My friend Eli (who needs to do an Italo Disco installment of Synth Pioneers) put me onto this documentary, which is likely the best exploration of the English synth-pop moment. With great interviews from heroes like Daniel Miller, Vince Clark and Martin Gore, it really got my blood pumping so I wanted to write about a few other acts who were originators of the international electronic pop sound.
Kraftwerk – Computer Love
Talking about the greatness of Kraftwerk is like talking about the necessity of air, so I’ll keep it short. They just released all of their most well-known albums, remastered and with original artwork. “Computer Love” is one of my al time favorite songs. The way the lead seems to phase shift at the end always takes my breath away. Let’s get this straight: A song about loneliness and computers, made before the internet was invented which glides like classical music? Sounds like a plan.
Yellow Magic Orchestra – Technopolis
Yellow Magic Orchestra have been called the Japanese Kraftwerk, in that they were both pop innovators and an awesomely stoic synth band. Ryuichi Sakamoto has since gone on to collaborate with Fennesz and Christopher Willits amongst others. Their work may pre-date synth-pop but it’s surely in the canon of influential works. I often play their hit “Computer Games” if transitioning between sounds in a DJ set. When the beat drops at 1:50, it always lights up the room.
Japan – Gentlemen Take Polaroids
A band that is sorely overlooked is David Sylvian’s Japan project, which married glam and (some would say, invented) new romantic aesthetics to synth austerity and elegant arrangements. Their full sound was more complex than their peers and more sinister by a long shot. Recently, Sylvian has also collaborated with aritsts like Fennesz and covered acts like Blonde Redhead with stunning vocal clarity.
Simple Minds – Glittering Prize
Scotland’s Simple Minds were another band not included in this documentary, probably because they are more associated with the New Wave movement, but like labelmates the Human League, they’re example of a band moving from experimental work to pop success. Their work became increasing U2-like and less electronic, but this track captures them at the peak of a rewardingly sweeping sound, with pitch-perfect production to boot.
Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the Synth Pioneers series can be found here.
An good intro can really make the song. It can set the mood, erasing whatever else is around you and make you feel safe from the world. These songs work because they are incredibly funky and use the impossible elasticity of the synth to great measure.
Another reason these songs still feel fresh is because they represent an era where music and technology had reached a new apex. Stevie Wonder’s synth work in the 70’s is considered by many to be the most influential of it’s era, thanks in part to his work with Tonto’s Expanding Headband and their TONTO synth (watch this little documentary), which allowed the funk to show through the machines.
These songs honor that legacy in different ways.
Produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the all-time best disco band Chic, this was a UK chart hit but never on a US album save for a low-key soundtrack. Not as synthy as the rest, but about as good a pop-disco track as you’re likely to hear, skanking along at an easy clip.
The Brothers Johnson – Strawberry Letter 23
A funky version of Shuggie Otis’ deathless original, this cut is synth and bass heaven and helped them reach platinum status. Produced by Quincy Jones no less.
Dexter Wansel – Life On Mars
Dexter Wansel was on Gamble And Huff’s famous Philly International label. Ann Arbor/Detroit legend DJ Carlos Souffront sold me this re-issue at Osborne’s record store in Ann Arbor years ago and it never sees the shelf. The cut breaks into some super funky disco heat, but that cosmic intro makes this one truly staggering.
Yarbrough and Peoples – Don’t Stop The Music
Greatest bassline awards #1 and sits between genres pretty niftily. 1980 was a MONSTER YEAR for synthy funk, the R+B charts were producing some great tracks, fast and slow. Boogie music is getting some love thanks to revivalists like Dam Funk, and with good reason. Feel this video.
With GM in the news, I was thinking about Detroit tonight. Detroit was the city I grew up closest to. My father grew up here and his dad worked on the Mercury Zephyr line.
Growing up near the city, the musical influence was huge. On any given weekend in the mid-to-late nineties, late night radio would mix up everything from the classic Art Of Noise song “Moments In Love” to local ghetto tech beats and new drum and bass coming out of the UK.
