Having just watched Synth Britannia, I don’t recall a ‘pop history’ with such an engaged set of participants. Although the founding synth-punks were generally unaware of each other's existence and scattered across England's industrial cities, there are a clear sets of cultural and historical inspirations for this most sustained period of experimental, popular music.
Ballard; Burgess; Burroughs; brutalism; Tangerine Dream; Moroder & Summer; Rolands; Korgs; Yamahas; and, most of all, Kraftwerk. The early synthers were electronic punks, prepared to meld that movement’s DIY ethos and agitative politics with the alienation of sci-fi and of the declining industrial cities in which they made music. The latter synthers were electronic soul boys and girls, masters of ice and fire, where the synthesizer became a one-man orchestra and the singer’s heart was worn on his or her sleeve. The bridge between these two stages was Gary Numan, whose breakthrough single with Tubeway Army reached number 1 six weeks after the 1979 general election.
Funny how you can pinpoint the transition between post-war settlement and neoliberalism almost to the day. Callaghan is in power – there is a winter of discontent – Richard Kirk and Chris Carter buy build machines from kits to make apocalyptic soundscapes – we know these experiments (social democracy, Vorticist pop) are doomed to fail, but it’s hard not to see them as Utopian. Late 70s Britain and late 80s East Germany – both are inherently lacking, compromised by what they have sown, corrupted from the start. And yet, both hold a promise, a promise of something that could Really Exist.
Fast-forward to 3 May 1979, and the promise is broken. Fast-forward to 30 June 1979 – the boy who makes no bones about wanting to be a pop star is at number 1 with “Are friends electric” and the Human League threaten to call it a day. Politically, economically and culturally, these dates signify the end of what should have been and the beginning of what is.
Throbbing Gristle and John Foxx could not to let the passing of an era dissuade them from making incessant, spectral records which haunt the new world order (in 79/80, and still today). Foxx’s Metamatic is music for a lost London, a city where docks and manufacturing industry had vanished, where underpasses, plazas and burned-out cars scarred the glassy, greasy, greedy landscape. It also recalls a childhood spent in post-war Lancashire:
I used to travel by bus a lot when I was a kid, and I used to look out of these windows and see these gaps in the buildings, and overgrown places where we used to play, that had been bomb sites. The war seemed a long time before that, it seemed like ancient history to us, but of course it was only five years, really, or maybe a little bit longer, but not much — ten years at most.
And then the other layers of ruins, where I grew up in the north-west, when factories were closing down, and we used to play in the factory buildings, enormous buildings, and they became overgrown, and I used to walk into the offices and see all the paperwork. I remember seeing paperwork with brambles growing out of it, because they’d decayed so much that it was able to support another form of life. I remember thinking how, all the accounts were written by hand, and I remember thinking how interesting it was that someone would spend their life on this stuff, and now it is just fodder for a blackberry bush growing out of it.
Like Ballard’s Concrete Island, Metamatic eulogises “the unintended, forgotten, abjected corners of town planning,” the bombed-out tabulae rasae for the Modern Movement. The album was recorded in the East End, just down the road from 10 Martello Street, where Throbbing Gristle recorded 20 Jazz Funk Greats in a subterranean studio level with the plague pits, with the lost things and forgotten dead on which the city is built.
THROBBING GRISTLE'S DEATH FACTORY
“It was grim,” agree Cosi Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter, living among “the endless dead who, if they returned from their graves beneath the London soil, would far outnumber the living.” TG turn away from the dawn of a new era, recoiling from the post-industrial glare back to a primordial and desolate darkness. Trusting in the environment in which they live and work, they build synthesizers to remake the world, uncovering layers which have been paved over in the pursuit of progress. Under the paving stones ... the boneyard.
The world is made afresh with every generation, and evil prevails. But just as evil may justify the existence of God (for without God, where lies the root of all evil?), it also justifies Utopia. We must blame our ills on failed Utopias, so that we can seek new Utopias that can redeem us. The end of history cannot be. We need new creations to deliver the justice denied by the present.