Vince Clarke is an interesting fellow. He put together the songs that launched Depeche Mode, and then left the band to their own devices. With his next project, Yazoo, he couldn’t even face being in the studio at the same time as Alison Moyet. He tried to launch a career for his best friend, Robert Marlow, but that fell flat. The Assembly, a planned supergroup with changing singers, was dropped after one excellent single; though it led to another one-off, “One Day” with Paul Quinn. All of this suggests a complex and perhaps prickly personality who seeks collaborators but is uncomfortable with collaboration.
The evidence, however, is mixed. Once Clarke met Andy Bell, he managed to sustain a stable creative partnership over several decades, as Erasure. During that time, he revived Yazoo to give Moyet a chance to perform their songs together. He even went back and worked with Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore on a techno album. On top of that, he has provided scores of remixes for other people’s work, and created artier material with Martyn Ware and Mat Smith.
We are talking about Vince Clarke, because he is a key part of Richard Evans’ creative world. By day, Evans is known for his work with the Erasure Information Service; keeping the band in touch with fans through their regular newsletter. He has just published the results of many late nights, putting together the book, Listening to the Music the Machines Make: Inventing Electronic Pop, 1978-1983. Clarke, normally a man of few words, supplied the foreword and offered input to the book from his standpoint as one of the pioneers of the genre.
Several other key figures from the period also appear in the book. Martyn Ware (The Human League, Heaven 17, BEF, The Illustrious Company) was interviewed by Evans and supplied detail from his records. So did Daniel Miller, who has the distinction of putting out Clarke’s first and most recent singles – and all of those in-between, but let’s not get into the EMI story here – through his legendary label, Mute. What they have in common is their participation in a movement that built up momentum through the energy of punk, access to portable synthesisers, and the ability to press records in small quantities and get them into shops.
That generation of Synth Britannia artists and labels started with an independent spirit, but their activity quickly attracted the attentions of major labels – Sire in the US, for Mute, and Virgin in the UK for The Human League. Navigating the demands of corporate partners, while competing with the more commercial arms of the big labels, is a key part of the story, beyond the skilled arrangement of blips and bloops using MC4 microcomposers. We are still waiting for that book: the one that explains how guerrilla marketing and clever negotiations enabled some of the indies to beat the suits at their own game; and how they navigated the corporate world to get global distribution for records that otherwise might have died in the remainder bins at Woolworths.
Listening to the Music… is less about the “how” than the “who” and “when.” The story it tells, with insight and detail, is led by the charts and the contemporary music press. It follows the emergence of trends and the impact that releases had on their development. Evans has reviewed the music papers from the time to trace the consequences of recordings flying the flag for electronic music. These days, most artists seem to make use of synths, but in the 1970s and 1980s there was a firm dividing line between synth and rock. The use of guitars by Depeche Mode and Erasure was seen as a form of heresy by some. Bands like Clock DVA had to watch out for beers being poured over their synths at shows by the more determined cock-rock heroes in the audience. It wasn’t until Van Halen released “Jump,” making use of an Oberheim, that the sectarian battle lines between genres were eased. Even then, one knew what was electronic music and what was pop-rock by the sounds the machines made.
Of course, songwriters like Vince Clarke never had a problem with guitars. He used one to compose “Only You” in his Basildon bedroom. He held one in the video for “Sometimes.” For his fans, however, what mattered were the electronic sounds, which he was a master at crafting. His arrangements and counterpoint seemed to be driven by the keyboards or Fairlight computer more than conventional songwriting. A switch to a traditional beat combo format would have been career suicide, even if “Never Never” had (sampled) guitar sounds prominent in the mix. Electronic music was different, and everyone knew it.
Even so, many of the bands discussed in Listening to the Music… – from OMD to Japan – were never purely focussed on synthesisers. John Foxx might have made Metamatic, but he quickly moved on to The Garden. Even a label like Mute, which made its name releasing material by Silicon Teens and early Fad Gadget, was always open to punk (DAF), gothic rock (Nick Cave), and alternative pop (Robert Rental). Whether an artist fit into the electronic pop category was, to a great degree, a question of taste – and it must be said that Evans’ taste in curating the acts for the book is exemplary. Freeez, Fad Gadget, Gary Numan, and Heaven 17 receive appropriate space. Simple Minds, Ultravox, Soft Cell, Visage, and OMD are all present and correct. The big names in electronic pop – even those who used guitars – mingle with many of the smaller acts which were influential, even if their commercial appeal was less strong.
We did miss a few acts, however. Nash the Slash, Spoons, and Rational Youth don’t appear, despite creating some of the best music of the period. Tuxedomoon, Plastic Bertrand, and The Residents are similarly AWOL. XTC’s electronic dabbling is left out, as is Sheffield’s Chakk. The mighty Portion Control don’t get a look-in, despite having supported Depeche Mode. These omissions are most probably because the British music press didn’t talk about them as much as Fela Kuti and Scritti Politti. One of the challenges of writing a story around the press coverage of the day is that its biases were very strong. Certain journalists – like Betty Page or Dave Henderson – could be counted on to explore material outside of the mainstream, but their work was marginal compared to the column inches devoted to each week’s new major label darlings. The charts, in turn, responded to the publicity being provided by the papers and radio.
Overall, Evans’ book is a much-needed synthesis of the stories told by the charts and music press in the early days of UK electronic pop. Even for those familiar with the source material, it is an excellent review of the dynamics at work in the culture of the time. Completists will note the absence of many names, but this is not meant to be an encyclopaedia. The red thread that runs through the material is based on commercial success. That is why Vince Clarke is such a strong part of the story – and long may he be so.