Synth Britannia & JG Ballard
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.
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.
- Synth Britannia - watch online when available
Synth Britannia premieres on BBC Four on Friday 16 October at 9pm