Early Synth-Pop Years Through 12 Songs

The Synth-pop era of music is definitely one of my loves, like many of us who have siblings my older brother had a great influence on my tastes in music. Often having no choice in what I listened to when I was young, I only came to fully appreciate this phenomenal time in music as I grew older so thank you all those older siblings out there.

What is Synth-pop?

Short for synthesizer pop; also called techno-pop Synth-pop is a sub-genre of New Wave music that first became prominent in the late 1970s and reached its heyday in the 1980s.

The synthesizer is the dominant musical instrument. In the 60s and early 70s the use of synthesizers was prominent in progressive rock, electronic, art rock, disco, and particularly the “Krautrock” of bands like Kraftwerk.

Rising as a distinct genre in Japan and the United Kingdom in the post-punk era as part of the New Wave movement of the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

Here is the list of bands and songs we will look at in this post:

  1. Yellow Magic Orchestra – Firecracker – 1978
  2. The Human League – Being Boiled – 1978
  3. Japan – Quiet Life – 1979
  4. Visage – Tar – 1979
  5. Gary Numan – Complex – 1979
  6. Ultravox – All Stood Still – 1980
  7. Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark – Enola Gay – 1980
  8. Kraftwerk – The Model – 1981
  9. Depeche Mode – New Life – 1981
  10. Soft Cell – Bedsitter – 1981
  11. Eurythmics – Never Gonna Cry Again – 1981
  12. Spandau Ballet – To Cut A Long Story Short – 1981

To find out more about each track keep reading;

1.Yellow Magic Orchestra – Firecracker – 1979

Considered true pioneers of the genre – ‘Yellow Magic Orchestra’ with their track from 1978, Firecracker

  • Formed: 1978–84, 1992–93, 2002–04, 2007–present
  • Location: Tokyo, Japan
  • Original Known Members:  Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi, Ryuichi Sakamoto

Yellow Magic Orchestra are a Japanese electronic music band and released their self-titled first album in 1978 which contained the track Firecracker.

The album was an early example of synth-pop, a genre that the band helped pioneer.

This album sold 250,000 copies in Japan and entered the Billboard 200 and R&B Albums charts in the United States.

Its most successful single was “Computer Game / Firecracker”, which sold over 400,000 records in the U.S. and was a top 20 hit in the U.K.

2.The Human League – Being Boiled – 1978

An outstanding song by ‘The Human League’ Being Boiled was released in 1978.

  • Formed: 1977–present
  • Location: Sheffield, England
  • Original Known Members: Philip Oakey, Joanne Catherall, Susan Ann Sulley

The band were heavily influenced by Kraftwerk (who we will hear later) and came up with the concept of making music without conventional instruments.  In 1978 they recorded this track with a Roland System 100 synthesizer that they bought.

The song failed to chart in 78 but has been released several times, in 1980 it again failed to chart but in 1982 it reached Number 6 in the UK Charts, shortly after the band’s commercial breakthrough with their album Dare and the single “Don’t You Want Me”.

The Human League have influenced many electropop, other synth-pop, and mainstream performers including the Pet Shop Boys.

3. Japan – Quiet Life – 1979

This next track is by a band called ‘Japan’ – the single Quiet Life released in 1979.

  • Formed: 1974–1982, 1990–1991
  • Location: Catford, South London, England
  • Original Known Members: David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn

The 1979 release of Quiet Life was actually in the country Japan, the UK release wasn’t until 1981 peaking at number 19 in the U.K. chart.

Initially a glam-inspired band, Japan developed their sound and androgynous style to incorporate electronic music and foreign influences, eventually becoming an influence on the UK’s early-1980s New Romantic scene.

The band split in 1982, just as they were beginning to experience significant commercial success in the UK and abroad.

In 1990 the band reunited under the name Rain Tree Crow but the reunion only lasted until 1992.

4. Visage – Tar – 1979

Staying in 1979 here is the debut release for ‘Visage’ called Tar.

  • Formed:1978–1985, 2004–2010, 2012–2015
  • Location: London, England
  • Original Known Members: Steve Strange, Rusty Egan

The only single by the band on the Radar Records label, it failed to chart on its release.

