Thursday, 22 July 2021

Seventies Krautrock and eighties keyboard groups/artists

Featured here are the ground-breaking, highly-influential seventies krautock artists and other subsequent keyboard-driven performers. They are, in order - Can; Neu!; Tangerine Dream; Kraftwerk; Jean Michel Jarre; Ultravox; Tubeway Army; Gary Numan; OMD and Groove Armada....

Can - Tago Mago (1971)

Many people love intense German proggies Can, including Johnny "Rotten" Lydon. However, I never thought that I would come within an Autobahn's length of their music, but I have to say that I have enjoyed delving into their experimental, largely instrumentalmusik. Hidden depths abound - that's versteckte Tiefen in German. Krautrock band Can released their second album here, (a double album behemoth) and it is the one most people tend to know. It merges psychedelic, avant-garde instrumental improvisation with a vague funkiness and some slightly modern jazz grooves. Like German contemporaries Neu! they are very experimental, although not quite as electronic, tending to veer towards more of a rock feel. The album is regarded as hugely influential on artists like Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, many other post punk groups and David Bowie’s Berlin period. It is not an easy listen, but it is certainly an intriguing one.

Paperhouse is a gritty, virtually instrumental opener, dominated by some searing psychedelic guitar from Michael Karoli along with some actually quite rhythmic drums. I don’t mind this at all, as it goes, it is far more rock than prog, so that tends to suit my taste. I feel the whole album is avant-garde rock as opposed to prog - there’s not a topographic ocean or van der graaf generator within sight or earshot. It is one of the best cuts on the album, for me.

Mushroom features some pretty incomprehensible vocals from Kenji Suzuki over some ambient noises that eventually gain a kind of rhythm. Oh Yeah, while having an atmospheric sound in places, is otherwise not very listenable. I do like the sparse but rhythmic drum sound (from Jaki Liebezeit), however, and the vocals are almost punkily whining five or so years ahead of time. There are quite a few hints of post punk in this. Indeed, John Lydon was a big fan and its influences on Public Image are clear. It was funny that punk was seen as blowing this sort of prolonged indulgence away, yet pretty soon post punk was readily acknowledging its influence. I have to admit, though, that when played on the best possible speakers it sounds better and grows on me.

Halleluwah is eighteen minutes long, and took up a whole side of the original album. Sure, it is long but is strangely hypnotic, eating its way into your system with more captivating drums and various guitar sounds, electronic soundscapes and Eastern noises swirling  all over the place. The insistent drum sound reminds a lot of the one Paul Thompson would use on Roxy Music’s If There Is Something the following year and then on The Bogus Man in 1973. Strangely, also, the vocal melody at one point put me in mind of The Congos’ Fisherman, a reggae song highly unlikely to be influenced by this. The track is most definitely the album's highlight. From here on in it all goes far too experimental for my liking.

Aumgn is another side-long affair, with a Chinese vibe to it and a far more ad hoc feel that renders it far less listenable. It is basically seventeen minutes of irritating ambient noise. I enjoyed the previous track, but no to this one. Tut mir leid. The same applies to the tape loops of Peking OBring Me More Coffee And Tea is more pleasantly ambient in its mysterious, psychedelic way. Overall, though, this album’s critical respect is a bit of a mystery to me. I prefer the first half of it, finding the second half nigh on unlistenable. You know, what I really go for are the albums and tracks that were subsequently influenced by this rather than the album itself - the influenced as opposed to the influencer. As for it being one of the greatest records of all time, as I have seen it described - do me a favour. 

Can - Future Days (1973)

I prefer this album from Can to their more popular Tago Mago. It is more laid-back and subtly captivating in its quietly insistent soundscapes.

Future Days is a gently rhythmic and at times rather delicious serving of ambient music, featuring subtle percussion and guitar, as well as understated keyboards and a great, deep, throbbing bass line. It never annoys, this one, it just sort of washes warmly over you. This is in direct contrast to some of the more grating parts of Tago Mago. The vocals are, though - in true Can style - mumbling, whiny and indistinct. You can hear a bit of something about future days, but it doesn't matter, does it? The vocals somehow suit the whole thing. Spray is again nicely experimental, with an avant-jazz feel to it, particularly on the keyboards. As was the case on Tago Mago, I am really impressed with the drums here. The whole thing is like Kraftwerk meeting Santana from the same period and it takes electronic music to new levels. Can, notably, had an instinct for rhythm that Neu! or Tangerine Dream did not have. 

Moonshake was an odd thing - a short Can single and a quirkily good one it is too, with some slightly incompressible but soothing vocals sung over a really infectious, groovy beat, like nothing else one has ever heard up to this point. It sounds like an off-the-wall post punk offering from six or seven years later. I can hear distinct shades of Roxy Music's The Bogus Man in there too as well as some early Roxy, King Crimson or X-Ray Spex parping saxophone.

