"All the infrastructure around punk we absolutely loved. It's just that the actual music we saw as being quite old fashioned ... So what we did was we took the attitudes of punk and gave it a different context; ie, let's make music that nobody's heard before." - Martyn Ware, Synth Britannia, BBC4, 2011
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From hi-fi to lo-fi. While the temptation in 1978 is to repeat what I said last week but just swap Donna Summer's ice maiden ecstasy for Sylvester's girlish falsetto. (Is there a more thrilling moment in pop in '78 than the way Sylvester sings "Should"; that voice climbing up the word to plateau somewhere north of Everest), it's worth pointing out that it wasn't just German musicians, moustachioed Italian producers and gay American singers who discovered the joys of electronica in the late seventies. In Britain - in Liverpool, in Manchester and in Sheffield (a city that I reckon will make at least another two appearances in this space) - a new breed of musicians were emerging from the rubble of punk. Musicians with a new vision of the future of music, one that owed much to Kraftwerk (who first appeared on British telly on an episode of BBC1's pop science show Tomorrow's World in 1975) and the Dr Who theme tune.
While John Lydon remade himself (gloriously) in Public Image Ltd and Buzzcocks and The Undertones took punk's DNA and grafted it onto a pop sensibility, this new sound owed little to what had just gone before. The children of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were making new noises.
Sheffield was an industrial city and the music that emerged from it in the seventies rang with the steam-and-piston echo of the factory and, increasingly, the blip-blip futurism of the computer. You could hear more of the former in Sheffield's Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DNA (bands that were quickly labelled "industrial"). But for the latter you turned to The Human League.
The first version of the band - long before they became pop stars who knew the value of putting Jackie Magazine photo stories to music - were attempting to do Moroder on a budget. Martyn Ware bought a monophonic synth, a Korg 700S, for £350 (it was either that or a second-hand car) and turned up at Phil Oakey's door with two records under his arm - Kraftwerk's Trans-Europ Express and I Feel Love. Oakey would soon add his hair, his voice and his science fiction obsession (Philip K Dick and JG Ballard were big influences on his early lyrics) to the music Ware and their friend Ian Craig Marsh created. When Marsh and Ware gave Oakey the backing track to Being Boiled he came back to them two days later with a lyric about silkworms and (rather confused) notions of Eastern religions. "Nonsense," suggests Simon Reynolds in his book Rip It Up and Start Again; Postpunk 1978-1984, "but delivered in Oakey's commanding baritone, it sounded wonderfully baleful."
The result was the sound that, with a bit of kit and polish, would soon be the future of pop in Britain.
That was still a while away in 1978. But something else was happening. With the new sounds emerging came new approaches. Daniel Miller recorded TVOD and Warm Leatherette, the latter, a thrillingly harsh, minimalist musical take on JG Ballard's twisted novel of auto-erotica, Crash, and then opted to put it out himself. Buzzcocks had released their debut Spiral Scratch EP on their own New Hormones label but soon decamped to United Artists. But Miller had no desire to go to a major. And he didn't need to. The single shifted 30,000 copies and Mute 001 became the first of many independent singles on the label.
Soon the independents would also include such labels as Rough Trade, Factory and Cherry Red. The future of British music was being forged in sonics and structure in the late seventies.
In Edinburgh a former architecture student Bob Last decided to set up his own label too, inspired by the Spiral Scratch example and financed by a loan from the Bank of Scotland. Fast Product would soon be home to the likes of the Mekons, Gang of Four, The Scars and The Human League.
When Last was given a demo of Being Boiled he liked it so much he wanted to release it as was. "When I heard this phenomenal, fat bass riff in the middle of 'Being Boiled', it was like a mutant Bootsy Collins riff," he told Reynolds. "I was like, 'God we've got to put this out'."
The single was released in June 1978 with the slogan "Electronically Yours" on the cover. Lydon dismissed the result, calling the League "trendy hippies". David Bowie, however, declared they were the future of music, a prophecy that would prove accurate, although it would take a few years and the band to fracture in two before it happened.
What I love about it is the homemade futurism of the thing. The clean-lined crispness of the sound. It looks back to Wendy Carlos's music for A Clockwork Orange and forward to John Carpenter's self-composed horror soundtracks. But at heart - and despite the sonic starkness - there's a brightness to it, a technocratic belief in the sound of the future (if not the actual future itself). This is pop that, unlike punk, was looking forward not backwards. Listen to it now and you can hear the eighties just around the corner.
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Sylvester
Warm Leatherette, The Normal
What Do I get?, Buzzcocks
Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)?, Buzzcocks
Teenage Kicks, The Undertones
Public Image, Public Image Ltd
One Nation Under a Groove, Funkadelic
The Man withe the Child in His Eyes, Kate Bush
Germ-Free Adolescents, X-Ray Spex
Shame, Evelyn "Champagne" King
Picture This, Blondie
Contort Yourself, James Chance and the Contortions (that's the squally, jerky, hysterical-bordering-on-manic version, rather than August Darnell's "disco" remix.)
NME Single of the year - Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've), Buzzcocks
And the best-selling single of 1978: Rivers of Babylon/Brown Girl in the Ring, Boney M