Various Artists – Musik, Music, Musique
Released 31st July 2020
Subtitled “1980 – The Dawn Of Synth Pop” this new set focusses on that pivotal year in electronic music, with contributions from OMD, Japan, the Human League and John Foxx among many others… Ian Canty is the operator with his pocket calculator.
There’s no real doubt in my mind at least that 1980 represented the year that synthesisers really started to take over pop music in the UK. Developments had taken place all through the 1970s, with the early stages of electronic experiments in music dating back decades before. The number ones by Tubeway Army/Gary Numan in 1979 were a big sign of where things were heading and the use of this relatively new, space-age equipment became far more profound and accessible by the next year. This technological leap suited the dawn of a new decade well too, seeming to signify a quantum leap into a future of new sound. That the cost of these strange new instruments fell was also a key factor, making synths more available to a wider group of people.
This new compilation Musik, Music, Musique seeks to capture the lightning in the bottle of that year by doing a broad sweep from the commercial to the obscure. So what is presented is unsurprisingly a bit of a hotchpotch of well-known tracks rubbing shoulders with pretty obscure material that don’t always gel, but I think there is enough of interest included to make the project worthwhile. Also there are a couple of efforts here that predate 1980 and if you were acting the real pedant to the concept, you could say shouldn’t they really have been included. Also Kim Wilde’s chilly Tuning in Tuning On nips in on disc 2, it first saw release in 1981, but as it was recorded in 1980 I think we can afford to let these slight inconsistencies ride.
Musik, Music, Musique begins on a good note with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s peerless Messages single. It’s a real cliché now to say something still sounds like the future 40 years on, but here it is valid enough. This record was a key electronic music track in 1980 and despite its familiarity demands inclusion, a cutting study of human emotion struggling to be expressed in a new, clean and hyper-modern world. Frank Tovey/Fad Gadget was always value for money and so it proves on the fresh and fruity poker face of Coitus Interruptus and the original Human League do a good job of updating the great Mick Ronson’s Only After Dark for the synth pop crowd.
All these songs are pretty well-known I would imagine to the seasoned electro fan, but Moebius, an American threesome with no link to the late Dieter Moebius of Harmonia and Cluster fame, are a proper discovery for me at least. On Money they’re a bit like an overly excitable, hi-energy Devo with a truly kickin’ beat, a superb and exciting sound. Nick Nicely’s Hilly Fields has in recent years become something of an 80s psychedelic touchstone, but his previous recording DCT Dreams instead harnesses synth drones, rhythms boxes and a clipped vocal very well. The vocoder and static stomp of Zeus’s Musik, Music, Musique title track brings to mind Belgian band Telex and Zeus (B. Held) also pops up as producer and performer in Gina X Performance, responsible for the bubbling archness of Vendor’s Box.
Given the fact it seemed to be everywhere at the time, it is a tad strange that New York band Our Daughter’s Wedding’s Lawnchairs didn’t quite make the business end of the charts and though Ultravox weren’t quite as much fun without John Foxx and their exclamation mark, their track here Waiting is an effective synth rocker. The Fallout Club included boffin Thomas Dolby and they give us the percussive thud of Falling Years and the disc ends with Pauline Murray And The Invisible Girls’ sweeping modern pop classic Sympathy.
Spandau Ballet’s Glow opens up disc two of Musik, Music, Musique, but really their synth dabbles were more just dressing for the funk/soul boy direction they were inevitably to follow. Best known for 1979 smash hit Pop Muzik (hey, there’s another spelling of music!), M were really Malcolm McLaren’s mate Robin Scott with a rolling cast of musicians, including some of the Isle Of Wight’s Level 42. Official Secrets, a near-title track of their second album, doesn’t quiet catch them at their peak, but this is a nice swooping piece of electro. No One Driving continued John Foxx’s renaissance after his split from Ultravox!, a really good tune that I’ve always felt had a sliver of the Kinks’ Til The End Of The End buried deep inside.
Away from Thin Lizzy’s hard rock Phil Lynott dabbled with synths solo and his most renowned effort in that area is included here. Yellow Pearl, for a long time the theme music for Top Of The Pops, definitely has some echoes of La Düsseldorf’s work (the band themselves are featured later on this set, please see below). Which isn’t a bad thing, but perhaps this track is a bit played out having been blasted from the nation’s TVs every Thursday for a number of years. The wistful psychedelic edge to Dalek I Love You (Destiny) is always a joy to the ears and French act Taxi Girl seem to deftly pre-empt Depeche Mode’s early sound on Mannequin.
I’ve always really liked New Musik and in particular World On Water, which luckily enough is featured here – there’s a wonderfully ridiculousness about it, or maybe more accurately a ridiculous wonderfulness. The Donald Duck voices on the chorus are equal parts loopy and endearing and I recommend anyone who enjoys this one to investigate their work further, as I think it could prove very rewarding indeed. Japan may have invented Duran Duran on Quite Life, but we won’t hold that against them and the Residents’ gnomic Diskomo remixed their Eskimo LP for the dancefloor in their own unique but pleasing fashion.
Disc three kicks off with the prog electropop of Buggles’ Astroboy (And The Proles On Paradise) and really clicks into gear with the Berlin Blondes’s Mannequin and the sleepy machine drift of the Passage’s A Certain Way To Go. Craze were a band previously known during the punk years as the Skunks and Dole Q but adapted to synths well, as witnessed on the cool and addictive march of Lucy and Bill Drummond of KLF fame gets in on the act with his post-Big In Japan group Lori And The Chameleons and their playful Korova single The Lonely Spy.
On Visage’s actually very paranoid tune Mind Of A Toy, the follow-up to Fade To Grey, Steve Strange could call on folk the quality of Rusty Egan and Dave Formula of Magazine, ensuring the sonic picture is never anything less than pristine. When Morgan Fisher recorded an album’s worth of made up new wave bands called Hybrid Kids, the best track and the one featured here was British Standard Unit’s rendering of Rod’s D’ya Think I’m Sexy, which was aimed firmly towards the Residents’ field of insect alien noise. Mataya Clifford’s Living Wild is another real eye-opener, a funk-based synth squelching delight. This Zimbabwean also was known as Mat Stagger and had connections to the early days of Killing Joke. The Red Squares sound like a scratchy post punk band with electronic beats grafted on their Vaultage 80 track The Russians Are Coming, but the effect is decent and Eyeless In Gaza do what only they can on the indie pop/electro amalgam of China Blue Vision.
It is entirely fitting that this collection ends with La Düsseldorf. Their Silver Cloud single was a big hit in West Germany in 1976 and their subsequent successes, along with the undeniable pioneering work of Kraftwerk, was one of the key building blocks of synth pop. Their track here Dampfriemen was also a single taken from the Individuellos album. Both these records did not sell in anything like the quantities the group’s other waxings and hastened their downfall, but nevertheless Dampfriemen has a similar mix of naïve wonder, classic music-toned synths and Germanic folk motifs that work to produce something simply gorgeous.
In summary, Musik, Music, Musique does capture a decent amount of what made 1980 the year for electronic music. It brings together a broad spectrum of those experimenting with synthesisers at the time, whether they aimed their recordings squarely at the charts or in a more esoteric and arty direction. A fair percentage of the set has lasted the test of time well too (though I can’t really say the same of Toyah’s scat singing on Victims Of the Riddle). For anyone looking for a good primer and a genuine survey of synth sounds from those halcyon days of 1980, this compilation fits the bill.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here