The eighteen minute-plus Bel Air is back to a very chilled-out vibe, like something Groove Armada would incorporate into some dance rhythms many years in the future. The drum sounds remind me a lot of post-2000 dance music (not that I know much about that, mind). About half way through it loses it for a while and some buzzing flies keep us entertained before the music comes back with a slight Chinese air about it. It is all very clever, inspired and inventive and I like it. Would I return to it over and over, though? Probably not, but I do appreciate its seductive intricacies. That said, I have played Future Days, the track, several times, so it must be taking effect.

Neu! - Neu! (1972)

 This was an incredibly ground-breaking album that changed the face not only of German rock, but started to influence so many other artists over so many subsequent years. The whole "Krautrock"-futuristic thing started with albums like this. David Bowie, an artist greatly influenced by this album, was still in his "glam" stage at this point. Joy Division were still at school. Brian Eno was no doubt taking notes.

Neu! were just two people - Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger. The music they made was quite remarkable.

Hallogallo has a totally addictive bass line that just keeps going, like a driving car, keeping a constant speed. It sounds completely delicious. Then there are those wah-wah-ish guitar interjections and the metronomic drum beat. A gentle keyboard-sounding piece of guitar comes in half way through. This is an incredibly ahead of its time piece of music, like nothing before, really. Its driving rhythms are extremely intoxicating. They just sweep you along. Soderangebot is a more experimental, bleak ambient piece based around some strange noises. It doesn't have nearly as much appeal as Hallogallo, however, its atmosphere is considerably undercooked, unfortunately, for me. 

Weissensee starts with a Five Years-style stately drum beat that underpins some gently wailing slide guitar. Half way through the guitar really kicks in with intent. The drum beat remains the same, keeping everything in check while the guitar runs free. I read someone say it was like "gazing out of a rain-smeared window". They are so right. In November. Im Glück sees a return to the ambient, sonorous soundscape of Soderangebot, complete with gurgling water noises that has many hints of David Bowie/Brian Eno's work on the second half of LowNegativland is full of industrial noises and some searing guitar over insistent, more urgent drums this time. U2 would be heavily influenced by this in the nineties period. Talking Heads on Fear Of Music too. It breaks out into some seriously Joy Division/Magazine-style riffage at one point too. The influences are almost too many to keep naming. 

Lieber Honig is spoilt, unfortunately by tape hiss and some positively dreadful whining, incomprehensible vocals. It is pretty much unlistenable. That water sound is back too. For me, because of that, I stop listening after the end of Negativland, which still makes it an excellent piece of work, despite that. Yes, one could argue that there is a monotony to this album, but if you let it enter your consciousness it is very enjoyable.

Neu! - Neu! 75 (1975)
After a falling out, Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother reunited and produced a most interesting, enjoyable album of so-called krautrock. Despite the apparent tension between the two during the recording, you can't tell, and it is, for me, the most enjoyable of their albums.
Isi is one of the most catchy numbers Neu! ever did, full of infectious pounding drums that sound like a cross between glam rock and Booker T. & The MGs on Time Is Tight. It has a lively synth/keyboard rhythm that predates the new romantics by nearly seven years. Dinger was the rocker, apparently, Rother the one who preferred ambient sounds. 

While Isi bears the hallmarks of Dinger, the next track, the moody Seeland, is clearly Rother's work. While a bleak work, it contains some beautiful bits of guitar and keyboard interplay and one heck of an atmosphere. Yes, it may be a sonorous, sonic industrial wasteland, but it is a beautiful one. There is perfection in its stark simplicity.

Leb' Wohl features a sparse piano, small bits of percussion and some sea noises. It is a cliché, now, to say that Brian Eno and David Bowie were influenced by this, but it does not make it untrue. They clearly were. There are snatches of Warszawa, from Bowie's Low in this. It drifts on effortlessly for over eight minutes but it washes over you like the waves used on its soundscape. For the old "side two", Dinger's brother Thomas was added on percussion and Hero bursts into life sounding incredibly punky for 1975, with definite punk riffs, post punk keyboards and Johnny Rotten-esque vocals. It sounds like Public Image Ltd. Three years early. This was very influential stuff. Never mind bands at CBGB's, punk came as much from this sort of material. 
E-Musik sees a return to the chugging Autobahn-style beat made famous by Kraftwerk, this time there is a Glitter Band sort of drum sound underpinning it throughout and a bit of guitar arrives after about six minutes before the track suddenly disappears into the ether of strange keyboard noises. After Eight begins in superbly riffy style, with more punky drums and indistinct, occasional vocals. It is as if a New York Dolls track had been fed through a rudimentary computer and this is what came out. Neu! pretty much disappeared after this album, reuniting for one more offering in the mid-eighties, but this was a high point to go out on. It has only been in later years, though, that its influence has been truly acknowledged.

Tangerine Dream - Phaedra (1974)

This album was all over the place in 1974, beloved of serious music critics and studious nerds at my school who carried it around with them under their arm throughout the school day, showing off their musical taste. Fucking hell, I despised them and this accursed record.

