Six Songs / Manbot
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 Nervous 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 anomaly.
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, narcotised, brainwashed day-to-day existence 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 vision. 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 across a forgotten synth punk or unknown early industrial record it is a lot like opening a time capsule. Themes of alienation and technology are spread over drum machines and synth pulses. Tape loops and future apocalypse 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 gleaned 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!
(Repost from original 8/25/05 entry)