It would however appear on the now legendary self-titled debut album Visage. Midge Ure and Billie Currie of Ultravox a successful synth-pop band in the 80’s played on the track.

Fade to Grey was the bands biggest hit reaching number 8 in 1980.

Steve Strange the frontman for Visage was the only continuous member for the bands active years first from 1978–1985 then 2004–2010 and finally 2012–2015 – Strange passed in 2015.

5. Gary Numan – Complex – 1979

Following on from the chart success of Cars which was a number 1 hit, this was ‘Gary Numans’ single Complex from the album Pleasure Principle 1979.

  • Formed: 1977–present
  • Location: London, England
  • Original Known Members: Gary Anthony James Webb (Gary Numan)

This single reached number 6 in the U.K. charts.

At  the time a radio review panel speculated that this song was “the first electronic ballad”, but this was untrue, as it post-dates recordings such as “Hiroshima Mon Amour” by Ultravox and “Neon Lights” by Kraftwerk by a couple of years.

In July of this year it was announced that the 22nd Gary Numan album Savage (Songs from a Broken World) was set for release on 15 September 2017.

6. Ultravox – All Stood Still – 1980

One of my favorite bands from the 1980’s, Ultravox released All Stood Still in 1980.

  • Formed: 1973–1987, 1992–1996, 2008–present
  • Location: London, England
  • Original Known Members:Dennis Leigh (John Foxx), Chris Allen (Chris Cross), Stevie Shears

This was the fourth and final single from the album Vienna which was the first with Midge Ure as Ultravox’s frontman. Ure replaced John Foxx.

Ure joined the band after working with Billy Currie on Visage projects, his arrival revitalised the band and steered it towards commercial chart success lasting until 1987 when he left the band and established his own solo career.

In 1992 the band reformed, Currie took the role as frontman but the band had limited success.

In 2008 the band’s best-known line-up of Billie Currie, Midge Ure, bassist Chris Cross and drummer Warren Cann reformed and continue to perform today.

Synth-pop Background

Synth-pop initially, in the hands of artists like Gary Numan, the Human League, and Depeche Mode (who we will hear next), the sound was eerie, sterile, and vaguely menacing, since the electronics droned on relentlessly without any change in inflections.

This often created one hit wonders in the genre but of course there were exceptions from bands who adjusted the sound and made it possible to dance to.

Synth-pop helped to establish the place of the synthesizer as a major element of pop and rock music. It has been said that the genre influenced the sound of many mainstream rock acts, such as Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top and Van Halen.

7. Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark – Enola Gay – 1980

A 1980 release by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark here is Enola Gay

  • Formed: 1978–1996, 2006–present
  • Location: Merseyside, England
  • Original Known Members: Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys

An international success selling over 5 million copies Enola Gay became the signature tune for Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark also known as OMD.

It was the only single released from the 1980 album Organisation.

Formed in 1978 by Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys who have been called the “Lennon and McCartney of synth-pop” achieved broad recognition with their album Architecture & Morality  in 1981 and its three singles, all of which were international hits.

OMD influenced the music of popular artists like U2, Pet Shop Boys, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Erasure to name a few.

8. Kraftwerk – The Model – 1981

Regarded as innovators and pioneers of the Synth-pop genre  ‘Kraftwerk’ released their number 1 hit in the U.K. The Model in 1981.

  • Formed: 1969–present
  • Location:Düsseldorf, (Former West Germany) Germany
  • Original Known Members: Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider

First released as the B-side of the “Computer Love” single released in 1981, which reached no. 36 in the UK charts.

Radio DJs started playing the B-side more, EMI decided to re-issue the single in 1981—apparently against the band’s wishes—with “The Model” as the A-side.

It reached no. 1 in February 1982 and spent a total of 21 weeks in the top 75 of the UK Singles Chart.

The release of Autobahn in 1974 gave the band huge commercial success in the U.S. where the album reached number 5 in the Billboard Top 200.

