This week I’ll be looking at 80s synth-pop and sophisti-pop, an era of music covered extensively in Simon Reynolds’ very good book. ‘Pop’ seems to be a dirty word for ‘serious’ musicians from the 90s onwards, but back in the 80s you could make credible pop albums without much censure. Let’s have a look at some of the acts that did. (Of course I’ve already listened to the critics’ favourite album of this sort, ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love‘).
A-ha, ‘Hunting High and Low’
A-ha were a Norweigan band best known for the opener here, ‘Take on Me’, a hit at the third time of asking thanks to an imaginative video style. I didn’t think I knew anything else on this, but ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ was also a big hit. The album hasn’t dated fantastically well, whether that’s the synth and drum patches, or whether it’s the vaulting emotive drama that Morten Harket’s vocals invoke. The title track is a particularly OTT piece of musical theatre.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’
Holly Johnson had emerged from Big in Japan, a Liverpool punk group also featuring Bill Drummond, Ian Broudie and future Slits/Banshees drummer Budgie, but made a Faustian pact with ZTT Records. ZTT got Frankie three consecutive Number Ones, but the band’s own playing was regularly replaced by ZTT regulars like The Art of Noise and they were trapped in an impenetrable contract. In a lot of ways this is the archetypal ZTT album: it’s named after a line from ‘Xanadu‘, mostly revolves around the Fairlight, has a few great hits, and is too long and overblown (it’s a double album!). The album also contains an entire side of awful covers (‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’), a 13-minute title track, and Chris Barrie doing ‘Spitting Image’ impressions. It’s not really like anything else on the list, but it’s also excessively bloated.
Heaven 17, ‘Penthouse and Pavement’
Two of H17 were in The Human League before an acrimonious split, after which both bands had pretty successful runs. H17 are maybe best known for ‘Temptation’, which would come later, but this album is full of unusual song titles: ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’, ‘We’re Going To Live For A Long Time’ and of course ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’. Less harsh than, e.g., Soft Cell, but not as smooth as ABC due to the gated reverb vocals and synth patches, they kind of fall between two stools here.
The Human League, ‘Dare’
Meanwhile the Human League, an uncommercial synth band whose early tracks included ‘Being Boiled’, were down to just a singer and a projectionist plus two dancers they’d found in a nightclub. They were on the ropes, but amazingly managed to turn it around with the addition of a session keyboardist and the Rezillos’ guitarist. The soaring melodies and synth sweeps are great and there’s two killer tracks at the end: ‘Love Action’ and a tossed-off duet called ‘Don’t You Want Me’, which of course sealed their legacy.
Japan, ‘Quiet Life’
The second best album this week is from a band who started as a glam-rock band but gradually replaced the guitars with synths (their biggest hit, ‘Ghosts’, is entirely synths and weird noises but still went Top 5!). Here, they appear to be imagining Bowie’s ‘Low’ as a collaboration between Eno and Giorgio Moroder: the ace title track has pulsating Moroder synths, but ‘Despair’ has the same drum machine as ‘Art Decade’ and the tolling chords of ‘Warszawa’. Elsewhere, there’s a playful Krautrock-ish cover of the Velvets’ ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and some elastic proto-New Romantic bass playing from Mick Karn.
Prefab Sprout, ‘Steve McQueen’ (or ‘Two Wheels Good‘)
With that cumbersome sobriquet I imagined the band had had a past life as an artsy post-punk group but apparently not. Sprout’s main man Paddy McAloon fancied himself as a songwriter in the Cole Porter tradition, it seems, but these songs are most successful when the jazzy pop songs are anchored to producer Thomas Dolby’s then-contemporary 80s sheen. The album drastically sags at track 7 with two ghastly stabs at Great American Songbook writing in the Gershwin mould, but the first half is strong. Enough to perhaps suggest that the band’s legacy – known only for a silly novelty song about someone who’s known only for a silly novelty song (the hot dog-jumping frog ‘I’m The King of Rock’n’Roll’) – deserves better.
Scritti Politti, ‘Cupid & Psyche 85’
Unlike Prefab, Scritti did start as an angular Marxist quartet who toured with Gang of Four and did Peel sessions, but by 1985 had downsized their personnel (just singer Green Gartside) but upsized their ambition to make Prince-style pop records. It’s amazing that the same act’s back catalogue contains abrasive Albini-ish cut ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ and ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, in which Gartside’s helium voice nestles on a bed of soft Fairlight. Not that I particularly enjoyed the transition to the latter: there’s something anonymous about the enterprise, as though the songs could have been performed by Color Me Badd or Matt Bianco or someone equally epheremal.
We’ll probably return to synth-pop at a later date as there’s plenty more on the list.
Next week: Back to the ghetto as we’ll be listening to seven of the rap albums on the list.
Progress update: 422 listened to (42%), 579 remain.