As a glam, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Mott The Hoople fan this sort of  dense, innovative, experimental, ambient electronic music was completely anathema to me. It remained so for years, standing as an example of why I and many others became punks. It was the musical anti-christ.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than the track Phaedra on the old ‘side one’ - seventeen minutes plus of brooding, sonorous electronic noises which took up the whole side, served up by three faceless Germans. Good God, I wanted none of this po-faced serious pretension. My, there wasn’t a guitar riff within a thousand miles of this, just mellotron, moog synthesiser and electric piano amongst other keyboard noise makers. It has been quoted as being the most important and influential piece of electronic music in that genre’s history, even more so than the output of the group’s German contemporaries Neu! and Kraftwerk. Maybe I was missing something, because at the time it left me cold.

On a positive note, the first six or seven minutes of the track’s 2018 Steven Wilson Remix sounds great, particularly that big, rubbery bass sound. The bit around 7:13 onwards is aurally stunning, so there you go. 

As I have aged and my tastes and tolerance for different genres have evolved I now find myself reviewing it. Look, it is ok for a while - atmospheric and pleasingly bassy but it spends seventeen minutes getting precisely nowhere. That’s what ambient music is all about, I guess. What is not in doubt, and somewhat ironic, is that I, the great Bowie devotee, would be lapping up the instrumental side of Low in three years’ time. There is absolutely no question that this was a huge influence on Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ period. Just listen to the weird sweeping synth noises on the pretentiously-titled Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares, you can hear the instrumental side of ‘Heroes’ in there, clearly. 

Moments Of A Visionary has some slightly world music percussion sounds in it that would have resonated with Talking Heads, to an extent. The short Sequent ‘C’ ends this somnolent piece of work and I find myself having to snap myself awake once more. 

I remember the group played at my local rock club, Friars Aylesbury, in 1975 and their fans lay on the floor in order to appreciate the vibe, man. Jesus Christ. If you ever wanted an explanation for punk, there you had it. At the bottom of the review is an article from the local paper at the time detailing this audience phenomenon. Click on it to read it in enlarged format. Yes, this album sounds great on my sound system - all those sounds coming gracefully in and out of my speakers, like something from a classical composer who has taken too many drugs and yes, it has something about it, but do I want to listen to this for pleasure too often - no. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know its all about the textured sounds but I can’t wait to stick something more ballsy back on. 

Kraftwerk - Trans-Europa Express (1977)

For many, krautrock was Kraftwerk. Of course, Can, Neu!, Faust and Tamgerine Dream et al would have something to say about that, but there is no doubting their standing within the genre. Here are a couple of their best albums. This was an incredibly influential album. Yes, 
David Bowie had already released Low when this was released in March 1977, but it surely had a huge influence on "Heroes", released in the October of that year. Joy Division'Ian Curtis forced the band's other members to listen to it. It is a masterpiece of moods, soundscapes, electronic rhythms, classically-influenced hints and packed full of atmosphere. All that European, Berlin stuff.
The first track, Europe Endless, is nine minutes of addictive electronic sounds, like a train getting to its cruising speed and just chugging on. It is a highly minimalist track, also very futuristic (even now). Vocals are only occasional, as they are throughout the album. 

Hall Of Mirrors (later covered by Siouxsie & The Banshees) is a marvellously captivating piece. That initial sonorous keyboard riff is spine tingling and Ralf Hütter's Teutonic, mannered voice singing, monotone - "even the greatest stars dislike themselves in the looking glass...". How much "New Romantic" posturing came from listening to this - loads of it. Industrial music, electronic music, post punk, New Romanticism. All so influenced by what was known as "Krautrock"Showroom Dummies continues the fashion vibe, another New Romantic leitmotif. Again, the electronic keyboard rhythm is intoxicating. As it progresses, it gets more melodic for a while, then it reverts to its metronomic beat.

The old "side two" was a suite of continual, related music. Trans-Europe Express was actually written as a result of meeting with David Bowie and references his Station To Station both musically with that chugging, train sound and lyrically, when Hütter mentions meeting "Iggy Pop und David Bowie...". Metal On Metal starts slightly faster but soon becomes a bit of a continuation of the previous track, but with some echoey percussion and some noises like tightening something metallic. Abzug continues the "suite" form of the tracks from the title track onwards, repeating the title phrase over and over and using some of the same melody. Franz Schubert changes tempo just slightly, and it has a lighter, airier feel about it that provides a slight sonic relief after the sombre intensity of the previous material. Whether or not it was influenced by the Austrian composer, I do not know. Endless Endless briefly reprises the opening melody and the train disappears off into the distance. The band members said that as post-WWII German children, they had no musical culture when growing up. Maybe that was not a bad thing, because they had to make their own music, with no real reference. They literally made their own genre (admittedly Can and Neu! did it first, but Kraftwerk's heavyweight contribution cannot be understimated)

Kraftwerk - The Man Machine (1978)

Released at the height of punk, before most post-punk had appeared and before new romanticism, this album, like its predecessor, the highly-influential
Trans-Europe Express, from 1977, blazed a trail for those genres. Funnily enough, though, this detached, cool German electronic music fitted in quite well with the punk thing. Most soon-to-be post punkers loved this. It was hugely influential on groups like UltravoxOrchestral Manoeuvres In The DarkGary NumanThe Human League, early Simple Minds and New Order, amongst many others. They made pop songs out of extended electronic music like this. It was no surprise, therefore, that the album was successful in the UK in 1982, not in 1978. Personally, although I enjoy a track or two of it every now and again, a whole album is probably too much. It certainly was in 1978.
The Robots starts the album in unsurprisingly, staccato, robotic, jerky fashion, the sound being all electronic keyboards and synth drums before the futuristic, electronically-distorted "we are the robots" vocal comes in, Dalek-style. Spacelab has that Trans-Europe Express chugging train feel about it. Metropolis gives us lyrics again, at least a Teutonic, doleful chanting of the song's title as the synthesisers rapidly take us through the Düsseldorf night. Of course, David Bowie and Brian Eno will have loved this.

