“You did not have to be a musician; if you had good ideas, you could make music out of electronics.” – Daniel Miller, founder Mute Records.
In the fall of 2022, New Order and Pet Shop Boys played two sold-out nights at Hollywood Bowl as part of their Unity Tour; Duran Duran was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and Depeche Mode announced an unexpected new album and world tour.
The legends of the ‘80s are continuing to command our attention today, but where did it all begin? Since all things British pop are my love language, when I caught sight of a book about electronic pop from the ‘80s, I had to dig in. Complete with a forward by Erasure’s Vince Clarke, “Listening to the Music the Machines Make” traces the electronic music timeline launched by David Bowie’s appearance on “Top of the Pops” as Ziggy Stardust, and escalated by the collapse of punk after the Sex Pistols’ final show in 1978.
Author Richard Evans has incredible details and history covered thanks to his three decades in the music industry, which includes being the founder of the This Is Not Retro website and record label.
He has also worked for Erasure’s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke since 2009, hence the intro hookup. He combs through what I assume is a warehouse of archives and press materials for this incredibly well-detailed walk down the synthpop trail. With insight from Clarke (who you may recall was a founding member of Depeche Mode and Yazoo before his Erasure days) and Bell, Martyn Ware (The Human League and Heaven 17), Dave Ball (Soft Cell), Daniel Miller (founder of Mute Records aka the label that launched Depeche Mode), and Gareth Jones (producer known for his work with Erasure and Depeche Mode), this book is stacked with info from the people that were there when it all happened.
As punk was quieting down, synthesizers became affordable, and a new era in music was being born. Evans traces Devo’s early days, with Bowie and Iggy Pop as believers, and their impact on the electronic music scene.
By the way, I absolutely cackled at a 1978 review included in the book: “Devo are old, ugly, and boring. Their record won’t sell. Their gigs won’t do well. They will never be a household name.” Whoops!
Another one of the pioneers, Kraftwerk, is of course covered, as is Ultravox, OMD, Joy Division, Sparks, Fad Gadget, Gary Numan, Simple Minds, Japan, Soft Cell, The Human League, Thomas Dolby, Heaven 17, New Order, Depeche Mode, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and many, many more.
Evans meticulously covers each year from the era of British pop that ruled us – especially in SoCal courtesy of KIQQ-FM (R.I.P. to the Los Angeles version) and KROQ-FM – and became the face of that new music video channel, MTV
I must confess I have not gone through this book as quickly as I expected; I have to stop reading to listen to the songs referenced and enjoy the moment of, “Oh yes! Love this song!”
I also found the book interesting comparing it to today. In 1978-1983, musicians worked with “primitive” computers and synthesizers at home, trying to create a new sound. In 2020, the lockdowns forced artists to make music at home too, but obviously we have incredible technology now.
Whether it is an actual at-home studio or a fairly standard laptop, artists have the ability to record anytime, anywhere. Several of the bands we have interviewed at OC Music News recently stated they didn’t even go to a “real” studio to record their recent albums, preferring to transfer material electronically and edit with software instead of bulky mixing boards. But these guys did it first, with “lessor” tech, and it is still music we love, support, and pay to see performed live.
“Listening to the Music the Machines Make – Inventing Electronic Pop 1978-1983” was released in the UK last year and is now available in North America.