there first.
Despite his reservations, McCluskey does not share Rachel Webber's skepticism about the current wave of English synth-pop groups. He sees great diversity among the bands, and frowns on efforts to lump them all together because of their choice of weapon.
"People from outside Britain see all bands that play synthesizer as part and parcel of the same movement or ideology, which is far from the truth. The music we and other bands make, and the reasons behind the making of the music, are actually quite different from each other.
"A few examples: That Human League plays synthesizers is almost unimportant. It's pop music for the '80s. The lyrical content is very traditional: 'I love you and you love me' or 'I love you and you don't love me.' When we write a love song it lends to be more offbeat. Depeche Mode is a very young thing, the sound of young boys. The lyrical content of Heaven 17 is fairly radical."
Some synth bands try to minimize the mechanical aspect of their electronic instruments. Keith Silva says that Our Daughter's Wedding avoids sequencers whenever possible. "To me it makes the music a little too sterile. I prefer the actual physical attack of playing a note yourself. I think the feeling actually changes when you use sequencers."
The rhythm section in a synth group tends to be its weakest component. Those tinny, ticking rhythm boxes used to sound pretty feeble coming out of Lowery organs; their descendants don't fare much better trying to drive a loud battalion of synths. Depeche Mode deals with the problem by taping all their percussion one element at a time. The sight of a big Teac reel-to-reel machine onstage where a drummer should be comes as a shock, but the output is, Dave Gahan says, "really clear and punchy." The band's tape consists of a bass drum sound from Daniel Millers old ARP, the snare drum sound of a rhythm machine, and various sequencer bits.
On their five-song EP, Digital Cowboy, Our Daughter's Wedding used ace drummer Simon Phillips instead of a rhythm box. Onstage Layne Rico augments the mechanical beat with a Synare synth, which can produce either percussive or melodic tones. The Units recently enlisted a percussionist and a drummer. On Architecture & Morality, Orchestral Manoeuvres combine acoustic and synthetic drums for a hybrid sound.
Soft Cell and producer Mike Thorne concocted an intriguing approach for Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. As David Ball reveals, "We took the output of an electronic snare and put it through a little speaker, which we laid face down on top of a snare drum; then we miked that up. So we were getting a real snare sound, but it was triggered by a drum machine. I think it gives a slightly richer sound."
There's no reason for any two synthesizer bands to sound alike if they've got talent and aren't too rigid in their outlook. Paul Humphreys believes synths are "the most versatile instrument - but there are things you can't do on a synthesizer, like get the power and rawness of strumming a guitar." That's why Architecture & Morality features OMD'S first use of guitar, as well as horns, piano and saxes.
"Very often the mainstay of a song is not synthesizers but sound ideas in general," Andy McCluskey observes. OMD'S recent single Joan Of Arc "employs a glockenspiel which gives it springiness, and I did two different vocal takes. One has all these little voices - I'm trying to follow a synthesizer I'd set on D. On the other one I sing high-pitched, almost falsetto harmonies."
Souvenir resulted from equally ingenious procedures. Humphreys took tapes of an eight-member church choir singing scales and made up the tape loops that give the song its wobbly, shifting quality.
In other words, smile when you call Orchestral Manoeuvres a synth band. "They're not our number one priority," McCluskey states. "We're not on some electronic crusade; we're not interested in the synthesizer as an image. We have a load of them onstage because that's what we play. We just use them as a means to an end."
A close look reveals that, in one sense, most of these bands aren't all that different from traditional rock groups. Our Daughter's Wedding, the Units and Depeche Mode all dole out responsibilities for melody, bass and percussion to different members, just like the good old days. In most cases the material could be rearranged to accomodate implements of yore like guitars and drums. Our Daughter's Wedding recalls Sparks. Orchestral Manoeuvres sometimes suggests a smarter Beach Boys. Soft Cell's massive UK smash Tainted Love was originally an obscure '60s soul recording by Gloria Jones.
"We've just worked up a James Brown tune [It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World] so I guess a guitar band could work one of ours up," the Units' Ryser says. (He originally wanted the Units to be "real brash and hard, the Iggy Pop of synthesizers.") David Ball would like to hear an orchestra tackle one of Soft Cell's songs.
Keith Silva even get so far as to label Our Daughter's Wedding a rock band: "We're all keyboards but we still feel we're a rock band. It lakes people a while to figure out, 'Hey, these guys just play good music and it rocks.'" Layne Rico adds that "Lawnchairs or Target for Life could be done by Van Halen or any other band. It's just music."