The Model was the group's surprising bit chart hit. Maybe not so surprising, as it has a totally infectious beat, quirky vocal and trendy, fashion-influenced lyrics. The synth riff opening is instantly recognisable and is often used as a soundtrack to items about fashion or new technology and so on. The German accented vocals were highly appealing too. Neon Lights continues the slightly more poppy feel with vocals once more (at least at the beginning, it's a nine minute track) and a synth riff the like of which would be repeated a lot in the early eighties. 
The Man Machine had some of the sort of sounds David Bowie used in the "Heroes" and Low instrumentals. Its vocals are shrouded by sound effects over a stabbing slow keyboard loop. As I said, a bit of this in small doses and I enjoy it. It is certainly clever and atmospheric. I couldn't listen to nothing else but this, though. The sound quality is excellent by the way.

Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygène (1977)

This album, from precocious young Frenchman Jean Michel Jarre, was all over the place in 1977, and is generally seen as a piece of work that paved the way for so much electronic music in the eighties, even influencing post punk too. It did not appeal to me at all at the time, although several of my friends loved it. I am prepared to give it an occasional listen these days, however. Music was not all punk and disco in 1977, much of it was still dominated by prog rock and by albums like this, which had their initial roots in that genre. Something like Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra helped give birth to this. 

It is a much shorter album (sub forty minutes) than I previously imagined and thus, it is not too wearing to listen to. Ten more minutes or more, though, and I would be feeling differently, I’m sure.

Part I and Part III are ambient, synthesised, sweeping noises. Part II is deeper, more catchy and hooky, with a nice bass sound underpinning it. It sounds sort of instantly recognisable, for some reason. Maybe it has been used as back ground or soundtrack music many times. Part IV is, of course, the now iconic passage that was turned into a hit single. It is one of the great instrumental singles, built around a metronomic and infectious programmed keyboard rhythm together with other keyboard bits of virtuosity and lots of “space invaders”-style sweeping synthsiser interjections. Even as a punk in 1977, whose instinct was to hate this, I always liked it. It is completely captivating. 

Part V returns the listener to the cool, detached slow, synthesiser soundscape of I and III, giving us something that would be described as “chill out” music in later years. The second half of the track is very Kraftwerk-Neu! influenced in its “autobahn”-style Krautrock breakneck sound. This passage is superbly bassy and the sound quality is excellent, sounding like a hi-fi shop demonstration. Part VI is more upbeat and, despite the many spacey synth breaks, has a slight disco-y vibe to it, like something that would back a Grace Jones song. 

There you have it, then - two fine pieces of instrumental fare, one copper-bottomed classic example of electronica and three ambient parts. It gave me a pleasant half hour this afternoon, I have to say, despite it not being my thing as much as many other albums are. Yes, I can listen to it and enjoy it. I need a bit of rock, punk, soul or reggae after it, though.

Ultravox - Vienna (1980)

This was the album that made it big, chart-wise, for previously dour post punkers Ultravox. It was the first to feature Ultravox’s new line up, with Midge Ure on vocals. It marked a change in musical direction, to a certain extent. They upped the pace, became more commercial and generated a new, more youthful, op oriented audience. They did not leave the earnest, sombre post-punk-isms behind completely though, and this is, in many ways, quite a brooding, Eastern European-Influenced album, with lots of Krautrock atmosphere and instrumentation.

Astradyne is a lengthy, pounding drums and synthesiser-keyboards introduction to the album. Some Celtic-style violin sounds swirling all around and some early Roxy Music-influenced saxophone. It is dark and somnolent, yet vibrant and uplifting at the same time. Its position at the start of the album seeks to dispel any thoughts of Ultravox just being a commercial, singles band. This is quite credible stuff. New Europeans is a thumping, electronic rocker with a sonorous Midge Ure vocal and some risqué lyrics. It has David Bowie’s “Heroes” all over it, instrumentally. Some excellent piano right at the end of it, too. 

More impressive piano introduces Private Lives before some punchy drums kick in. Proper drums too. Not much synth drum despite the contemporary trend. This is a classic brooding post punker, as opposed to a New Romantic number, to be honest. Far darker than some of New Romanticism’s finery. It all has that bleak, Berlin atmosphere like Bowie’s “Heroes” had. No coincidence that the cover was black and white. The track fades abruptly into an upbeat, crunching instrumental last part. Up next is the solid rhythm and mysterious keyboard swirls of the catchy Passing Strangers. It has a insistent, Krautrock-ish beat. Very Kraftwerk. Great bass line on it too. Sleepwalk is more Teutonic-influenced, frantic electro-rock. These tracks are all very addictive. This is not a bad album at all. If you thought it couldn’t get any more Kraftwerk, the mysterious semi-instrumental Mr. X does just that. A few mumbled vocals over a dull synthesiser riff. All very Cold War. Western Promise continues the eerie trend with some inscrutable lyrics and strange sounds.

