Today's Date in the 80's
Date: 28-Apr-2011

Forgive us our synths – how 80s pop found favour again

Ostentatiously intellectual and scornful of rock'n'roll cliche, the likes of OMD and Heaven 17 briefly set 80s pop alight – and now they're back in favour. The original ideas men talk to Dorian Lynskey – The Guardian. UK
'It's funny how things go," says Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark's Andy McCluskey, reflecting on the reunited band's successful recent tour. "You're sitting in a hotel bar, luxuriating in the fact that you're still able to go out and make intellectual pop music, and Louis Walsh comes along and says, 'Please will you write me a Eurovision hit for Jedward?'" One of McCluskey's eyebrows shoots north; he relishes a good anecdote. "That really happened to me yesterday."

In 1978, McCluskey and his bandmate Paul Humphreys had a vision of the sound of tomorrow, and it did not involve tone-deaf twins from a TV talent show. A hint of that vision is given in the pointed title of OMD's excellent comeback album, History of Modern. "When we started out we naively thought that one day all music would sound like this, and rock'n'roll cliches would be gone," Humphreys says wistfully. McCluskey, characteristically hyperbolic, declares: "The last modernist movement was English electronic pop music at the end of the 20th century."

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of synthpop's annus mirabilis, which saw the release of OMD's Architecture & Morality, Depeche Mode's Speak & Spell, Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Japan's Tin Drum, the Human League's Dare and Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement. Hailing from different parts of the country, the bands constituted less a scene than a shared sensibility: synthesisers before guitars, outlandish ideas before rock'n'roll cliches. The future of pop glittered with possibility.
But by the second half of the 80s, most of synthpop's first wave, Depeche Mode aside, had faltered. For the next decade or so, they either split up or toiled in reduced circumstances, occasionally sipping from the poisoned chalice of the 80s nostalgia circuit.
Now, at last, they are enjoying a full-scale rehabilitation. OMD are resurgent, Heaven 17 are touring Penthouse and Pavement, and the Human League are about to release Credo, their first album in a decade.

Mark Jones, who will release Credo on his Wall of Sound label, hosts the 6 Music show Back to the Phuture, which likes to pair original synthpop icons with their spiritual descendants: La Roux with Heaven 17, Little Boots with Gary Numan. "This generation of pop artists is the first to say it's not about the Stones and the Beatles, it's about the Human League and Heaven 17," says Jones. "This isn't about misty-eyed memories. It's about the relevance of what those people did to what artists are doing now."
Synthpop began to crackle into life in 1975, the year Kraftwerk toured Britain (McCluskey says their show at the Liverpool Empire "changed my life") and made a legendary teatime appearance on Tomorrow's World. At that stage, synthesisers were still exotic contraptions, far too expensive for two Sheffield computer operators such as Human League/Heaven 17 founders Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. So Marsh built his own from a kit. "It was a bit of plywood painted black and a bunch of switches," Ware remembers. "It was an absolute nightmare – you couldn't even tune it. But we thought we were like Eno."

By chance, the emergence of affordable basic synthesisers (Ware bought a Korg 700S for £350) coincided with punk's cultural upheaval. "Suddenly the means of production was in the hands of the individual," says Ware. "Not only could you form your own band; you could create your own artistic environment as well."

Thus inspired, Marsh and Ware formed a band called the Future and wrote bleak instrumentals with such fabulously pretentious titles as Dada Dada Duchamp Vortex. Recruiting their flamboyant schoolfriend Phil Oakey, they remade themselves as would-be pop stars the Human League. An early recording called Dance Like a Star set out their stall: "This is a song for all you bigheads out there who think that disco music is lower than the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with. We're the Human League, we're much cleverer than you."

"We really thought that what we were doing was the new form of popular music, and we couldn't understand why everyone wasn't getting on board," says Ware. "It was beyond arrogance. It was a kind of solipsistic belief, almost like a cult. It's weird, looking back on it now."

Meanwhile, in the Wirral, the nascent OMD were similarly militant. "Only Kraftwerk, Neu!, La Düsseldorf, Brian Eno, Roxy Music and David Bowie," says Humphreys of what music was acceptable. "Everything else was shit." Before they bought their first synthesiser (a Korg M500 Micro-Preset, bought on the never-never for £7.76 a week over 36 weeks), Humphreys built his own "noise machines". OMD had rules: McCluskey would never sing the word "love"; the drummer was forbidden to use cymbals; rock'n'roll was anathema. "We were going forward in reverse," says McCluskey. "We knew what we didn't want to do." Unlike the Human League, they looked askance at the top 40. "You don't start a group called Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, playing songs that even your best friends think are shit, if you're going to be pop stars," reasons McCluskey. "It wasn't a blueprint for world domination."
"Tony Wilson [of Factory records] was the first person to say this was the future of pop music," says Humphreys. "We thought it was an insult."

