Synth Heavy Post-Punk: How a Genre Sparked Electronic

The 1980s sparked a movement away from the dense riffage and intensity of rock and punk, towards a sparser, more minimalist sound. Post-punk musicians such as Joy Division, Kraftwerk, The Human League  and The Pet Shop Boys were the precursor to modern House and Techno. Such influences are evident across a myriad of artists and genres today.

From Italo Disco to New Beat, EDM and Industrial, the impact of the synthesizer and the ideals of Post-Punk sparked the evolution of Electronica. This embryonic movement responded to art and politics, becoming increasingly experimental and transgressive. New Musick was both self-reflective and uninhibited as it searched out avant-garde, DIY production and performance tactics.    

 ‘Always work. Go to Church. Do Right. Respect those in Authority Over You.’ Sheffield based Post-Punk band Cabaret Voltaire.

Electronic music – that is noises and sounds that are produced autonomously by machines – had existed in primitive forms since the 1950s. However, the incredibly sophisticated and expensive equipment used to curate it had yet to be commercially available to the mass populous. It made a fleeting impact at the BBC, who used it for space-age programs like Doctor Who, but mostly occupied the outer circles of ‘art music’. Early Electronic was symptomatic of optimistic, high modernity following the devastation of World War Two. The Western World was now entering into a Sci-Fi fuelled cultural renaissance. Electronic was to be the sound of the future, reflecting the mechanisation which would drive societies forward.

In the 1970s, along came the first synthesizer produced en masse – the Mini Korg 700S – that cost no more than an electric guitar.  This affordable device soon became a pop obsession. Pioneers busied themselves constructing ever more wacky metallic reverberations, sampling anything from smashing glass to sparking toasters. Such noises emulated the heavy machinery that was part of everyday life across Britain’s cities – this was still the high era of coal mining, smelting, functioning furnaces, packed docks and ports.

American rock band Talking Heads incorporate dragged out high vocals and lashings of cowbell to their high energy take on New Wave.

British synth sensations The Human League.  

Taking a darker turn: New Order’s masterpiece Blue Monday.

Post-punk imbued Electronic with a darkened postmodern reality. Thatcherite politics, widespread unemployment and depravity, and a disenfranchised youth sparked a critically engaged musical movement.  Robotics, which had once promised a better quality of life for workers, now steadily began to replace them. Cheap labour was beginning to be outsourced to poorer countries resulting in looming, out-of-use industrial complexes. It is this tangible moment in music history – melded with a re-appropriation of disused warehouse and factory floors – which spawned the beginnings of rave culture. Electronic in this context became a dissident source of reclamation and satire that departed from music conventions all together. Consider the below track by abysmally named Throbbing Gristle. Although released in 1979, and despite the rough production, it could easily be mistaken for a contemporary dance tune:

Throbbing Gristle ‘Hot on the Heels of Love’, from the album 20 Jazz Funk Greats.

Joy Division and the ‘Madchester’ scene were a propelling force for Post-Punk.  Through their debut EP Ideal For Living -featuring a tangled mass of scaffolding on its cover – the group depicted the derogation of the ‘modernized’ metropolis. Parodied technocracy and a jubilant exploration of the taboo (Joy Division reference a sex slavery sect of a Nazi concentration camp) personify synth heavy Post-Punk. Online music guide AllMusic credits the genre as revolutionising the ‘use of space’, crafting textured music purposefully designed to fill cavernous venues. Following Ian Curtis’ death the reformed group New Order went on to produce ground-breaking dance music, performing at pivotal Manchester club The Hacienda. Producer Martin Hannett favoured unorthodox techniques, infamously recording vocals for the song ‘Insight’ through a telephone, as well as utilising AMS 15-80s digital delays, Marshall Time Modulators and tape bounce. Strong use of echo and reverberation was sourced in the rapidly growing and influential Dub scene. Dub music embodied similar aspirations of Post-Punk to be in constant flux. Both genres boldly experimented with re-making and re-imagining pre-recorded sounds.

Underground Post-Punk group Pere Ubu pay homage to dub, painting a dystopian image of Baltimore suburbia.