Then comes the big one - the melodramatic, grandiose sweep of 
Vienna. Yes, it has been heard a hundred times but it is still magnificent, with a superb chorus. Those drum beats and synth notes at the beginning are instantly recognisable. So nostalgic. 
All Stood Still was also a single, and had an upbeat, lively post punk-New Romantic electronic backing. There is some excellent guitar chopping parts in places. As I said, not a bad album at all, certainly more than just a commercial “New Romantic” album. It has hidden depths, for sure.

Tubeway Army - Tubeway Army (1978)

Tubeway Army
's little-discussed debut album was a merging of punk, post punk and electronica. It influences are clear - Berlin era David BowieBrian Eno, early Roxy MusicThe Velvet Underground, early Ultravox!KraftwerkNeu!Magazine and early Buzzcocks. It was played by only three musicians - the pre-androgyny Gary Numan (vocals, guitar and keyboards), Paul Gardiner (bass) and Jess Lidyard (drums). Refreshingly, the drums on here are "real" i.e. not programmed and the album is surprisingly rock-ish, not nearly as electronic as one might have imagined. It is far more punk/post punk than cold, detached, preening proto-new romantic electronica. Lyrically, it covers several seedy, urban subjects- prostitution ( both straight and gay), drugs, masturbation, life in a coma - a bit like an early Soft Cell.

Listen To The Sirens is a quirky synthesiser, rock drums and robotic vocal track with unsurprisingly mid seventies Brian Eno influences. My Shadow In Vain is a Magazine meets the Buzzcocks punk meets post punk gritty industrial grind. The Life Machine is a delicious, bassy piece of Teutonica (if there is such a thing), packed full of atmosphere that makes up for Numan's somewhat contrived, sneery vocal. Friends is a riffy, grungy and lively punk-ish number that taps in to the punk/post punk crossover perfectly. Something's In The House is another hidden gem of a track, with more fine bass/drum interplay. It is a fine example of punk's diversification by late 1978. The swirling synthesiser is pure Ladytron from the first Roxy Music album. It is one of the album's best cuts. 

Everyday I Die is the masturbation-themed track and is once more a fine example of 1978-79 post punk styling. There is a hint of the riff from Are "Friends" Electric (the group's forthcoming huge number one hit) in here too. The spacey backing vocals fit the whole image of the song as well.

Steel And You
 is a marvellous, riffy mish-mash  of chunky guitars and Siouxsie & The Banshees meets Magazine drums. Indeed the whole song sounds very Magazine. There's even a bit of a drum solo and a feeling that Joy Division were listening to this. There is also a real early Buzzcocks feel to it, both musically and vocally. 
The quirky, staccato My Love Is A Liquid is very avant-garde for the time. It has a bit of a home-made vibe to it, but it starkness gives it an appeal. Are You Real? has one of the album's strongest riffs and drum sounds. They almost sound like The Boomtown Rats on this. The Dream Police is very post punk, very 1978-79, pulsating with mysterious, punchy rhythm. The acoustic Jo The Waiter is so Bowie-influenced as to be a bit embarrassing, even down to the slight mockney tones of Numan's vocal. It is well-thought of, critically, however. It concerns a homosexual affair and, in that respect, was pretty ground-breaking. Zero Bars (Mr. Smith) reminds me a bit of Department S's Is Vic There?. Once more, its sound and vocal delivery is very typical of the era.

I must admit that in late 1978, my attention was on All Mod ConsGive 'Em Enough RopeRoad To Ruin and This Year's Model and this album totally passed me by. I didn't know of the group until the summer of 1979 and what I presumed was their debut single, Are "Friends" Electric. That is a shame, because it was a fine piece of work that deserved listening to back then as oppose to retrospectively. It would have helped in my musical education. I have to say, too, that is a grossly underrated album. I really quite like it.

Tubeway Army - Replicas (1979)

This, the second and final 
Tubeway Army album is far more electronica than punk and was released off the back of the group's only hit - the surprise number one of Are "Friends" Electric? It was supposedly a "concept" album based on a dystopian novel or something like that, but I can never see that sort of thing. It was at the forefront of a distinct move within music from punk to electronic-influenced post punk - a genre which was sombre, monochrome and baleful as opposed to the tub-thumping confrontational stance of punk. This album shook off many of its Buzzcocks and even Magazine influences to go full on Kraftwerk (check out the group's look on the picture at the bottom) and David Bowie's Low. It is quite a deep, serious-sounding album.

