Mike Batt ‘Zero Zero’ (Epic, 1982)

“Long, long ago, far into the distant future and after the seventh war, there is a civilisation called System 605. Where the diseases of love and emotion no longer exist to complicate our busy lives…”

How did you spend your 1981? Staring longingly through a classroom window and praying for the bell?

Forlornly inspecting the cards in an orange-fronted Job Centre? Repeatedly rolling your eyes at ‘Shaddap You Face’? Don’t worry, Mike Batt did the hard work for you. He was circumnavigating the globe in a yacht called Braemer and jamming ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’at’ with Paul McCartney in Montserrat. And – on the Pacific leg – devising a brilliant Orwellian synthpop fantasy about a dystopian society that has genetically eradicated human feeling for the sake of autocratic efficiency.

Is it possible that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, on commissioning Batt to write a celebratory piece for their 50th anniversary, expected a few winsome ballads about Uluru and the Sydney Harbour Bridge? If so, they showed commendable sangfroid when Batt docked on Antipodean shores and threw himself into a startling realisation of his concept – a rock opera comprising an avant-garde, 40-minute TV special and an album that weaves experimental synth wig-outs into ambitious scores for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

“I was born Number 17 Romeo Delta 59,” sings Batt in the vaguely Beatles-esque ‘System 605’. “But you can call me Ralph… my friends do.” The televisual setting? An infinite landscape of oppressive chequerboards with the downtrodden populace attired in similarly utilitarian jumpsuits. Ralph, of course, bucks the trend by falling in love with Number 36, a surgeon at his local correctional facility. The Numan-like ‘Love Makes You Crazy’, released as a single, is surely one of synthpop’s bleakest expositions on the turmoil of romantic longing. Was Batt making metaphorical comment on the troubled politics of the early 1980s? If so, his outlook was decidedly glass-half-empty. “Don’t touch me again / There’s no smile on my face for you,” he sings on the closing ‘No Lights In My Eyes’, the inevitable, heartbreaking result of the experimental ‘Dance Of The Neurosurgeons’. Although the tears on the cheeks of the rueful Number 36 – played by Batt’s long-term partner, Julianne White – suggest at least a glimmer of hope for System 605.

It’s all a staggering gear change from ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’, and the British media seemed unsure how to react to Batt’s new direction. On the 1982 Christmas edition of BBC lunchtime show ‘Pebble Mill At One’, in full Number 17 jumpsuit and make-up, he introduced ‘Love Makes You Crazy’ to a studio audience that included The Krankies. But it’s testament to Batt’s versatility and passion for music that he goes about his job with maximum gusto, unfettered imagination and an irresistible sense of mischievous good humour.

Long may he continue to complicate our busy lives.

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