Synth Britannia (2009) - 8/10
Following on from watching the excellent Gary Numan: Android in La La Land, I’m continuing to indulge my love of 80s synth pop. The origins here though are born in the 70s, with the dawn of accessible electronics and bands like Kraftwerk showing what could be done with them. I often think of the 70s as a bleak decade for society in Britain and here we start with A Clockwork Orange’s damning take, scored with the classical synth stylings of Walter Carlos. The A Clockwork Orange score is a masterpiece and inspiration to many. Add German Pioneers Kraftwerk with their sparse melodies and you can see how exciting this would be in a music landscape dominated by long haired prog rock hippys. The final ingredient is perhaps surprisingly, punk. The DIY ethic, having a go. Buy a shit synth, mess around with it, see what happens. It’s frontier stuff with people like Bernard Sumner, Phil Oakley, Richard A Kirk and Wolfgang Flür all clearly still excited retelling the stories of them ‘having a go’. I guess this doesn’t happen in music now. All the sounds seem to have been discovered, it’s now just down to reordering them. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the same as having an entirely new language to play with. As with all good documentaries, you need to learn something new. The obvious thing here being to discover new (old) bands. I’d never heard of The Normal before, but bloody hell I’m hooked. Shame I’m over 40 years late to the party. John Fox too, beautiful stuff. The title here is significant. Synth Britannia, it’s not a movement confining it’s origins in one scene, one city. It’s a fragmented uprising, with bands like The Human League, OMD, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division (who aren’t often thought of as a synth band), Throbbing Gristle springing up all over. Largely ignored by the press and public at large in its infancy during the late 70s. The dawn of the 80s (or the arse end of ‘79) sees the touch paper lit by one Mr Gary Webb… or Numan for the stage. All this set-up covers what’s neatly packaged as ‘Part One’. As we shift gears into Part Two, all that dark experimentation finds its feet as guitars are ditched wholesale and the synth takes over the charts. The Tories come to power, the yuppies are born, the soundtrack is Visage, The Flying Lizards and a host of classic one hit wonders. It could’ve crumbled quickly if not for bands like Depeche Mode. Playing to the stereotype, but writing bloody great catchy pop tunes. Taking what Numan had started and running with it. As a piece of film it’s not groundbreaking, it leaves that to its subject matter, but succeeds in the sheer wealth of content. There’s tons of archive backed with an impressive array of interviews, from Vince Clark to Neil Tennent. Arguably it was never cool though. Always derided in the press, electronic music has had a rough ride. Perhaps even now, in some quarters. It’s taken decades for this music and these artists to get the recognition they truly deserve. Perhaps in part to artists now not giving a fuck what the press think or what’s commercial. It’s democratised music, just as punk did with its own ethos. It’s a heavily layered story and an absolute joy for any fan of electronic music to watch.