San Francisco, 1980. Is the world ready for the amphetamine rush of synthpunk?
For the UK fan, synthpunk was a genre that didn’t really happen. The minimal synthpop of John Foxx, Gary Numan and The Human League which ruled the roost in 1980 always betrayed a quintessentially British pop sensibility, rooted as it was in the early 70s glories of David Bowie, Roxy Music and T-Rex.
But in the USA, there was an altogether more urgent and serious feeling in the musical underground, peopled by a seemingly desperate underclass whose spiritual roots lay with the likes of The Stooges, and who attached an almost epic sense of meaning and importance to what they were doing. They were the damaged little brothers and sisters of post-Vietnam alienation, growing up in a violent and divided society which made the tea-time telly swearing of the Sex Pistols look positively parochial. And some of them embraced the synthesiser as their weapon of choice.
San Francisco’s Units were a part of this short-lived phenomenon, making rhythmically awkward and sonically demanding music with synths while flaunting an uptight and confrontational sense of mission about them. The group’s ‘Digital Stimulation’ album was first released in 1980, taking blueprints created by Suicide, Chrome and Devo’s challenging early work (and this just at the point when Devo themselves moved into the purer, radio-friendly synthpop of ‘Freedom Of Choice’), and pulling them apart and repurposing them for their own, possibly even more intense anti-rock agenda.
It’s adrenaline cranked stuff, rattling along at amphetamine bpms with lyrics about hairnets, masturbation and cannibals, a post-punk distaste for/obsession with bodies and sex never far from the surface. Despite its aspiration to a consistent mechanical and machine-like delivery – all staccato monotone vocals and stop-start drums – the album reeks of humanity. Less satirical and intellectually distanced than Devo, more youthful and optimistic than Suicide, less polished than Chrome, ‘Digital Stimulation’ is so alive and so chock full of great riffs and melody that any lover of electronic music of the period will clutch this to their chests with delight.
Units shared a uniquely American, possibly uniquely West Coast American, modernist counter-culture aesthetic with that other great lost band of the era, The Screamers. The Screamers never made it to vinyl, a travesty if there ever was one, and after this album Units took the major label dollar and went headlong into a doomed bid for mainstream acceptance which ended in failure in 1984. ‘Digital Stimulation’ remains a stone-cold classic, though, throughly deserving of its lavish reissue on the excellent Futurismo label.