In much the same way that BBC Four has produced a swathe of well-researched, watchable and entertaining music documentaries – 2009’s landmark and oft-repeated ‘Synth Britannia’, charting the 1970s and 80s UK synthpop explosion, is the obvious example – Cherry Red is fast becoming something of a specialist in documenting nascent electronic music from that same era.
Following on from the label’s excellent CD compilations of formative UK, European and North American electronica (2016’s ‘Close To The Noise Floor’, 2017’s ‘Noise Reduction System’ and 2019’s ‘Third Noise Principle’, respectively), plus last year’s ‘Electrical Language’, a snapshot of independent British synthpop from 1978 to 1984, you might wonder whether another compilation drawn from the electronic archives might just be gilding the lily a bit.
Well, rather than mining the usual fare –‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ it ain’t – ‘Musik Music Musique’ instead hops back to 1980 and chronicles a host of semi-established, fast-emerging and relatively unknown artists from the year that the musical tide was most definitely turning. Taking its title from Zeus’ (aka German producer Zeus B Held) vocoder-heavy curio ‘Musik, Music, Musique’ – a joy to rediscover here – this is a colourful snapshot of glorious post-punk/new wave invention. Emboldened by the residual DIY and experimental ethos of punk, musicians of all genres embraced a futuristic synth-fuelled landscape rife with possibility, and this superbly curated three-CD set duly captures the electronic zeitgeist of 1980 to a tee.
Detailed and brilliantly written sleeve notes by Electronic Sound contributor Mat Smith offer a fascinating insight into how synthesisers quickly rose from prog rock prominence and music’s outer reaches to conquer the mainstream. While 1981 might have been when electronic bands such as Soft Cell and Depeche Mode broke through, 1980 was, as Smith rightly says, “electronic music’s true Year Zero” .
And although ‘Musik Music Musique’ features recognised names aplenty, it mostly captures them on the cusp of mainstream success, offering tantalising glimpses of what was to come. Instead of ‘Dare’-era Human League, you get their cover of Mick Ronson’s ‘Only After Dark’; OMD’s ‘Messages’, rather than ‘Enola Gay’; Ultravox’s ‘Waiting’ (the B-side of ‘Sleepwalk’) instead of ‘Vienna’… you get the picture. It’s so good to hear the cartoon funk of Yello’s ‘Bimbo’ and Suicide’s throbbing, uber-glam ‘Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne’ again too, both are still deliciously vital, limber and fresh.
But it’s not just the usual suspects on show. As well as countless electronic curveballs and half-forgotten gems from the UK (Hazel O’Connor’s ‘Sons And Lovers’ and Kim Wilde’s ‘Tuning In Tuning On’ are infinitely better and edgier than I remember, while Nick Nicely’s ‘DCT Dreams’ is a gloriously fried slice of electronic psych), there are just as many interesting and half-forgotten cuts from further afield: the frenzied ‘Money’ by US electronic trio Moebius, and the equally unhinged ‘Can’t You Take A Joke? Ha Ha Hi Hi!’ by French singer Henriette Coulouvrat, for example, are both colourful standouts.
XYNN’s ‘Computed Man’ too, on which performance artist Michael Winter (Germany’s answer to David Bowie, allegedly) channels his inner John Foxx. And Krautrock royalty La Düsseldorf – founded by former Neu! man Klaus Dinger, and described by Bowie as “the sound of the 80s” – pitch in with the playful ‘Dampfriemen’, a hugely infectious electronic stomp. Lest we forget, even Bowie himself got in on the act. Intrigued by what the Blitz Kids, the New Romantics, Kraftwerk and other cutting-edge synthesists were doing with electronics, 1980’s epochal ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was underpinned by those instantly recognisable, shiver-inducing synth flutters, taking its cue from the sort of game-changing music included here.
All told, ‘Musik Music Musique’ is a proper electronic melting pot. Even some of the throwaway novelty stuff – particularly The Goo-Q’s effervescent ‘I’m A Computer’ and British Standard Unit’s hilarious ‘D’ya Think I’m Sexy’ – is a real hoot, surprisingly fun and endearing, but it’s so much more than token nostalgia. Look at how far electronic music has evolved and splintered since 1980, and the legacy of these visionary artists becomes abundantly clear. Phil Oakey puts it best: back in 2001, talking about the influence of his own band’s pioneering early output (and paraphrasing a 1980 NME headline for a synthpop TV documentary), he said: “The Human League: one day, all electronic music will be made like this – and it is!”, but he could just as easily have been referring to much of the groundbreaking and scintillating output on this exemplary compilation. Needless to say, it’s essential listening.