TF Archives

Future Revisionism

Author: Matt Armitage
Friday, August 24, 2007
Sheffield, England. 1979. The grey sky meshes with the concrete facades of the 1960s built city centre. Men in overcoats go about their business, hats pulled low against the biting rain and wind, as women wheel home the shopping in tartan trolleys, their brightly coloured headscarves jarring against the monochrome background. Rubbish litters the streets, a legacy of striking municipal workers and the industrial decline of this steel-making town.

But as the factories close, and the rhythmic grating of the machinery slows to a halt, another metallic sound takes it place, one that has its roots in the city's industrial legacy but is determinedly futuristic in its icy cool. And, as the punk and New Wave wars rage across London, Manchester and Liverpool, a new generation of sonic terrorists is hijacking their DIY ethos and applying it to the only instrument they: the mail-order synth.

Derided for their place in prog-rock and the banks of them used by artists like Yes, many of the early synths were huge, hideously expensive and desperately unreliable, staying in tune for only a few notes at a time. But with the beginnings of Japanese miniaturisation, cheap synth kits were starting to flood the UK market. They were still huge and desperately unreliable and as they were generally monophonic (ie only one key would work at a time), they often required more engineering skill than musical talent to operate, attracting more boffins and backroom boys than musicians.

So, a new breed of Sheffield band was born with names like Cabaret Voltaire, British Electronic Foundation, Heaven 17 and Human League. With a shared heritage of tape loops, home made drum machines, beat boxes and out of tune synths, what began as moody experimentalism soon took on a more pop tone as the New Romantic movement of the early 1980s started to take hold. While bands like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet hardly shared the industrial roots of the Sheffield scene, they were just as interested in the new technology and their popularity served as a springboard for Sheffield's scenesters to steal through to the charts.

Soon, the Sheffield sound was dominating the charts. Heaven 17 and Human League both scored huge hit records, as did ABC and Thompson Twins, two more local acts. They were joined by Liverpool's Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, and a raft of other acts from John Foxx through to Men Without Hats. The music press was full of stories heralding the end of the guitar and then, all of a sudden, it stopped. The hits dried up for many of the synth pop acts, with only Depeche Mode and Simple Minds weathering the storm by transforming themselves into stadium rock acts.

Blame it on hip hop and R&B, blame it on Acid House. Whatever the reason, by the end of the 1980s keyboards had been returned to their supporting role alongside drumming and guitars, in the form of Guns & Roses style metal and Nirvana-style grunge, were on their way back.

But electro never died. In Europe and the US massive underground industrial scenes kept the spirit of the music alive. Groups like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails bridged the gap between electro and metal, drawing in new fans, while in Europe, outfits like Front 242 softened their tone and started making techno, trance and ambient infused records more in keeping with the region's Balearic-infused dance floors.

And it might have stayed there, buried in the dance scene, had not a new breed of outfits like Britain's Ladytron and Clinic, labels like DJ Hell's American Gigolo and German act Chicks on Speed appeared, reviving the chilly futurism of that original Sheffield sound. Riding on a wave of support in cities like New York, a new scene, the short-lived electro-clash movement was born, and electro was propelled back into its own spotlight.

Now, in the mid-noughties, the electro scene is huge again, with breakthrough acts like Simian Mobile Disco, Justice and Digitalism dominating the charts, the clubs