Like most musical scenes, early synth-pop was littered with groups that didn’t quite make it; bands who should have been more successful than they were but who ultimately watched groups perceived as more deserving of acclaim have huge success and marketing energy bestowed upon them, while they were relegated to the role of mere footnotes – at best.
Such was the case with Glasgow’s Berlin Blondes, who wound up on the sidelines of the 80s synth dawn, already mostly broken up before their solitary album was in the can.
It shouldn’t have been this way. The band had all the right vital statistics: modish alien synths, a robotic sheen from employing a drum machine instead of a real drummer, spiky post-punk guitars, a pinch of Kraftwerk, a large dose of Bowie, and the obligatory New Romantic eyeliner. Their songs sat comfortably alongside everything from the semi-industrial sounds of early Mute to the ambitious gestures of Ultravox and Simple Minds, whom they supported in their early days.
Central to the Berlin Blondes sound were the arch stylings of vocalist and frontman Steve Bonomi and the swirling synths of future Altered Images / One Dove member, Jim McKinven, whose playing sat somewhere between the icy minimalism of Tubeway Army and Dave Formula’s more grandiose playing for Magazine. David Rudden’s bass and Robert Farrell’s guitar acted as foils to McKinven’s synths, humanising the electronics while McKinven, in turn, roboticised their playing.
A cult live following in Glasgow led to a deal with EMI – a remarkable achievement for a band little known outside their home city and with limited original material. With a working title of Building In The Sand, they recorded rough versions of the tracks at Numan’s Rock City studio in Shepperton with producer Mike Thorne, and the story goes that some sounds from Numan’s expansive Moog collection found their way into the recorded Berlin Blondes tracks.
Thorne would cement his central role within the nascent synth-pop scene with Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, but he cut his (electronic) teeth with Berlin Blondes, including bringing an expensive Synclavier to the table which also turned up on the first Soft Cell LP. Thorne handed the tapes off to Harvey Goldberg at New York’s Media Sound for mixing duties, just as he would later do with Soft Cell’s first LP. By the time the LP was completed, Paul Rudden had departed to establish his band Endgames, and Jim McKinven left before EMI released the album in 1980, taking his synths and signature playing with him.
While it may lack the sonic fidelity or crispness of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, even after a timely remaster, Berlin Blondes remains a strong, under-appreciated early synth-pop gem. The songs are good, yielding singles in the form of “Science” and “Framework”, both possessing a hyperactive edge and the same intense focus on technological progress that was the muse of many an early synth-pop group. “Trail To Istanbul” similarly deals with another 80s lyrical concern – namely the glamour and mystique of world travel and foreign cultures – here working off a fantastic gridwork of synths and unswervingly spare drum machine pulses that nodded firmly in the direction of Thomas Leer’s “Private Plane”.
Elsewhere, “Secret Days” acted as a neat bridge between the angular shapes of post-punk and the emerging synth movement, all feisty guitars and shouty energy, held in check by glittering synth layers. “Mannequin” was openly informed by Kraftwerk’s “Showroom Dummies”, containing some brilliantly synchronised synth interplay with Rudden’s bass and a jerky rhythm akin to posing and re-posing lifeless plastic display models in a store window. The central synth melody here is a strange wonder to behold, unadorned as it is by layers and layers of complementary sound, as might have been the temptation of the day. Closing track “Zero Song” is absolutely astonishing – a futuristic nine minute evolving epic that has begins in soundtrack territory before moving on into a haunting, melodic direction that nods to the profoundly uplifting qualities of Bowie’s “Heroes”.
Throughout the album, it’s Steve Bonomi’s peculiar vocal that stands out most prominently. He definitely has that Bowie thing going on, but it’s a voice filtered through the wryness of Howard Devoto: occasionally shrill, occasionally more spoken than sung; positioned on the central reservation between the evocative Bowie and the emotionless Numan. He claimed to be influenced by Bryan Ferry’s louche delivery, but any traces of Ferry’s unintentional croonerishness are buried deep under Bonomi’s punk hangover.
Despite all the right ingredients and some genuinely stand-out moments, the band’s self-titled album failed to register and what was left of the band were unceremoniously dropped by EMI. With the addition of a human drummer, they released a solitary follow-up single, “Marseille”, for independent imprint Scratch, wherein Bonomi manages to out-Jim Kerr Jim Kerr with a stadium-ready vocal, but that was really the end of the Berlin Blondes story.
A new compilation on Barney Ashton’s Strike Force Entertainment seeks to address Berlin Blondes’s almost entirely forgotten history. The set brings together the remastered LP and the band’s singles, marking their first time on CD for the first time; their small and overlooked legacy framed by a definitive history, written lovingly by Ashton through the lens of him evidently being a fan. Like their career itself, this release will more than likely be overshadowed by other, more copious and much more expansive retrospectives – Soft Cell’s Keychains & Snowstorms springs to mind – but as a window into the music of a bunch of unsung Glaswegians with songs every bit as good as more successful acts of the day, The Complete Recordings 1980 – 81 is an arresting but altogether too brief endeavour.