Me, I Diconnect From You is a very electronica beginning, full of synthseiser lines and a programmed-sounding drum beat. Gary Numan's vocals are typically cold, robotic and detached which fitted the whole image. Then we get the afore-mentioned number one, Are "Friends" Electric?, with its distinctive two-note synth riff and industrially lo-fi, brooding, sonorous backing. Numan's vocals are charismatic and mysterious, inspiring many a post punk and subsequent New Romantic vocalist. His contrived androgyny was Bowie-inspired but also relatively unique too. Again, lots of New Romantics followed his cool, detached, studiedly beautiful lead.

The Machman is upbeat and catchy, paying a bit of lip service to contemporary new wave trends. Praying To The Aliens is a Bowie-like title and has an Ultravox!-style beat with a bit of David Byrne-influenced quirkiness in the vocal delivery. It has a loose, easy appeal to it. 
Down In The Park is a dour, slow burning synth-driven number with neo-classical overtones in places. Once again, this is very much setting foundations for much subsequent music. You Are In My Vision sees a return to the punky riffiness of some of the previous album while Replicas is probably Are "Friends" Electric's closest relation on the album. Again, it is very Ultravox!-ish. It has some fine Low-style guitar on it too.

Chunky guitar drives the impressive 
It Must Have Been Years. Stuff like this was such a sound of 1979. The instrumental When The Machines Rock is so very Kraftwerk - real late seventies/early eighties catchy synth-rock. 
This relatively short album ends with the beguiling and spacey I Nearly Married A Human. It is also an instrumental, which gives the album a Bowie-like second half, ending with two relatively long instrumental pieces. Popular music was changing and this album was at the forefront of that change.

** There were some good non-album tracks from the album's sessions, including the post punk pop of Do You Need The Service? and We Are So Fragile, both of which could/should have made it onto the album. 
The Crazies had a bass line similar to Talking HeadsPsycho Killer, while Only A Downstat is impressive too. We Have A Technical is an eight minute workout but an atmospheric Kraftwerk-esque one. It never gets tiresome, despite its length.

Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle (1979)

After two unspectacular but impressive albums with Tubeway ArmyGary Numan put away his electric guitar and went full-on synths and drums for this strongly post punk, indstrial-futuristic debut solo album. It dates from September 1979, only a few months after Tubeway Army's number one hit, Are "Friends" Electric? The David Bowie influence is all over it, you have to say, and there are those from Brian Eno and Talking Heads too. It is notable for its one-word titles, something Talking Heads on Fear Of Music utilised and Bowie on some of Young Americans. I can't help but feel that the choppy, riffy guitar used to such great effect on the Tubeway Army albums would have enhanced the album even more. Despite that, though, it is still a good offering, paving the way for so much synth pop, post punk and New Romantic material over the next three or four years. Numan was also pushing his cold, androgynous image to the max by now.

Airlane does nothing to hide its influences from David Bowie's Low, sounding so much like Speed Of Life from that album, with touches of Sound And Vision too - that big drum sound and swirling synthesiser. Complex is more in the Tubeway Army vein, with a nice, deep bass line and Numan's slightly grating vocals appearing for the first time. This is solid post punk-pre-New Romantic fare with Brian Eno influences at play too. Metal is also very David Bowie, with hints of "Heroes" in the synth breaks and the Lodger material in the vocals.

 is an impressive, powerful track - a Low-style number with huge synth sweeps and powerful drums. Numan's reedy voice struggles to match the music's power, actually. The synthesiser sound was one that Numan sort of made his own, however, despite those obvious influences. 
It appears again on the atmospheric M.E. which has hints of the first Roxy Music album in its deep, sonorous keyboard breaks. Tracks has some interesting piano breaks and quiet passages while Observer is a proto-type for Cars. I know I keep saying it, but the Low influence is there again. The lengthy, seven minute plus Conversation's deep keyboard replicates a lead guitar riff and it has a marvellously powerful drum-bass sound as well as other interesting instrumentation (electric violin?). It is one of my favourites on the album. Then there is the wonderful, evocative, nostalgia-inducing Cars. One of the great post punk-electronica singles, it has deservedly become an iconic track, one of the notable minimalist hit singles, sparse on words and musically homogenous. It is actually up there with the best of Bowie's material from 1976-1980. There were times, just a few, when Numan, briefly, matched the great innovator. This was one of them. The album ends with the spacey grind of Engineers, full of weird noises and a crunching industrial beat. Make no mistake, this was a ground-breaking, boundaries-pushing album that took the vibe of the Tubeway Army albums and honed it to perfection. It was a perfect example of its new genre-era. Furthermore, Numan was wearing make-up long before the New Romantics, as had Bowie, of course.

OMD - Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (1980)
Unashamedly influenced by KraftwerkNeu! and Brian Eno, this debut album from Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark led the way in electronic, avant-garde post-punk music. Eschewing the industrial guitar backing of other post-punk groups like Joy DivisionPublic Image LtdEcho And The Bunnymen and Gang Of Four, they went firmly down the electro route - their sound full of synthesisers swirling all around, sonorously, over an insistent bass rhythm....
A classic example is the pulsating, mysterious opener, Bunker Soldiers and also the bleak soundscape of Almost. Mystereality borrows its parping saxophone sound from the first two Roxy Music albums, even Andy McCluskey's vocals seem styled on Bryan Ferry's haughty-sounding delivery. There is nothing commercial about this, in any way, it really is quite a credible album. 