The band have been consistently active since their formation in 1969 but are notoriously reclusive, providing rare interviews, using life-size mannequins and robots to conduct official photo shoots.

9. Depeche Mode – New Life – 1981

One of the most successful bands in Synth-pop, ‘Depeche Mode’ released this single, New Life in 1981.

  • Formed: 1980–present
  • Location: Basildon, Essex, England
  • Original Known Members:Vince Clarke, Andy Fletcher, Martin Gore

This was the bands second single and proved to be their breakthrough song reaching number 11 in the U.K. charts. It would appear on the U.K. release of their first album Speak and Spell.

The original members were  Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher and Vince Clarke (Dave Gahan would join later in 1980). Clarke was the main song writer for the band.

Clarke would depart after the Speak and Spell album but remain a powerhouse in the genre later forming Yazoo (known as Yaz in the U.S.) with Alison Moyet and Erasure with Andy Bell.

Many said that after Clarkes departure Depeche Mode’s music took on a darker tone.

10. Soft Cell – Bedsitter – 1981

Before being a solo artist Marc Almond was the frontman for ‘Soft Cell’, here is their single Bedsitter from 1981.

  • Formed: 1977–1984, 1990-1992, 2001–2005
  • Location:Leeds, England
  • Original Known Members:Marc Almond, David Ball

Reaching number 4 in the U.K. chart the song which explored the underbelly of the London club scene of the time was described as one of the greatest songs of the 80’s by the music journalist John Savage.

Their first album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret had three top 40 hits for the band, Tainted Love (their version of the 1964 Gloria Jones song) which we know reached number 1, Bedsitter which we have just heard and Say Hello Wave Goodbye which reached number 3 in 1982.

At the time of writing the band had sold over 10 million records worldwide

11. Eurythmics – Never Gonna Cry Again – 1981

It would be wrong to do a Synth-pop post without looking at one of the most successful duos of the 80’s, ‘Eurythmics’ with their single from 1981, Never Gonna Cry Again.

  • Formed: 1980–1990, 1999–2005, one-off reunion in 2014
  • Location: London, England
  • Original Known Members: Annie Lennox, David A. Stewart.

“Never Gonna Cry Again” is the debut single by Eurythmics, released in 1981 reaching number 63 in the U.K. chart, It was taken from their debut album In the Garden.

The track contains a flute solo performed by Lennox, one of the few times that she was to use the instrument in her pop career despite having studied at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London in the 1970s.

Annie Lennox and David Stewart the Eurythmics duo, were as already mentioned one of the most successful bands in the 80’s collecting a string of music awards during the decade.

Including an  MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 1984, the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1987, the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music in 1999, and in 2005 were inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame. They have sold an estimated 75 million records worldwide.

 In 1990 they split due to differences and Lennox would go on to have an extraordinary solo career. They reunited in 1999 until 2005 and again for a one-off concert in 2014.

12. Spandau Ballet – To Cut A Long Story Short – 1981

Our final song for this post is ‘Spandau Ballet’ with To Cut a Long Story Short from 1981.

  • Formed: 1979–1990, 2009–present
  • Location: London, England
  • Original Known Members: Gary Kemp, Steve Norman

This was their first single and reached number 5 on the UK Singles Chart. It appeared on the album Journeys to Glory.

Formed in 1979 the band would go on to record 6 albums until they split in 1990, in 2009 they reformed and recorded a 7th studio album and continue to play today.

Synth-pop received considerable criticism and even prompted hostility among musicians and in the press. It has been described as “anaemic” and “soulless”.  During the decade, objections were raised to the quality of compositions and the limited musicianship of artists.

It was even suggested that the equipment (Synthesizers and drum machines) wrote the songs for the bands – sounds ludicrous now doesn’t it.

But despite this Synth-pop was very popular and it was a major influence on house music, which grew out of the post-disco dance club culture of the early 1980s.

Like many my love of the genre came from my older brother constantly playing the music and me having no choice but to listen it. Little did I know then the impact that the music would have on me.

Remember to check my radio show ‘Time Warp’ on SineFM

Hope you enjoyed the list and the music.

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