Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Cold Synth Warm Leatherette

It generally takes a decade or longer for an era in popular music to once more become fashionable, in the context of reflective, nostalgic appraisal. By the early to mid 90s, the new wave movement of the late 70s/early 80s had taken on that warm glow of yesteryear, though for some of us its charm and lure had never dissipated. With the advent of CD’s, many of the new wave era songs were also, for the first time, being made available in pristine digital format, and we could also for the first time, hear them as perhaps their artists/producers had intended. So when the CD series ‘New Wave Hits of the ‘80s’ arrived in around 1994, via Rhino Records, it was a must have for someone like myself, whose formative steps into popular music addiction, coincided with the explosion of new wave, and the unleashing of a new breed of irreverent purveyors of innovative musical style.

The second track on volume one of the ‘New Wave Hits’ series, was the cutting edge synth-pop track ‘Warm Leatherette’. On previous Retro Universe posts, I’ve explored the career and work of some of the key players in this faction of the new wave movement. Artists such as Visage, Landscape, Yazoo, Heaven 17, and more recently (in fact just a few posts previous), the British duo of Soft Cell, to name a few. Though the U.S. produced its share of like minded artists (Devo, Animotion, Missing Persons, Berlin), the hub of the synth-pop movement was arguably the British scene. Much inspiration arose out of the work of synth-pioneer acts or producers like Kraftwerk, Suicide, Giorgio Moroder, Brian Eno, who had paved the way for a new engagement of the synthesizer as the core musical framework around which a pop/rock song could be constructed. A key stylistic facet of synth-pop was the use of the synthesizer to evoke an artificial, even alien mood, often via the use of mechanical sounding rhythms. Many of the artists of the early synth-pop era, like any pioneers, were keen to push the boundaries, both in a technical sense, but also in terms of style, and as a result the end product could often be quite confronting, at least on first listen. The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’, originally released in May of ‘78, is one such challenging track.

The Normal was actually a pseudonym for producer, and record label owner, Daniel Miller. Miller had developed a fascination with the synthesizer, whilst attending Guildford Art School back in the late 60s/early 70s (as a film student). He went on to become a devotee of European based acts such as Faust, Nau and Kraftwerk, who were pushing the boundaries in development of synthesizer-rock during the first half of the 70s. After a stint in Europe working as a DJ, Miller returned to Britain just as punk was exploding into the public consciousness. The raw energy, rebellious vibe, and accessible do-it-yourself nature of punk, opened the doors to many a creative mind. Popular music was no longer the exclusive domain of astutely managed, big budget, slickly produced artists, forced to adhere to strict boundaries of image and style. Miller, like so many others, saw the potential to be able to make his own music, by his own rules.

By 1978, Daniel Miller had a cheap Korg 700S synthesizer and a four track tape recorder - he was all set for action. He recorded two tracks in his living room, ‘T.V.O.D.’ and ‘Warm Leatherette’ (which was technically the B-side). The track ‘Warm Leatherette’ was, lyrically, inspired by the novel ‘Crash’, by J.G. Ballard. Musically, ‘Warm Leatherette’ was anything but warm, and was a cutting edge example of minimalist electronic music. The song barely strays from the precision of two distinct syncopated tone pulses (very robotic), overlaid by Miller’s inorganic sounding, monotone vocal delivery. A combination of tape loops, and odd synthesizer sounds burrowed into the listener’s consciousness with every listen. Like many of his synth-pop contemporaries, Miller produced an ‘other worldly’ feel to The Normal’s music, a cold, alien sound, which to the unsuspecting listener might initially revive aural nightmares of sitting in a dentist’s chair, bombarded by drills, or alternatively being strapped down on an industrial assembly line. The song’s starkness, paradoxically, acts to lure you under its hypnotic spell - an affecting style similarly achieved by Visage’s ‘Fade To Grey’, or the Models’ ‘I Hear Motion’ - both songs, I’m certain, owe much to the industrial-synth template used by Daniel Miller on ‘Warm Leatherette’.

Miller adopted the moniker of ‘The Normal’ for his home recording project, because he felt it an effectively bland counterpoint to the, arguably, bizarre nature of his product. He intended to set up his own recording label, under the name Mute Records, but first had to turn to the assistance of another fledgling record label called Rough Trade Records. The initially pressing of 2,000 copies sold out quickly (it eventually went on to sell 40,000), and soon Miller tried his hand, rather unsuccessfully, at taking his music on the road. He worked with Robert Rental during the tour, and the live EP ‘Live at West Runton Pavilion’, later surfaced, capturing the duos electronic-pop stage act. The fact that Miller was supporting the hard core punk outfit Stiff Little Fingers, probably didn’t offer up the most receptive audience during the tour. But after returning from his stint on the road, Miller found a pile of demo tapes on his doorstep (not sure if the tapes were literally on his doorstep - I mean that could prove quite hazardous). Miller had the forethought to include a contact address on the cover for ‘Warm Leatherette’, and several up and coming artists were keen on availing themselves of his production expertise.

Some of the key early signings for Miller’s, then home based, production studio/label, Mute Records, were Fad Gadget, DAF, Non, and the mysterious Silicon Teens. Miller produced the Silicon Teens under the pseudonym of ‘Larry Least’. Silicon Teens released the album ‘Music For Parties’, which comprised a line-up of classic rock ‘n’ roll standards, recorded in synth-pop style. The group consisted of Darryl, Jacki, Paul and Diane. Who were Darryl, Jacki, Paul and Diane, you ask? Well, essentially the quartet didn’t exist, other than in the imagination of the creative genius behind the project. Daniel Miller had recorded the entire album himself, under the name Silicon Teens, and it was yet another example of Miller’s willingness to fly in the face of convention (although he wasn’t the first writer/producer to invent a band).

Like the Lincoln based label, Some Bizzare Records, Miller’s Mute Records quickly established itself as one of the hot ticket labels for up and coming synth-pop acts to sign with. Miller swiftly gained a reputation as a producer of quality, willing to take chances, and push the boundaries with his clientele. Among his early production projects was Soft Cell’s debut single ‘Memorabilia’, released in March of ‘81 (see recent Soft Cell post), though on the Some Bizzare label. During the early 80s, Daniel Miller was at the production helm for seminal new wave synth-pop acts Depeche Mode (who proved to be the turning point in terms of Mute Records’ commercial fortunes), Cabaret Voltaire, and later Yazoo and Erasure. His Mute Records label became synonymous with the entire synth-pop movement, and is still going strong today (with artists such as Goldfrapp and Moby).

Even if Daniel Miller hadn’t gone on to establish Mute Records, and produce some of the most influential artists of the new wave/synth-pop movement, his track ‘Warm Leatherette’, remains one of the landmark moments in the evolution of synth-pop music. The song’s not only been covered by several artists (including Grace Jones - see May 08 post), but still remains an influential presence in contemporary techno-pop, thirty years after it first shocked and intrigued listeners.

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