In 1984 Belgium act Front 242 released their album No Comment, declaring it ‘EBM’ – or ‘Electronic Body Music’. Kraftwerk had been the first to coin this term, using it to describe the intense physical experience and trance-like state dancing to their songs produced. Contemporary techno producers such as Marcel Dettman and Ben Klock have distilled the disjointed electronic bass lines, steep minimalist rhythms and dictatorial, static vocals of EBM. Dettman himself nodded to the legacy that 80’s New Wave, synth and Post-Punk has had on his music in his fantastic compilation album Selectors 003.         

The Germanic and Belgian roots of EBM were carried across to the US, where it made waves in post-industrial cities like Detroit and Chicago. Early Techno artists such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May The Belleville Three – were drawn to the melancholic futurism of Post-Punk. “We never took it as just entertainment, we took it as a serious philosophy,” recalled May. Detroit Techno was not just dance music, but also a subversive comment on the failures of trickle down economics, industrialisation, record label racism and commodity culture. By the 1980s, Detroit – once nicknamed the Motor City for its thriving car production industry – had all but been reduced to an improvised ghost town in many areas. Derrick May’s seminal track ‘No UFOs’ pioneered strong rhythmic features, such as pounding drum kicks, electric claps, and an increased tempo, alongside the characteristic electronic samples and distortions of Post-Punk.

Early Detroit Techno ‘No UFOs’ embodies the mantra that there’s no such thing as too much cowbell.

The Ford Model T assembly plant stands derelict – Detroit is home to the largest empty buildings in the world, which have frequently been reused for rave purposes. Post-punk’s analytical rhetoric towards post-industrialism and the abandoned dreams of modernity resonate strongly with the city.

Back in Europe, producers were picking off where Techno and Post-Punk had left off, fusing repetitive rhythms with hallmark infrequent, re-worked vocals and bizarre mechanised sounds. French composer and DJ Laurent Garnier visited Detroit and the ‘The Belleville Three’ as well as New York, running into the ‘Godfather of House’, Frankie Knuckles. Garnier saw new potential in this music, opening it up to jazz, emphasising its Disco roots, and building atmospheric basslines which borrowed from Jungle and Dub. His presence in ‘Madchester’ meant that many DJs and producers soon followed suit. Greg Wilson – a frequenter of The Hacienda – combined off-the-wall samples and synth funk to his mixing as a result. Wilson also paid homage to Discotek synth superstars such as Giorgio Moroder (of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love). Moroder went on to collaborate with Daft Punk on the album Random Access Memories, and is a catalyst figure for the upbeat Post-Punk movement.

Laurent Garnier’s legendary The Man With The Red Face

Dawning into the 1990’s, Electronic had arguably reached its height, but ties with the Post-Punk subculture were still evident. Artists like Leftfield and Orbital championed moody synth whilst harking back to the powerful performance element which live music had offered. Both artists still draw on impressive improvisation whilst on stage, seducing audiences with live re-works. Leftfield’s album Leftism returned to the political roots of Post-Punk. Featuring the vocals of John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) the EP Open Up is a raw union of Punk and Electronic. Bands like Radiohead revived Post-Punk’s themes of alienation during an uncertain entry into the digital age, social media and the advent of the mass-produced computer.

Following the lineage of Post-Punk in Electronica reveals a testament to the far-reaching power of music. Its influences have transgressed countries, social class and ethnicity. The enduring story: a dogmatic pursuit of the avant-garde, coupled with rhetoric targeted at the development and failures of technology and modern society. In contemporary pop culture Post-Punk as a genre continues to resonate. Postmodernist film, literature and art – like J.G. Ballad’s novel Crash – captured the imaginations of Post-Punk musicians. In 2011 the cult film Drive paid tribute to 80’s synth subculture with its new wave heavy soundtrack by Kavinsky. The newest Bladerunner movie – depicting a dystopian synthetic future – also relies strongly on synth to conjure a disturbing sense of the unknown. Post-Punk has ultimately proved itself to be an integral pillar that Electronic has been forged upon.

The soundtrack from the movie ‘Drive’ – Kavinsky utilises the dystopian sound of Post-Punk to capture the motion of a car speeding towards a perilous destination