When machines took over music, they took over well. What began as two cramped little rooms in the BBC Maida Vale studios running on a budget of £2000 quickly became one of the BBC’s most cherished creations and, eventually, one of the most highly acclaimed electronic music studios in the world: the BBC Radiophonics Workshop, run by the unsung synth pioneers Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe, the former of which first came to the BBC as a Sound Engineer. With the extraordinary Oramics synthesizer, the workshop began a simple life, making sound effects for shows such as the legendary “Goon Show”. But then came the highlight of the workshop’s existence, when Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer collaborated to compose one of history’s most instantly recognisable yet chilling and skin-crawling tunes: the Doctor Who theme tune — arguably the greatest of all the versions that were released over the years. The workshop closed in 1998 with just one composer remaining, but all their creations had gone online beforehand, and it was recently announced that the workshop has been revived as an online venture.
This was just the beginning for synthpop, though. In the 50s, future creator of the landmark Moog synthesizer Robert Moog began making and distributing the commercial ancestor to synthesizers — the theremin. In the 60s, synthesizers (most notably Moog’s) began to emerge, slowly crawling their way into the world. They were most famously used to create the Star Trek theme tune in the late 60s, and were even used by the Rolling Stones in 2000 Light Years From Home; the Beatles in Abbey Road and Simon & Garfunkel in Bookends.
But it was the 70s that kick-started the synthesizer’s success, although it would arguably be one of the last decades when there was still a variety of genres in the charts. In 1972, Chicory Tip (under the guidance of the now legendary synthpop star Giorgio Moroder) released Son Of My Father — the first UK hit based around the synthesizer. In that same year, Roxy Music made their debut hit single Virginia Plain, which became renowned for its peculiar sound which was, again, based around the synthesizer, but had lyrics without a chorus that (for me) went surprisingly well with the music. Disco embraced synthesizers with open arms thanks to Giorgio Moroder — Donna Summer’s I Feel Love became an instant No.1 hit in 1977 and redefined the rules of disco music, influencing further disco hits to create the backing of the song using a synthesizer.
Bands from all over Europe suddenly released electronic hits over the decade — Jean Michel-Jarre most notably reached the Top 20 twice in the UK chart with his instrumental albums Oxygene and Equinoxe — the former of which was recorded in the kitchen of his apartment and used a wide variety of synthesizers — whilst Belgian band Telex released Moskow Diskow to worldwide acclaim. But it was Germany that arguably took electronic music to stardom, for from Germany came Can, Tangerine Dream and one of the most famous synthpop bands in the world — Kraftwerk, who first came to fame with Autobahn, which (along with Jean Michel Jarre’s compositions) used the Moog synthesiser to a great extent.
Trevor Horn — famously known for being the “glasses man” from the Buggles — became one of the biggest synth pop producers in the 80s, producing for ABC and hiring such bands as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones and the unique Art of Noise, whose electronic music consisted of music, voices and sound effects mish-mashed together to create fascinatingly clever symphonies. The Art of Noise hit Beatbox also helped kick-start the new dance style “Popping”. Around the same time, other record labels had got their own taste of synthpop: one of newly formed Mute Records’ first bands quickly became a synthpop giant — Depeche Mode; Virgin helped guide the formerly-indie band Human League to success with the triple-platinum album Dare. Synthpop hit after synthpop hit kept popping up in the charts, influenced by the epiphany caused by the post-punk era. Thankfully, there was still a variety of music styles present –artists such as The Smiths, Joe Jackson and The Pogues (who shot up the charts in 1987 with the timeless classic and contender for Christmas No. 1 Fairytale Of New York) preferred to perform without synthesizers — the St. Winnimore Choir even had a Christmas No. 1 single with Grandma We Love You! The 80s is soon through my eyes as the pinnacle of synthpop.
But in the 90s, in my opinion, synthpop was destroyed. The minimalistic synthpop of the 70s that made it so pleasing to listen to became overused, and the post punk era truly changed the charts for the worse. The bouncy, minimalistic sound of synth pop’s early days were gone, and in its place were unemotional, mechanical backing tracks that just couldn’t delve into a human brain and set their emotions on fire. Early synthesisers easily had the ability to send you into into the furthest reaches of space when you closed your eyes. Doctor Who and Star Trek proved that. Your imagination as you listen to Space and their buzzing instrumental Magic Fly (which deservedly reached the Top 10 in 1977 — the same year as Donna Summer — under the Space Disco genre) shows that. Nowadays, computers and synthesisers have been fed no artistic input whatsoever, and not only are machines ruining pop with their blasted auto tuning, but are even starting to create their own music (although the results are clearly unemotional and, like the auto tuned voices, without essence).
Now machines have taken over music, they have taken it over badly.