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Synth Britannia & JG Ballard

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Laura Kaye Laura Kaye | 15:19 UK time, Friday, 16 October 2009

Early on when we were discussing themes and motifs to explore in Synth Britannia the topic of JG Ballard came up in conversation. It was immediately clear that there were parallels between Ballard and the work of the earliest synth pioneers. The world Ballard described in books like Crash and Concrete Island felt like a dystopian vision of the future and yet it was actually the present day rendered alien - a world of motorways, concrete underpasses, airports, subways lit with fluorescent lights, spaghetti junctions and giant concrete tower blocks. In short, this was 70s Britain - old Victorian slums and city centres eviscerated and concreted over.

heaven17_large.jpgHeaven 17

This link between the environment and the music became very apparent on our travels around Britain to meet the pioneers of synthesizer music. All of the early synth artists found themselves making music in urban areas from the run down, empty streets of East London to industrial Sheffield under the shadow of the massive concrete Park Hill Estate. By a fortuitous coincidence just at the moment that the world started looking like this, the affordable synthesizer arrived on the market and musicians looking for a way to express their feelings of alienation in this new concrete jungle found just the thing in its strange, eerie, inhuman sounds. The cityscapes of the 70s posed a challenge to artists to write something that would fit there. Songs like John Foxx's Underpass and The Normal's Warm Leatherette are straight from the pages of Ballard and every artist we asked about their influences confessed to being a fan.

However when the 70s gave way to the 80s, synth's potential to be a shiny soundtrack to a shiny new world was noticed. Gone were long overcoats and concrete highrises and in were a besuited, pony-tailed Heaven 17 making a deal in front of a glass skyscraper. Martyn Ware seemed oddly shocked that Heaven 17 was taken up by the yuppie crowd - "Let's all make a bomb was supposed to be ironic!" he moaned. The synthesizer became a way of producing the sounds of a whole band or orchestra, and you could make something like electronic soul.

Inevitably it all got watered down and ubiquitous. And there was something cheesy about the polyphonic synths that replaced their earlier monophonic cousins... but it is interesting that today, just at the moment that Synth Britannia is being shown, that current artists like La Roux and Little Boots are turning to the early synth pioneers for those rawer synth sounds that are still fantastically futuristic even today.

Related Posts
My Krautrock Adventures on the Autobahn
Reflections on making Synth Britannia & Krautrock

Synth Britannia premieres on BBC Four on Friday 16 October at 9pm


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm looking forward to Synth Britannia. The Sky+ is set and in keeping with aunty beebs theme the Devil's blog at is dedicated to some modern synth and electronic artists from across the globe .

  • Comment number 2. first synthesizer bought in London and then taken back on the train...happy days (sadly I wasn't in Depeche Mode). Where was I? oh yes.... nice programme. Kraftwerk? as I remember it I was one of two people at my college (of 700) who had heard of them, never mind played any of their stuff. The Man Machine was way too embarassing to buy at the time in Woolies...Men in makeup?...there goes society!. At the time it was deeply untrendy to say you liked them...and if anyone tells you differently they are a liar.

    I can still remember seeing OMD at the Hammersmith Odeon a few weeks after seeing Tangerine Dream for the first time (where I nearly had my head blown off by the volume) and being vaguely disappointed that OMD had ripped off TD's idea of having black gauze across the front of the stage (Well, for a track at least anyway). Great gig though.


  • Comment number 3.

    I really enjoyed Synth Britannia - BBC FOUR make excellent music documentaries.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Synth Britannia a must-see TV program which includes interviews and also the excellent music documentaries.

  • Comment number 6.

    I just caught the Kraftwerk doc on BBC 4 having missed it when it was first broadcast. Any plans to repeat this one?

  • Comment number 7.

    But no mention of Tronics or Zarjaz. Incredible as the last shot was of someone wearing a 2000ad t shirt. Not really reliable as a source of information.


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