Much has been made about the city and why it’s music sounds the way it does. The desolate beauty, the mechanized auto factories and even the isolated water-ensconced nature of the state. All if it is true.
Here are four tracks that give me that Detroit feeling. These not the more discussed and celebrated classics, but more personal favorites.
Psyche – From Beyond (Transmat)
Carl Craig is a real legend and continues to impress. This song, under the Psyche alias is perhaps one of my favorite tracks ever. It has a crazy spell to it. It’s not quite techno and it pre-dates the breaks and jungle genres. It’s on it’s own planet. Pure late night driving music to roam the vacant freeways.
Cybotron – Cosmic Raindance (Fantasy)
Note: Please play on a proper stereo or headphones as the bassline is what holds this all together. Juan Atkins (“The Originator”) is arguably the greatest groove maker of the Detroit techno school. Cybotron, his group with Richard Davis and John Housely is responsible for some of the most seminal cuts that have been sampled and re-interpreted endlessly. I remember driving down to the store Record Time in our friend’s Ford Fiesta, listening to this on repeat and his subs would rattle the entire frame. Simply majestic.
Drexciya – Digital Tsunami (Tresor)
Drexciya is the most mythical duo of the Detroit techno school. The duo of the late James Stinson and Gerald Donald (also of Dopplereffekt, more on that later) made aggressive yet liquid odes to the ocean and it’s provence. This was a later cut, but got me into their brand of mutated electro. Their original pressings fetch a pretty penny on eBay and with good reason.
Suburban Knight – Collaboration Alpha (Peacefrog)
As part of the vaunted Underground Resistance Crew, Suburban Knight racked up a Detroit classic with “The Art Of Stalking” and also co-wrote tracks with Kevin Saunderson for his seminal and wildly successful Inner City project. This is a more recent track, and not a “classic” by any means, but I chose it because it’s important to recognize that Detroit techno is not a vintage style, it’s a methodology and an ethos that will continue to exist.
Hello, ISO Massive. I’m Sam – Scott and Jakub may have mentioned me before as SV4. I’ve worked with Jakub for a long time at Ghostly, and I have the distinct pleasure of releasing Scott’s work as Tycho on my label. Today, Scott and Jakub have humored me with some column space.
My musical history is all over the place from Hip-Hop to Italo to IDM to Funk, and i’d love to bring some of my favorite lost/forgotten gems to the table…
What i love about the ISO50 headspace is that it evokes a long-forgotten, if not imaginary, past. To my ears, these songs all share that elusive quality: it’s music from a time you think you remember, but were never alive to see.
Paul Hardcastle was a jazz guy with an electro hip-hop influence; dude was nice with a drum machine. You can still hear “Rainforest” and “19” on both late-night urban radio and at your dentist’s office. Daniel Wang put me onto this track and I later found the LP at a used-record store in Berlin. I’ve never found the opportunity to DJ with it, but it’s amazing to pretend there’s an audience that would want to get large to this.
Paul Hardcastle – Stop The Clock
Mike Oldfield is best known as the guy who made “Tubular Bells,” the eerie synth classic which was later adopted for the Exorcist movies. This cut is amazing – it makes you want to drive a speedboat as slow as it will go and watch the coastline.
Mike Oldfield – Foreign Affair
The Alan Parsons Project catalogue has some of the best “dad pop” of the ’70’s and ’80s. Parsons, a studio wizard with a great beard, was a production maverick and could write an amazing hook (“The Eye In The Sky” will make you feel like you’re at the mall waiting for your mom to run errands circa 1985). This track became big in disco DJs’ crates because of its endless groove and largely instrumental composition.
The Alan Parsons Project – Mammagamma [Instrumental]
Marc Moulin is criminally underrated and passed away last year. He is perhaps best known as part of the pioneering Belgian electronic group Telex, who have been immortalized by their Italo-style classic “Moskow Diskow” Moulin’s Placebo Years CD was reissued a few years back by Blue Note in Europe, but it deserves a much wider re-release. Moulin’s own work is more on the jazz-fusion side, but it’s heavy on the electronics, which is probably why he’s been sampled a lot – especially by J Dilla.