The scattered members of the electronic vanguard were slowly becoming aware of each other's existence when, apparently out of nowhere, a former punk named Gary Numan topped the charts in June 1979 with Are "Friends" Electric?. "We were not chuffed," admits McCluskey. Numan's achievement irrevocably raised the stakes. OMD, to their surprise, were signed by Virgin imprint Dindisc. "We thought they were barking mad," says McCluskey. "When [1980 single] Messages actually sold, it was like, wow, how did that happen?"
For the Human League, however, the pop breakthrough remained elusive. "I was never that bothered about being massively popular," says Ware. "I thought it was more important to be artistically rigorous, and I naively assumed that success would follow from that. But the record company and our manager, Bob Last, thought that we might miss the boat." So Last conspired with Virgin and Oakey to oust Ware and Marsh, who promptly recruited their old friend Glenn Gregory to form Heaven 17 and set about trying to beat Oakey to the top 10.

Because of the split, the two bands became joint owners of the same Sheffield studio, so Heaven 17 would record Penthouse and Pavement at night while the new-look Human League worked on Dare during the day. Penthouse and Pavement, with its live funk bass and sleek, radio-friendly production, was a long way from the Future. "The electronic thing got identified as everybody in this urban environment singing about being disassociated from the world," says Ware. "And we were the exact opposite of that. When things are really grim, that's when you want to be optimistic."
The working-class Heaven 17 thought like socialists (they had songs about Ronald Reagan and nuclear weapons) but looked like yuppies (they posed on the sleeve as City whizzkids), and the album both celebrated and satirised success. "It was an ironic debunking of the myth of artists as carefree troubadours who don't concern themselves with business," says Ware. "What we didn't think about at the time was that it seemed to embody an aspirational zeitgeist."
OMD were similarly enamoured of big ideas, writing songs about Hiroshima, power plants and, in two consecutive Top five singles – Joan of Arc and Maid of Orleans – Joan of Arc. "I was determined to release them both under the same name and the label was like, yeah, you know what, Andy? Some people might think they've already bought it," McCluskey remembers. He compiled a ring-binder folder for each album. "I researched these songs like I was doing a fucking thesis. We were so excited that wearing your brain on your sleeve was considered apt."

It seemed that synthpop bands could say and do whatever they liked as long as they had those clean, simple, unforgettable melodies. "Our sound was a lot down to the inadequacies of the technology," says McCluskey. "They were monophonic, so you could only play one note at a time." Every year brought some fantastic new game-changing device, such as the Linn LM-1 drum machine (which is all over Penthouse and Pavement, and Dare) or the Emulator sampler (the cornerstone of OMD's 1983 album Dazzle Ships). The Musicians Union ("Keep Music Live") was so panicked by synthesisers that it attempted to impose restrictions on their use. "We used to have a plastic skull on the mixing console which said 'Keep Music Dead'," grins Ware.
With hits as big as Soft Cell's Tainted Love and Ultravox's Vienna leading the way, synthpop felt to its enthusiasts like a chart insurgency. "We began to feel like we were sweeping away the old," says McCluskey. "The ancien regime has been eradicated! We've chopped off their heads!"

But then, like many revolutionaries, the synthpop groups found themselves asking: what now? Some (Soft Cell, Japan) clearly chose art, others (Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran) commerce. OMD and Heaven 17 were stuck in the middle.
"The record company said, 'Look, just do one more album like Architecture & Morality and you're going to be the next Genesis,'" remembers Humphreys. "Wrong thing to say." Instead they made the brilliant but commercially perilous Dazzle Ships.
"Everybody bought the other stuff, and that was bloody weird, so we assumed they'd buy this," McCluskey says ruefully. After it flopped, OMD panicked. They had mortages to pay, so they tried to contrive hits, and focused, fruitlessly, on trying to break America. "Without even knowing it," sighs McCluskey, "we'd gone from being this radical band flying in the face of convention to exactly the sort of band that we hated." Humphreys left the band in 1989: "We'd lost the plot."
After Heaven 17's 1983 album The Luxury Gap, they too began a downward slide, as record labels became more cautious and controlling. Once associated with oddballs who liked Kraftwerk and JG Ballard, the synthesiser became at best standard issue and at worst synonymous with pop at its most vapid. "What changed perceptions was the shallow aspirations of bands like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran," says Ware. "They just wanted to be famous and buried the more credible end of it." He testily imitates the cheesy tones of someone advertising an 80s night. "Big shoulderpads! Funny shirts! Funny dancing!"
Ware still sounds aggrieved by the rejection of synthpop and misses the early 80s notion of "perfect pop: intelligent, engaging stuff that appeals to a huge amount of people". McCluskey was even more fed up during Britpop. "It was the celebration of ignorance and rock'n'roll cliche that was really galling. We were made unfashionable by something that was even more antiquated than we were."

Now that electronic pop is again dominating the charts and the class of '81 are celebrated as pioneers rather than punchlines, McCluskey can afford to laugh at the hostility OMD endured during the synthpop backlash. "It wasn't real, it wasn't rock'n'roll, it wasn't manly and sweaty and honest," he summarises. "It was fey, gay, pseudo-intellectual synth bollocks."
"That's why we made it," Humphreys says with a smile. "We knew we were right."


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