Around some point in 1979 I properly became aware of the music in the charts. It is possible that watching Tubeway Army performing “Are ‘friends’ electric?” on Top Of The Pops on my birthday while on holiday in Guernsey may have made me sit up and take notice. I wouldn’t say the charts were full of synthesiser bands, but there was a definite technological shift. There were two bands of “retro-futurists” (thanks Bob Stanley) who bridged the gap from new wave to electro pop – Buggles and New Musik. Neither band fitted any style at the time, they clearly weren’t young, they looked like professional musicians, but not quite musos. And they had an aura of technical superiority about them, like they were showing off their studio abilities. This proved to be correct given the future careers of the leaders of both bands – Trevor Horn and Tony Mansfield. Thinking about it I could include M in this list, as their “Pop Musik” caught that turn of the decade moment well too, and their leader Robin Scott had an even longer history in music than Horn or Mansfield.
Buggles had a bigger impact on pop culture, helped by “Video killed the radio star” being a crucial moment in pop, the promotional video, the song itself, everything was perfect for the Eighties to come and it was a natural number one single. However their later singles were more interesting to me at the time. There was a hint of sadness of times past and chances passed in “Elstree”. “Living in the plastic age” wasn’t so much looking forward to the future, it was in fear of the future. These songs were minor hits but I noticed them at the time – my main sources of music were Top Of The Pops and Swap Shop, the Noel Edmonds Saturday morning show which regularly filled up its three hours slot with whatever promotional videos were available at the time. So Buggles got a lot of plays because they had promo films available. But Buggles soon faded from view and I didn’t miss them. They went on to other greater things. And Yes. And Asia. But we won’t talk about that.
New Musik appeared around the same time, the cusp of the 70s to 80s decade change. I didn’t hear their debut single “Straight lines” at the end of 1979 but their second single “Living by numbers” was unavoidable as winter turned to spring in 1980. It sounded bright and clean, huge acoustic guitars over rock solid bass and drums with synthesisers adding melody and countermelody. And the lyrics captured their moment well, it’s hard to know if the technology was being celebrated or demonised – as computers started to become more apparent in life (witness the Fiat Strada’s “Handbuilt by robots” advertising) there was a kind of techno-fear. “They don’t want your name – just your number”. Shades of “The Prisoner” too? (Though I wouldn’t discover that show until Channel 4 reran it in ’84, my brother and I were encouraged to watch it by our mother who loved it’s original run). A few appearances on TV to plug the single – Mansfield channelling Kraftwerk’s robots, the other band members looking suitably bored – and they had a hit record. It reached number 13 in the charts but felt more ubiquitous than that. A few months later there was a follow up single “This world of water”. Rapidly strummed electric guitars rang out, syndrums splashed and the song itself was packed with melodic and aural hooks – curious varispeed vocals, a middle eight jumping over itself, the lyrical metaphor for life and that high sustaining synth line at the end. It was a blissful three minutes, but it stalled just outside the Top 30 and New Musik disappeared from the radio and the Swap Shop studio.
But they returned a year later with “Luxury”. The single didn’t chart but I never forgot their return to the Swap Shop studio (sadly not on Youtube). The song was more synthetic, vocoders singing some lyrics, the Roland CR78 hissing its rhythm, but it still had acoustic twelve strings on the chorus and towards the end the vocal line was replayed backwards. I recognised that trick from “Rain” – I’d bought the tape of “The Beatles Rarities” a few months before. The single didn’t chart but I never forgot their return to the Swap Shop studio (sadly not on Youtube). As the song played out a camera shot through a fish tank, an image I’ve never forgotten. And I loved the song, absolutely adored it, but it went nowhere and so did New Musik.
Five years later my family were on holiday in Cornwall and whenever we visited a new town we would hunt out any record shops. In Newquay we found a small record shop where I located a pre-recorded cassette of “Wilder” – I’d worn out my vinyl – and while rifling through a box of seven inchers I picked out “Luxury” by New Musik. I’d never seen a copy before so bought the single and the tape. Once home I played the single incessantly. It was as good as I remembered, and the b-side was an interesting instrumental, speeding drums, chirpy synths and a chorus that sounded oddly like “Summer night city” by Abba. I decided to keep my eye out for their albums.
