Standard of Living Six Songs 12" (Vinyl Records, 1982)
Manbot s/t 7" (NuVu, 1981)
One of today's trends in "alternative" music is the reintroduction of synth into punk rock. This has been going on for a few years, long enough for all the cliches that were formed in the 1980s to be recycled many times over. And while there are a few bands that do capture the sound well, who are able to pull off the angry scree of a Nervious Gender and do a close approximation of the Screamers, there are a few things that are missing.
First is the newness of the technology, especially when applied to basic rock and roll. From Suicide on through the early 80s, second-generation and then low-cost synths were new on the scene and/or new to people's hands. Throwing a whirrrrrr or a fzzzzzttttttt into a 1-2-3-4 song was fresh. I remember the first time I got my hands on a synth. It was a Radio Shack knock off of a Minimoog. A friend borrowed it from a friend and we were supposed to buy it for $75 but couldn't come up with the money. Instead, we formed a band around it and two drummers, played with Flipper, and broke up when friend's friend demanded the synth back. At the time, we were the only punk band in town with a synth. The instrument was an anomoly.
The second thing that lacks in today's synth punk is a true dread of the future, expressed with "futuristic" sounds and image. Growing up with the threat (real or imagined) of nuclear war was a very heavy thing. The future did not look bright. A mechanized, industrialized wasteland was what seemed to await. Either that or some sterile, narcotisized, brainwashed day-to-day existance ala Brave New World. Science fiction films like Soilent Green, Westworld, Rollerball, and, the punk fave, Clockwork Orange were what we expected to grow up into. And the sounds of bands like the Normal, Chrome, and Throbbing Gristle were prepping us for tomorrow. Today's synth sound does not embrace this distopian vission. In fact, the only contemporary band that I know who comments on such things (and does it well) is the very much non-synthesized A Frames.
The synth bands of yesterday were also part of a much bigger scene. Though I am sure someone has created a subgenre for these groups (uhhh synth punk/dark wave), back then they were punk rock. Perhaps some might be called Industrial Music, but this was at a time before Industrial ditched punk rock for the dance floor. Prior to SPK's Metal Dance and Cabaret Voltaire's proto-techno, the world of Industrial was that of punk rock. Because the punk umbrella was so wide it was possible for bands like Minimal Man to play with thrash bands. You could see an evening of the Screamers and the Weirdos. The genre ghettos weren't yet built (though to be fair, today, people have easy access to a much broader range of music than I did as a youngster. There are many guides and you can download pretty much whatever you want. In my youth, the only place I could go for a radical mix of music was the local college radio station, KDVS, and then raid the import section at Tower).
Nowadays, when I stumble accross a forgotten synth punk or unknown early industrial record it is a lot like openning a time capsile. Themes of alienation and technology are spread over drum machines and synth pulses. Tape loops and future apocylpse go hand in hand. Some of it is great, some of it is silly and cliche. But it really does stake out a place in time that today's crop cannot hope to do (really, isn't today's "darkwave" just a cousin of a rockabilly revival band).
All of this is to say that I know little about the four songs here than what I've gleened from the record covers. There are no web references and my record freak friends who are heavy into this stuff are clueless as well. I do know that Standard of Living is from Oakland, California (or at least their label is) and the two songs here are off a six song 12" released in 1982. The sounds on it are great, especially Don't Worry, with its mix of guitar freak out and synth pulse. And with band members named "Rad Solar" and "Jon Velcro" how can you go wrong?
From listening to Manbot you would think that they were from the UK, however as much these guys would like you to think Rob Calvert was the man-machine here, the label is from Fremont, California, another East Bay city. The close proximity to San Francisco, where the art punk/synth/early Industrial sound thrived and Hawkwind enjoyed a big following, is no surprise. The geographic origin of this record also reveals itself when you consider that the flip is yet another song about Jonestown, complete with the Rev. Jim Jones's lunatic ranting - the Guyana mass suicide and audio samples from the People Temple's last night both standard features of many a Bay Area punk song. Other than that, I can tell you nothing.
Please enjoy the shitty future!
this is a great post. Vintage synthpunk is so amazing. And I totally agree with your comments about vintage synthpunk vs. this modern synthpunk/industrial/punk-disco revival stuff.
I agree with your comment about how one of the reasons these new bands don't come close to sounding like the vintage stuff is because many of these new bands use so much digital computer recording technology, while many of the old bands barely could afford to record on some shitty analog track-tape machine.
And these modern bands don't have the attitude, many of them are not pissed off at anything. A lot of them are into money and would not even mind getting played on MTV2. A lot of that new disco-punk stuff is pure MTV pop-comsumer pop, for example LCD Soundsystem is just pure pop. A LCD Soundsystem CD is so slick sounding and so digital that it has the same sonic qualities of a Britney Spears CD, it's totally made for the radio but yet journalist still want to label it as being "disco-punk". It's total consumer music.
