The synthesizer was the ultimate punk instrument

We recently alluded to the fact that we believe the synthesizer was the ultimate realization of the punk movement. This is an idea we’ve embraced for decades and as time passes it becomes more clear the early, pioneer electronic bands carried the spirit of the punk scene, if not in attitude, definitely in the democratization of music-making.

The entire punk ethic was built around the populist democratization of music. It was in part a rebellion against the bloated, technically efficient but emotionally void prog rock supergroups, your YES, your Supertramp, your Genesis, your ELP, your Chicago, your Rush. These bands were big, blowsy, splashy, proficient to a fault and oh-so-controlled. To the youth of, especially the US and Europe this wasn’t music that connected to them emotionally. At all. Witness a movement that said, “prodigious proficiency is not what makes music connect, it’s heart and guts and a message that matters most.”

To the initial punk bands, from the New York Dolls and co. in the US, to the Sex Pistols, the Damned, The Clash, Generation X, etc. in the UK, it didn’t matter if you could play an instrument well, it was about an attitude. It was a giant “fuck you” to the ELPs of the world, “we can’t do any of the things you can do with your instruments, but look – it doesn’t matter in the end – our music speaks to the youth of today despite it.” It was glorious, produced some of the most meaningful music in modern memory and it was oh-so-short lived. Not just that the peak of the movement was chronologically short, but that as the initial wave of punk purists moved on the musicianship quickly and steadily improved. The Clash turned out to be great musicians. Bands like Blondie, even in their pre-new-wave period or the Talking Heads were as musically proficient as those in any genre. It was no longer quite so cut and dry as “anyone can pick up and instrument and start jamming”. That moment was no longer.

The synthesizer, on the other hand, was the full realization of the concept of democratic music. One could muck about with a synth and create some cool sounds. It proved that one didn’t need to know how to master a fretted instrument or roll out an expensive drum kit to make something meaningful. Many of the early bands that noodled with synths like Einstürzende Neubauten, Can, DAF, Fad Gadget, The Human League in their very earliest iteration, Foxx-era Ultravox and our beloved Cabaret Voltaire were true punk bands in attitude, in spirit and even in sound. Even as the edges of early electronic music were polished the main driving spirit of punk remained. As artists like Depeche Mode, Japan, Soft Cell, Talk Talk, Flock of Seagulls, Ministry (in their pre-metal days) and legions more showed, one didn’t need to be an accomplished musician, they just needed the right attitude and a good ear for melody. The synthesizer made it possible for anyone to start a band wholly unto itself, one’s own creativity their only limit.

It may be hard to look at a Goldfrapp today or a La Roux and easily recognize the historical link, the line that runs directly from the Pistols to their own poppy goodness in 2010. But the spirit remains, the intent to change the music business, to take it out of the hands of the over-trained studio musician and put it into the hands of any kid who liked the sounds this odd machine produced – this is punk’s true musical legacy.

And while it’s true the advent of the softsynth, the rise of the technician-producer-musician and the trend of classically or at least professionally trained musicians switching over to the synthesizer as a purely stylistic choice may have diluted this DIY spirit, look around, have a listen to the dearly missed Pink Grease, or The Faint, or Aesthetic Perfection, or Alice in Videoland, or Ayria and it’s all there, all clear – punk reborn, driven by the relentless pounding of the drum machine…

Watch: Cabaret Voltaire: Obsession


4 Responses to “The synthesizer was the ultimate punk instrument”

  1. Ah, good old days with good old music 🙂

  2. Anyone see La Roux at any festivals? She released a new album – Sidetracked that includes her Rolling Stones cover. Finalllly! 🙂

  3. Hmm… given how much even a preset synthesizer cost in those days, and how little it did, I’m not sure it’s entirely compatible with the cheap’n’cheerful ‘hey-let’s-put-on-a-show-right-here ethos of punk.

    I bought my first synth in 1981, a Roland SH-09, which cost me £229 plus a train journey to London. Even then I couldn’t afford a mic, or a drum machine (even a preset on) or amp for a while afterwards. And I could only afford that by foregoing driving lessons and a car or bike! That money would have bought a guitar and amp, with change to spare.

    • softsynth Says:

      Very good point about the cost, though the coolest thing I’ve heard of were bands like Human League and Cabaret Voltaire who constructed their own monstrous inventions. Pink Grease carried on the tradition more recently. An others still in the true punk tradition stole their gear 🙂 (or even more had their parents buy them – see Depeche Mode). There were cheaper synth options back in the day, though they didn’t “do” much. They made do though, just as the guitar-based punk bands did with their guitars and drums.

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