Desert Island Discs #1: ’80s Synth

Ok, the rules. It must be vinyl, it must be in my record collection. Christmas 1980-something-god-knows-when, I got a TDK cassette on which my cousin had recorded Dare by The Human League and Penthouse & Pavement by Heaven 17, still two of my favourite albums. A thousand year’s later, here’s my golden age of the synth best of…


So Phil Oakey ditched half the band, ditched the art-school posturing, found two sexy girls in a Sheffield night club and the rest is history. Dare is where art almost meets the charts and survives, so its not all weird that there is a song about the assassination of President Kennedy next to Don’t You Want Me. Gatefold sleeve only please.


Long before massive stadium tours, ever darker lyrics and Dave Gahan’s near death heroin escapades, Depeche Mode were a bunch of bouncy boys from Basildon with rippling poppy dance synth melodies, and for their debut album only, Vince Clarke. Hits include New Life, Just Can’t Get Enough on independent label Mute.


Japan were pretty much the coolest, beautifully neo-androgenous art-pop band of the 80s, headed by David Sylvian, post-Bowie/New York Dolls make-up and uber-sharp suits. This was their first release on then relatively fledgeling label Virgin. Yielded no hits, peaked at 45 and only later did a remixed version of Nightporter trouble the singles chart. Standout track? Taking Islands in Africa.


Although the best Kraftwerk album is clearly Autobahn (the sound of cars singing), this concept album is a work of art, and not just the album artwork. Perhaps also most clearly where the ultimate Kraut-synth pioneers met the emerging New York electro movement. Much like the Velvet Underground, to understand Kraftwerk in terms of record sales is to to misunderstand Kraftwerk and their monumental influence.


Most people know Heaven 17 for Temptation and that’s it. Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh (calling themselves The British Electric Foundation), joined forces with their original choice as Human League lead vocalist Glenn Gregory to create a fusion of northern synth chic and funk. The name Heaven 17 was taken from A Clockwork Orange. (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang addressed everything from Ronald Reagan to racism, so of course it was banned by the BBC. The vinyl is grooved so the last phrase of the last song replays infinitely.


Almost a work of art in multi-dimensional ways. The cover is a classic Peter Saville die-cut creation, the music a genuinely esoteric, experimental wave of pioneering electronica dressed in hit-friendly melodies. Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans) managed to be a Top 3 hit despite a 30 second intro of synth feedback. Followed up by the critically acclaimed but commercially suicidal Dazzleships.


The 1980s was not free from a healthy dose of pomposity, hence the name of the album. Born and bred in Liverpool China Crisis were the more soulful side of the 80s Liverpool explosion featuring Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and A Flock of Seagulls. More melodic than experimental, ’84 and ’85 saw a lot of airplay. Standout track? Christian.


Rivalling Green of Scritti Politti for erudite, neo-intellectual lyrics and clever wordplay, The Lexicon of Love is almost pop poetry Marmite, you love it or hate it. Every song could have been a single, the production team was Trevor Horn and what became The Art of Noise and it contains my favourite lyric: ‘If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed, and I got dancing lessons for all the lips I should have kissed, I’d be a millionairre, a Fred Astaire’.


Ok smarty pants, this was actually released in 1979 but gets in anyway. Sparks, two brothers, one with a creepy Hitler moustache, somehow teamed up with disco meister Georgio Moroder and blasted glam rock and electronic disco beats into an unique collaboration. Defining track is No1 Song in Heaven, a stunning fusion of high intensity, almost biblical Phil-Spector-with-a-Roland-and-a-truck-of-amphetamine-wall-of-sound. If you can imagine that.

One thought on “Desert Island Discs #1: ’80s Synth

  1. Ah, Sparks. I saw them once, dragged in as the sparkle for a lacklustre launch of a style magazine in a forgettable nightclub in Hatton Garden (it’s now a ping-pong bar).

    The one stand out of the evening was noticing that Ronald’s Roland keyboard was personalised. Great band.

    I agree in parts. Not ABC. I wasn’t a synthpop fan, and I remain firmly in that camp. That’s not to say that I won’t hum along if the mood takes me.
    No Ultravox?


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