Pioneers of British Electronic Music

For all you lovers of British electronic music and synth pop, this summer would be an ideal time to visit the BME and combine it with a chance to see some of the pioneers of British electronic music.

In May as part of the Sound City festival there is a great line up featuring both the Human League and Art of Noise (as well as veteran Manchester post punk edgy funksters A Certain Ratio). Later on in the summer two more giants of the scene, in the shape of Gary Numan and John Foxx, who share a double bill.


Looking back it took me a little by surprise when I realised it is almost 40 years since synth-dominated music first made a real impression on the UK music scene. 1978 saw the release of two massively influential singles in the shape of  the Human League’s  Being Boiled  and The Normal’s Warm Leatherette. At the same time John Foxx, Ultravox’s vocalist and Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army were only a year away from having their huge Number One with Are Friends Electric.

 Warm Leatherette was a startling record when it came out and listening to it now it still sounds completely out there on its own. The Normal was the brainchild of the genius that is Daniel Miller. He made the record with a cheap Korg synth and a four track tape recorder and created a record label called Mute to release the single.  It is a key marker in the development of British electronic music and Mute Records played a crucial role in this musical movement.

His first signing to the label was the brilliant Fad Gadget (Frank Tovey) before he took the sometimes faceless nature of electronic music to its extreme by releasing records by an imaginary synth pop group that he had created, called Silicon Teens. Legend has it that a number of major labels approached Miller trying to sign a group which didn’t actually exist! In 1980, the same year he released the Silicon Teens album Miller signed a real teen synth pop band in Depeche Mode after seeing them play a gig in Camden Town. The rest, as they say, is history.

Gary Numan was already a big name by this stage having  had a Number One single with the electrop of  Are Friends Electric (1979)  with Tubeway Army, before following it up with an equally big hit with Cars. Numan’s stage persona was one of a cold android like figure which was in fact partly down to his shy nature but nonetheless it was a mysterious image which appealed to his huge and loyal fanbase who were called Numanoids. Numan has inspired many subsequent electronic musicians and remains an influential figure in the world of electronic music.

Less acclaimed in some quarters but just as important and influential in the history of electronic music is John Foxx. After his spell as vocalist with Ultravox, Foxx went solo and his debut single Underpass (1980) is an electropop classic. If you haven’t ever heard it treat yourself and listen to the Metamatic album on which Foxx plays all the synths. It features not just Underpass but another classic single in No One Driving.

I can remember going to a bar called the Harrington Bar at the time which was one of the few places that played tracks like Underpass and Kraftwerk’s The Model. We thought we were so cool listening to this new music and hanging out in an ‘alternative’ bar but I’m sure we lost any chance of even appearing remotely cool the minute anyone saw our pathetic attempts at dancing!

Personally I’ve got a particular fondness for the Human League. I remember hearing their first single Being Boiled (1978) on the John Peel show and it was like nothing else I’d ever heard.  What sort of people were they making in Sheffield that could come up with this sort of brilliant weirdness?  The reality was that band’s founder members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were both computer operators who had an interest in music.  As the price of electronic gear dropped they were able to buy Korg synthesisers and rope in hospital porter Phil Oakey as the vocalist.  All this quickly led to their debut single Being Boiled which was one of those records that you really wanted to introduce all your friends to because it was so unique and out of kilter with everything else. (For those of you interested in such things the record was an early release on Fast Product, which has to be one of my favourite ever record labels).  

I was fascinated to see them playing live in a tiny club not long after the single’s release. The live experience was again different than anything else I’d seen at that youthful stage of my life. Singer Phil Oakey looked pretty exotic while the others just stood behind synths and tape machines, pressing the occasional button. I think they were the first band I’d seen use visuals as part of their show and from recollection it was a real mix of strange images and film clips. 

The ‘dressing room’ in the club was just off the main stage and in those punk days you could still easily mix with the bands. The Human League happily chatted away to me and my nervous mates and gave us Human League stickers and badges to go home with as well. Around that time I saw an early version of OMD in the same club. At that point of their development OMD consisted of just Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys and a TEAC four track tape machine which they christened Winston. Within a year they had their first big synth pop hit with Electricity.

The Human League went on to sign to Virgin but didn’t make much of a mark until after their second album when the band split in two. I love these two albums Reproduction and Travelogue but even the fabulous Empire State Human didn’t bring the band a hit record. Ware and Craig Marsh went on to form Heaven 17 who had a string of hits themselves. Oakey famously recruited two girls from the Crazy Daisy nightclub in Sheffield to act as backing singers for a tour that was already booked and only a couple of weeks away. I saw one of the early gigs by this hastily thrown together line up and to be honest at that stage it wasn’t obvious that this was going to bring about a change in the band’s fortunes.

The decision to use Martin Rushent as producer and to bring Jo Callis (formerly of The Rezillos) into the band really changed things and with the release of third album Dare (1981) the Human League began having the longed for hits with Sound of the Crowd, Love Action and Open Your Hear. But it was the fourth single  Don’t You Want Me Baby that was the real game changer. According to some stories the song was Oakey’s least favourite track on the album and he didn’t want it released at all. But with the help of a glossy video it caught the imagination of the public and went on to sell almost 1.5 million copies in the UK as well as becoming a US Number One. Thinking back to that time it seemed like everybody I knew owned a copy of Dare – it was absolutely everywhere and impossible to avoid. But aside from its massive impact at the time (not to mention triple platinum sales) it should be viewed as one of the most influential albums of the period and of electropop generally.

Such was the band’s profile at the time that even my old favourite of theirs, Being Boiled, became a big hit after being re-released in 1982. The band kept having hits but Dare was the real high point. See them live and you will remember how many great songs they are responsible for and I dare you not to sing along to Don’t Want Me .

On the same bill as Human League is an intriguing performance from the Art of Noise, genuine pioneers in the world of electronic music and the use of sampling. The show comes a week ahead of the release of a remastered and expanded version of their classic album In Visible Silence (1986) which they will be rebooting for this special show.

From their beginnings in 1983 they were always a fascinating outfit made up of Gary Langan (producer), J.J. Jeczalik, and arranger Anne Dudley. But just to make things really interesting their membership also included music journalist/provocateur Paul Morley and producer Trevor Horn. This strange blend of people meant that this was never going to be a normal group but much more of a  ‘art project’ and to this end for their first album, Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise (1984), the group were presented as faceless beings or a non-group. As well as playing with the whole concept of what actually constitutes a band they were also pushing musical boundaries by exploiting a new piece of technology  in the form of the Fairlight Sampler which was crucial to the group’s sound.

Langan, Jeczalik and Dudley split from Horn/Morley and their label ZTT and re-emerged  in 1986 with their second album and masterpiece In Visible Silence. Again if it isn’t something you are familiar with I’d urge you to come along to the gig or treat yourself to a copy of the remastered album when it is released  later this month.

Sound City have played a blinder in bringing all these electronic giants to the city. If you are already a fan you will be in heaven and if it is something that is largely new to you then it is a great opportunity to hear some of the key players from an important scene.