The one concession to jaunty commerciality would be the lively, tinkly keyboard riff-dominated Electricity. This left no-one in any doubt as to the electronic nature of the band's sound. a new type of music was certainly around to take over from punk and challenge new wave-ska. The song also has a big, rumbling bass line on it, countering the trebly keyboard riffs. The dour Electricity is very much a sonic symbol of early 1980.

The Messerschmidt Twins is a grandiose, slow-burning song of the type that the group would specialise in over the next few years. It has a dignified, mysterious majesty to it. Considering most of this material had been recoded in 1978-79 it was quite ground-breaking for a UK group. Even the cover was extremely artistically innovative. 

Messages was also a single, although not particularly successful, but it is very atmospheric and melodic, again in a grandiose way. Julia's Song is a most addictive, bassy number, featuring some infectious percussion sounds. 

Red Frame/White Light has that cinematic, spy-movie Teutonic feel about it, all very perplexing and spooky. Dancing is a very Krautrock-influenced instrumental, with a few random vocals cropping up. Very Neu! or Can. Very innovative for the time. Pretending To See The Future is a brooding closer, although the higher-pitched of the two vocals grate slightly. This is an album definitely worthy of checking out. It tends to have slipped under the radar. The 2003 remastered version is excellent in its sound quality. It is autumn-winter music, though, not for a hot summer's day.

OMD - Organisation (1980)

I remember coming back from a gig around 1980 on the tube (probably having seen The Jam or Elvis Costello) and seeing lots of fans get on having been to see Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. I had never heard of them, despite the minor hit single Electricity from I later found to be their excellent debut album.
Within weeks, though, they had a big hit single with the now instantly recognisable Enola Gay, which tapped in to the contemporary paranoia about nuclear war. It was, considering its sombre subject matter, a catchy, upbeat single. It was little out of kilter with the remainder of the album, however, which was powerfully reflective in places, positively gloomy in others. 2nd Thought is very post-punk in its introspection and dour mood, but OMD never enhanced their sound with the industrial guitars of many other post-punk groups. It was electronic keyboards/synthesisers and thumping bass guitar all the way. VCL XI is a classic example of this. It also has a late seventies David Bowie-ish sort of title (TVC15, V2 Schneider). This was OMD's last album before they became much more well-known and commercially more-successful. They were still getting away with some sprit of the age dourness on this one. They try to up it a bit on Motion And Heart but it still sounds very sonorously Kraftwerk-influenced. Despite their up-to-date electronic innovatoriness (is that a word?) OMD's world is still one of desolate landscapes and industrial plants.

Statues is ghostly and sombre. a lot of people were expecting more Enola Gay-type tracks on this album. They didn't get them. It is actually quite a dark album (it seemed that so many of them were in the early eighties, maybe that's why the finery of New Romanticism was so successful). David Bowie's instrumental material of the late seventies had pointed the way towards tracks like The Misunderstanding with its dark, sombre intro. Like much of Kraftwerk's stuff, this is music for driving endless miles of motorway in winter dark. There is a Teutonic cold, aloofness to it. The album's cover reflects that too. This track is as gloomy as anything Joy Division did, actually.

Up next is a quite incongruous cover of Chris Montez's 1996 easy-listening pop hit The More I See You. It has a novelty appeal, I guess and it perfectly listenable but it just sounds odd. I have always wondered why early eighties post-punk-New Romantic UK vocalists had to sing in that haughty tone. Nobody did before, or since. 
Promise returns to the downbeat nature of most of the album. Stanlow begins with some factory-sounding, insistent noises and is another mournful track. The debut album was much more vibrant and intriguing than this one. This one had a pervading mood of misery, depression and dissatisfaction. Although it is a highly credible piece of work, they couldn't keep putting out material as low-key as this. They didn't. The next album saw considerable change.

OMD - Architecture And Morality (1981)

I remember buying this album in 1981, on the back of the singles and thinking that everyone else seemed to be loving all this synth pop stuff so I guess I should try too. I also recall playing it, being quite underwhelmed and went back to The Jam, The Clash and The Beat. I suppose it is now time for a reassessment, all these years later. The album was the Liverpool group's most successful one and marked the height of their success. It was album of its time in its slightly pretentious choice of title too. 

The New Stone Age begins with a veritable cacophony of frantically-strummed acoustic guitars and often discordant synthesiser breaks. It is neither commercial nor poppy and was very post punk noir (if that was indeed such a thing). To be honest, it is a bit of a racket. 

