Ten essential electronic albums – Part VII and VIII

The first couple of years of the 80’s saw electronic music rear its head in earnest. Human League and Soft Cell had number one hits. The most penetrating one-hit wonders of the day were synthpop bands – Flock of Seagulls, The Buggles, Berlin, Taco, Bronski Beat, Thomas Dolby on and on it went. Talk Talk released “It’s My Life”, one of the best songs of the era. Duran Duran and the New Romantics began to dominate the charts the world over. But it wasn’t long before synthpop and it’s hybrid cousins began to atrophy. Suddenly everyone sounded the same. OMD aside, most successful bands of the time stuck rigidly close to the formula that Ultravox and Gary Numan had originated (or at least popularized). Some, like Soft Cell differentiated themselves by their content (in Soft Cell’s case to become the sleaziest band on the planet), but most were blending together to form a kind of monolithic pastiche of increasingly bland musical wallpaper. Then Vince Clarke posted an ad in Melody Maker…

Yazoo: Upstairs at Eric’s (1982)

Vince Clarke was never an innovator within the world of electronic music, but he is without a doubt one of the very best at creating it. On his own he was (and is) capable of producing brilliant songs. As one of the founding members (and initial driving force) behind Depeche Mode, he did a lot to move forward the classic synthpop that dominated from 1980-83. But it wasn’t until he left the band at the end of 1981 and found himself needing a singer to record his new song, “Only You” that he tapped into something genuinely special.

Blues singer Alison Moyet seeemd the oddest partner for someone like Clarke with his stark choppy synth offerings, yet it worked as no one could have imagined.

For the first time electronic music had more than a beat, more than an emotional appeal to the head and the feet, more than a deep sonic resonance, but now, suddenly, refreshingly, shockingly(!) had soul. The fact that Moyet contributed meaningfully to the songwriting process meant that the songs were the result of a headlong crash between the cold synth rhythm in which Clarke was expert and the soulful, bar-blues emotional impact Moyet brought to the table. So songs like “(Didn’t I) Bring Your Love Down”, “Goodbye 70’s”, “In My Room” and best of all, the slow soul burner, “Midnight” sounded unlike anything the world had previously known. Even tracks that Clarke wrote completely on his own, like the aforementioned “Only You” and the incomparable “Don’t Go” (as close to a “perfect song” as has ever been penned), are much the better for Moyet’s earthy vocal treatment. 

The genre suddenly felt light years away from the roboticism of “Cars”. 

Depeche Mode: Black Celebration (1986)

Arguably no band has had a more lasting impact on electronic music than Depeche Mode. By 1986 they had already scored an international hit with the disposable “People are People” and built a passionate international audience, but it was with Black Celebration that they turned a corner and became something transcendent. 

The second half of the 80’s were less kind to electronic music than the first, at least outside the clubs and and back corners of the Belgian scene. While things were starting to slow-boil in parts of Europe, the rest of the world was grooving to the Stock Aiken Waterman machine, to the first wave of boy bands, and to hyper-commercial hair metal. The Pet Shop Boys and Erasure held the fort on the charts for a time, Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb started adding serious edge to the mix, Information Society scored a top ten hit the world over and a few quality songs popped their heads up, skittishly before darting back under when the lights shone too brightly.

Meanwhile Depeche Mode starting embracing the black.

They would go on to infinitely greater commercial success with their next two albums, Music for the Masses (1988) and Violator (1990), but it was with Black Celebration that they truly came into their own and more than any other band of its time exemplified the cross from straight-ahead electro-pop to a darker, fuller more emotion-laden sound. 

A number of hip hop bands today would credit DM as an influence (and there was a period in the 90’s when they were in great vogue in the house and hip hop communities as their influence was truly acknowledged publicly for the first time) due to they way they helped bring sampling to the masses. They were the first band to popularize the concept of sampling (though not in the way that became popular – the excerpting of full recognizable snippets of music {see Hilary Duff’s recent sampling of the main hook from DM’s “Personal Jesus”}, but in the sense of collecting found sounds, banging of metal, blowing into a straw, spinning a bicycle wheel, etc) and this reached full force with Black Celebration once producer Daniel Miller’s awkward, monolithic synclavier was mastered (used in a more clunky fashion on the previous album, Some Great Reward, but now with the edges smoothed out). As with the de facto B.C. prologue one-off single “Shake the Disease” that preceded this album by a year, this album also saw the band fully embrace an image that would change the nature of the genre for the next generation. Black. Leather. Experimental sexuality. Heavy, rounded bass dominating the sound. For perhaps the first time, “cool”. Many, many bands would go on to emulate the sound, the look and the ethos, but no one ever did it as well as DM during this period. As of now, electronic music was no longer inherently either geeky (see: Thomas Dolby, Blancmange) or linked to passing fashions and fads, but part of its own cool, dark subculture. There was now a movement to match the music.

Next: Belgium comes out of the closet and electro gets its angry on.

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