If you were looking forward to a bloody shoot-out in the charts between guitars and synths forget it. "There's room for everything," David Ball remarks. "Synthesizers are just another option. If people want to play guitars, that's great. You should be able to play any instrument you like." Rachel Webber says, "There's supposed to be this big rivalry between synthesizers and guitars, which I think is pretty weird. I don't think people are sick of guitars, I just think they're looking for something different. If anything, guitars have gotten stronger."
The search for alternative means of expression may eventually lure synth bands into trying out guitars. Depeche Mode has already considered such a move.
"I think the guitar is a beautiful instrument," Layne Rico of Our Daughter's Wedding says. "When everybody thinks we're going to electronic, we might do a big circle and come onstage with guitars."
Made possible by the onward march of science, synthesizers and synthesizer bands will continue to change with the technology. Layne Rico is anxiously awaiting a set of hexagonal electronic drums. "They're made of the same material as football players' helmets. Playing them is like hitting a drumstick against a barstool. These drums are only about two inches deep; they look like hexagonal pie pans. We'll finally be able to break away from the rhythm machines a bit."
On a less sophisticated front, basic synthesizers have dropped in price so much that anyone with two hundred dollars can become at least a fledgling artiste.
Soon a generation that grew up on Gary Numan and The Human League, rather than The Stones and Led Zeppelin, will be ready to enter the musical job market . Andy Fletcher knows seven- and eight-year-olds who can play melodic lines on the synth; tomorrow's musicians will test the instrument's capabilities without treating it as a futuristic aberration. Sooner or later a bona fide synthesizer genius steeped in the early electronic bands may come along and revolutionise the field, just as Jimi Hendrix absorbed the blues and early rock guitar styles before emerging as staggeringly original.
David Ball has no doubts that synthesizers have arrived. "When electric guitars were first used I'm sure people were saying, 'Do you really think this is gonna last?' Electric guitars have been with us for years now, and I think it will be the same with synths. People have accepted it as a conventional instrument rather than a freak of science."
"I think synthesizers are here to stay," Daniel Miller sums up, "regardless of what they're playing now. A lot of things I thought were gonna happen a few years ago have happened."
England has a basis for synthesizer music. I don't think it's a fad, because it's lasted. Since Gary Numan there's always been synthesizer music in the English charts. It's gone through all the different fashions and it's still there.
"The synthesizer's such a flexible instrument. You can play anything on it. It's not a kind of music; it's a way of making music."
Synthesizers now have the potential to become the next classic rock 'n' roll instrument. Keep your ears open. Who knows - in a few years the sequel to this piece may even star you!
A Biased, Undefinitive Discography
DONNA SUMMER - I Feel Love (1977): Sequencers gone crazy! Still the most impressive use of synths in a pop song and the inspiration for Blondie's Heart Of Glass. Produced by Giorgio Moroder.
HUMAN LEAGUE - Being Boiled (1978): Also available on Fast Pop - Mutant Pop. Their first, and a recent UK hit. It sure sounds antique now.
THE NORMAL - TVOD/Warm Leatherette (1978): Daniel Miller in disguise, constructing a bridge between Kraftwerk and today's styles. Grace Jones later recorded Warm Leatherette.
GARY NUMAN - Cars (1980): His first and only US hit, and an irritating one at that. If Numan possessed more than one dimension, he'd probably have his own TV show by now.
Some Bizarre Album: This 1981 compilation recognised synth bands as a phenomenon and introduced Depeche mode and Soft Cell.
DEPECHE MODE - Dreaming Of Me: For further information, consult Speak & Spell, their debut LP.
HEAVEN 17 - We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thing: Blatant politics and funky rhythms from Human League refugees. Penthouse & Pavement, their first LP, contains plenty of other hot stuff.
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK - O.M.D.: A compilation featuring their first, Electricity, and their best, Enola Gay.
O.M.D. - Architecture & Morality: This new offering includes the haunting Souvenir and Joan Of Arc.
OUR DAUGHTER'S WEDDING - Digital Cowboy: This twelve-inch EP contains a re-recording of Lawnchairs, which in its initial incarnation achieved unprecedented disco success for an independent single.
PETER SHELLEY - Homosapien: This breathtaking triumph sounds like Shelley's old band, The Buzzcocks, with high blood pressure. The LP of the same name has its highlights, but nothing to match this masterpiece.
SOFT CELL - Tainted Love: Their fascinating hit single. Also on their first LP, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.
UNITS - Animals They Dream About: No frivolity here. Produced by Bill Nelson.