A more melodic tone arrives in the synth and haughty vocals of She's Leaving, which exemplified early eighties synth pop perfectly. It sums up 1981 in a couple of minutes - The Human League, Ultravox and this. Listen to those keyboard breaks - so very nostalgic. Electro synth pop was never really my thing but I can't help liking this. The album's first big hit single was the haunting, slow and dignified Souvenir, which is full of grandiose but essentially maudlin atmosphere. Once again, it is more the nostalgia it provokes than the song itself that does it for me, but I have to admit that it has something about it. It was a classy single and again is so representative of its era and genre. Sealand is an extended synth-driven, evocative number with classical influences. At the time I thought it was dull and uninspired, preferring two tone ska or new wave. Now, I can appreciate its sombre beauty. The vocals don't arrive until nearly four of the track's nearly eight minutes. When they do, they are sad and ghostly. It is a fine track and, in the age of CD and digital, it provides a bleak introduction to the next two tracks (this didn't happen on the old vinyl format, when this ended 'side one'). 

Now we get the group's slightly mystifying Joan Of Arc obsession. I particularly loved the big hit single Joan Of Arc, which was as perfect a slice of electro synth pop as you could hope for - moving, melodic and intrinsically sad. It captivated me upon first hearing and still does. What a superb record. The vocals truly soar and it has as 'real' and stimulating a programmed drum sound as I have heard. The follow up, Joan Of Arc (Maid Of Orleans), also concerned the fifteenth century Saint Joan (1412-1431) and, while not quite as instantly captivating as its predecessor was still awash with great instrumentation - ghostly synths and insistent drums as well as another moving vocal. 

To continue, as an almost holy tribute to the martyr, we hear the moving instrumental strains of Architecture And Morality before, with a jaunty jolt, we go back to 1981 with the perky pop of GeorgiaThe album ends with the beautiful, subtly rhythmic textures of The Beginning And The End. Once more, I have to reiterate that this is really good stuff and, apart from the first track, I have found that I really like all of the album. I feel slightly regretful that I was too musically immature to fully appreciate this album back in 1981. Never mind, we live and learn, especially where music is concerned.

Groove Armada - The Best Of Groove Armada

Groove Armada were first formed in the mid-nineties by Tom Cato and Andy Findlay. They were just the two of them and they produced electronic dance music using countless sampled vocals and instrumental parts. I have to admit here that I know naff all about dance music so my review is pretty futile, in many ways, but, in some ways, though, it may be useful as the reaction of someone who knows next to nothing about the genre to the album. I do actually own the album and when I am playing my music in "random" shuffled format, a track from it may appear, and I can handle that and quite enjoy it but as regards dance music part of my musical culture, in any way, it just simply isn't. What also is probably relevant to point out is that much of this music is now around twenty years old, so while it is "young people's music" to an old has-been like me (born in 1958), it is "boring, dad music" to today's young people and, indeed, something from "the good old days" for the early-40s.

Superstylin' merges a thumping dance drum beat with roots/dancehall reggae vocals (from MC M.A.D. apparently) and some synthesised brass sounds. If Everybody Looked The Same samples The Chi-Lites' We Are Neighbours and has a killer rumbling bass line. I See You Baby is their most well-known track. However rhythmic it may be, it is irritatingly repetitive.

At The River is a laid-back, ambient number that was, I am told, a successful "chill-out" number. I can see why. It has an infectious brass backing part and the lyrical refrain "if you're fond of sand dunes and salty air..." sampled from Patti Page's Cape Cod, an old 1957 hit. The bass loops are pretty delicious I have to say. It does have something about it.

My view of this genre is that it is full of impressive, often intoxicating parts, passages, riffs, loops, refrains, whatever, but they are either too repetitive or too brief. I find the music frustrating to be honest. A track like My Friend has some Ain't Nobody soulful parts, some Eastern vibes and some resonant bass, it samples from funk bands The Fatback Band and Skull Snaps, but I find myself wanting to listen to the real thing.

Purple Haze
has some Jimi Hendrix-sounding guitar imitation bits, unsurprisingly considering the title and it kicks off into an impressively powerful, thumping instrumental refrain, with some hip/hop vocals. Chicago has an excellent opening funky guitar and bass riff, but as with all this stuff, it pushes on in its thumping, trancy way, never really getting anywhere. There are some excellent spacey synthesiser and throbbing bass parts near the end, I have to say.

Easy has a solid, vocally soulful, pounding intro that sounds promising, but again, never quite gets there. The sweeping string orchestration brings to mind some of The Temptationspsychedelic soul material, though, in places. As it carries on I have to admit it does sort of take over, and again, some of the bass lines are sumptuous. 
Think Twice.... is undoubtedly my favourite, no doubt because it is a slow-burning, soulful "proper" song, with full vocals and a piano backing as opposed to a metronomic dance beat backing. I enjoyed this a hundred per cent more than the rest. Actually the same applies the chill-out with soul vibes of Inside My Mind (Blues Skies) and Little By Little. Of course, I was always going to enjoy the ska riffs of But I Feel GoodOverall. I do understand how this material appeals to many though and I guess it sounded great shaking the walls of a club in the late nineties, but listening to it myself, I can't wait to put something else on, I'm afraid. Basically, the whole sampling thing has never really been for me. I just want to hear the real thing. I want soul, funk, roots reggae, rock, hip/hop or whatever in their own right, not cut and pasted here and there over a basic, computerised rhythmic track. As I said at the beginning, dance music isn't my thing, so I am probably the wrong person to credibly review this. What the hell, I gave it a go.

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