TV review: Synth Britannia

Synth Britannia Friday, BBC4

IT SEEMS fitting that German synth pioneers Kraftwerk were first unveiled in Britain, not on a music programme, but on a 1975 edition of Tomorrow's World. Presented as a futuristic novelty on a par with the jet pack, they must have seemed like nothing on Earth. And just as The Beatles' debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show influenced swathes of young Americans to grow their hair and form beat groups, Kraftwerk's appearance on a BBC science programme had a similar impact on the musicians who would go on to define British pop for the next few years.

Or at least that's how it was told in Synth Britannia, an enjoyable documentary in which electro-pop luminaries such as Phil Oakey from The Human League spoke of how that seminal TV appearance convinced him to forsake guitars for the synthetic sound of the future.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Although the story behind this musical revolution is a familiar one, it was executed in the solid, satisfying manner we've come to expect from the excellent Britannia strand.

As expected, out came all the usual suspects, a procession of now mostly greying men (apart from Gary Numan and his bouffant) cooing over antique synths and happily answering questions they must have been asked innumerable times. Anecdotal highlights included Andy McCluskey from OMD recalling how he bought his first synth from a Kay's mail-order catalogue belonging to his mother, and Vince Clarke complaining that Depeche Mode had to carry their cumbersome synths on the train for their debut appearance on Top of the Pops. Best of all, though, was Human League founder Martyn Ware revealing that the group took their name from a "prodigiously tedious" electronic board game called Star Force – Alpha Centauri.

There was something so uniquely, weirdly British about the way in which this disparate group of disaffected kids embraced punk's DIY ethic to forge a bold new sound for a bleak new age. Emerging through the grey dawn of Thatcher's Britain, when, in the words of musician John Foxx, "everything seemed gritty and lost," they initially composed a forbidding soundtrack to the high-rise brutalism surrounding them. Hence the more experimental likes of Cabaret Voltaire using this suddenly affordable technology to create harsh industrial sounds akin to a Dalek screeching into a demonic hairdryer. It wasn't pretty, but neither was Thatcher, right kids?

Despite the innately experimental nature of their art (the majority of them didn't even know how to work their newfangled instruments to begin with), most of the acts eventually set their sights on the charts and created some immortally eccentric pop music in the process. The early 1980s now seems like the last sustained gasp of the misfit in mainstream culture, when weirdos ruled the charts fuelled by pretension, invention and witty pop nous. The likes of Gary Numan and Phil Oakey were proper pop stars: they wrote hit records, appeared regularly on Top of the Pops, but still looked like they belonged to a different species than Noel Edmonds. This is as it should be.

It couldn't last of course. Stock Aitken Waterman were about to strike and, as Andy McCluskey noted sadly, a decade later the charts were ruled by the proudly atavistic Oasis. The future ain't what it was.