There are still a few modern revival synthpunk, disco-punk, and industrial bands out there that have the same spirit and vibe as the vintage bands, you just have to search for them because they are in the underground and they will never be hyped up.
Later you said: Prior to SPK's Metal Dance and Cabaret Voltaire's proto-techno, the world of Industrial was that of punk rock. Although you seem to be saying that SPK's records before the recording of "Metal Dance" were punk rock it seems to me that the mid-late 70's "industrial" movement of Throbbing Gristle, SPK, the home-taping movement of the late 70's, the US Dada revival of Boyd Rice's "Pagan Muzak" EP or his collaboration with Laurie from Monitor known as "Barbie & Ken", the UK 4D artists, Germany's Zick Zack roster and performance artists like Johanna Went owe more of a debt to the World War One Dadaists, the musique concrete pioneers and Situationists of the 50's & 60's than to the punk rock movement. Exceptions that come to mind are Alternative TV, Warum Joe, Strength Thruough Joy, (etc) all of whom recorded & performed punk/industrial fusion and happily cross-pollinated with both cultures.
I am not refering to the intentions of the artists (though I think many if not most of them tried to dodge categorization) or what we think of them now, but what the audience pegged them as. Sure industrial had its roots in a lot of different things and owe their past to things other than punk. What I am getting at is that punk rock (at least in the US) kicked open the door for a whole lot of people to hear that stuff and as a result it existed under teh umbrella known as punk. In the United States of the late 70s/early 80s almost EVERYTHING outside of commercial AM & FM radio fodder was considered punk, especially by its detractors. I know that was much different in the UK, but for my purposes here, the UK doesnt count. I didnt grow up in the UK and my only exposure to the UK was through records and NME and since NME wrote about TG and the UK Subs side by side just as Creem or NY Rocker did it all sounded punk to me. It sure the hell didnt sound like Foriegner or Styx. Also at shows in the US, many of these bands did play with punk band, be it art punk or just 1-2-3-4 punk. As I pointed out and as you quote me, we didnt have genre ghettos here at that time and they certainly did not pass out programs and guidebooks to the audience to tell us what category to neatly place these people. I am coming from the point of view of the listener not of the academic or niddling detail freak. For a bit more clarity into what I am writing about, when I was picking up Birthday Party, Joy Division and Bauhaus records, they were all punk rock or if we want to quibble, post-punk. They didnt identify themselves as anything other than that or rock and roll. Maybe some music reviewers tagged the post-punk label on them but in record stores the stuff was lumped in with Black Flag and Crass. Their records were reviewed in punk zines. Some years later I got into long arguements with younger friends who told me that none of those bands were punk, that they were goth. Funny, back then goth was not a genre and if the term was used it was rare and hyphenated as goth-punk (though usually referred to as "death-punk"). Same goes with "grunge." What was once just a reviewer's term ("that band sounded grungy" "there was grunge in the guitar") became a marketing term and a critic's easy category. Fact is, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Tad, etc. all hated the term grunge and considered themselves punk, as did much of their pre-mega-success audience.
And just so you know, very very very few bands have ever signed to Alternative Tenticles expecting a big payday.
"There are still a few modern revival synthpunk, disco-punk, and industrial bands out there that have the same spirit and vibe as the vintage bands, you just have to search for them because they are in the underground and they will never be hyped up."
true, just as these bands went nowhere and were never hyped up...but do you think strange entities like the Screamers or Suicide would be as popular today?
but of course were dealing with a totally different system of distribution and commerce in addition to the fact that there's a massive glut of bands these days.
It really warms my heart to see Wolf Eyes gaining such popularity given the racket they create. I would have never thought they would be a Sub-Pop band, potentially tour with Lollapalooza, and be featured in every goofy half-assed college magazine.
i wrote a friend today on this synth punk of yore vs. synth punk of today: I think the difference in today and yesterday in the attitude toward present in future is that we (and I mean folks my age) were promised a technological future of moving sidewalks, no work, and jet pack and what we seemed to be headed for was a nucular wasteland and robots as bosses. So part of the anger and alienation is that the promise wasnt gonna pan out. Nowadays the utopian (and thus distopian - cuz you cant have one without the other) impulse is gone. Youngsters now dont look at a collective future. If anything they worry about what they as individuals are gonna do when they get old. And they get recycled old styles and images with no context attatched because it sells. And because this has been happening to them from birth (Happy Days ----> That 70s Show) the regurgitation and timelessness of things seems normal. Cant see forward, cant see backward so you just consume and replicate.
> to Alternative Tenticles expecting a big payday.
Well, I knew the guys in the Fartz, being here in Seattle, and even played in a band with one of them before they formed ... and they certainly had dollar signs in their eyes. Ironically, the guys I knew who didn't have money on their mind ended up going the furthest, like Duff McKagen - he was a sincere guy who just loved making music.