I finally found a copy of their debut album “From A to B” (issued in 1980) in Kellys Records in Cardiff Market during the summer of 1988. I played it a few times then but there were other more important records to hear at the time. On December 30th ’88 my family took a trip to Cardiff for record shopping, and I returned home with the “Extended Play” EP by Godot, “Get us out of here!” LP by Freur and “Anywhere” LP by New Musik – three records I’d been hunting out for years. I recorded them all onto cassettes and headed back to Sheffield in early ’89. I had a C90 with “From A to B” on one side and “Anywhere” on the other. Only the latter album was 53 minutes long so I did a little editing to it to make it fit, I lost two songs off side two… And I didn’t miss them at the time. As I have mentioned previously, my last few months in Sheffield weren’t the happiest of times for me so I immersed myself in the few cassettes of music I had and hoped it would anaesthetise my problems. Those two New Musik albums really did soundtrack that period and reflect how I felt, especially “Anywhere”.
Over the next few years I would pick up singles along the way for b-sides, some of which turned out to be great. But I never thought of purchasing their third album “Warp”. For some reason – possibly seeing a copy, looking at the track listing and seeing two songs called “All you need is love” – one credited to Lennon / McCartney and the other credited to Tony Mansfield – put me off.
So a little history on New Musik. They formed around Tony Mansfield in 1978, featuring musicians he’d played with in previous bands. There were initial links to the Nick Straker Band (who had a hit with “A walk in the park” in 1980, and are now better known for “A little bit of jazz”, which isn’t jazz at all) but New Musik was a project for showing off Mansfield’s skills. He was a studio tinkerer, a producer-in-waiting with his own studio and own style and would have success producing records for Naked Eyes, Captain Sensible and early A-ha records. He also made an awful Fairlight-heavy mix of Aztec Camera’s “Oblivious” (Correction #1 – it was “Walk out to winter” actually). But New Musik was his baby – his songwriting, his vision, his CV for future work. The band signed to GTO Records, which was mainly known for disco records (Billy Ocean, Heatwave, Donna Summer and the godlike Voyage) but the label folded in 1981, just after the release of “Anywhere” (and the release of The Blue Nile’s debut single “I love this life” on GTO) so New Musik were moved to the Epic label for their third LP “Warp”, which was hardly promoted. They then split up and Mansfield carried on as a producer.
So let’s have a look at the albums in depth.
“From A to B” starts with…a door chime. Then a chord fades in for the slightly disco-fied dance pop of “Straight lines”, it sets the album’s ideas immediately – trebly choppy guitars, string synth chords, simple bass and melodies carried by keyboards. And Tony Mansfield’s nasal singing. “Sanctuary” was another single but not too successful, it continues the same musical ideas as “Straight lines” – in fact this sounds more like Buggles. Lyrically the song is about a search for sanctuary, somewhere to feel safe – a recurring theme. “A map of you” is slower, more considered and builds nicely, additional synth melodies adding along the way. Another lyrical theme appears – a search for identity. “Science” is an exercise in early sequencers, bright and shiny but utterly dated now. “You are material – an observation”. “On islands” is far better, more searching for safety and identity using islands as a metaphor for people. At least they don’t say they are islands in a stream. And then they go and spoil it all by having a little girl (Correction #2 – it’s Tony’s brother actually – sorry!) narrating a spoken word section at the end as the band vamp away. Shame really. “This world of water” is a near perfect pop song, all melody and hooks, and working on a number of levels – a reflection on drowning in the modern world (which is how it was written according to contemporary interviews) but it seems oddly relevant with the flooding affecting much of southern Britain now. “It all goes so much deeper than some would like to say”. Yes, and you know what water generates – rotting, decay, worsening conditions for those affected. Hmm. “Living by numbers” is again part of the public domain – I heard Jeremy Vine play it on his Radio 2 show last week. Well he daren’t play “This world of water” at the moment. More reflections on society, but it seems still relevant too. I should point out that I always expect this song to be faster, but only because I recorded what I called an “acoustic punk rock” version for a projected covers project by artists related to the Office For National Statistics in 2003. I thought it was funny. Sadly I lost the recording due to a hard drive crash. “Dead fish (don’t swim home)” starts with a minute of synth noodling before establishing itself. Sharp chords and harsh drums and “Some things in life I don’t understand…”. As the song progresses, it becomes clear there are “big fish” who “welcome a war” and are on the edge of losing control and “potential danger leads to potential calm”. Hence the dead fish. And dead everything else. Of course in the early 80s we were all living in the shadow of the bomb and I know I felt dread for the future. I can remember around 1981 sitting in the kitchen saying to my parents “What’s the point anyway? We’re all going to die, and even if we don’t there’ll be no jobs anyway”. I was a serious young lad. “Adventures” is chirpy in comparison, and quite dull really. “The safe side” plays odd little games with speed and key, varying up and down slightly, and is another song of security – “How does it feel to be on the safe side?”. All in all a perfectly fine pop album, chiming twelve string guitars and synthesised melodies – bright surfaces with dark thoughts.
Some good b-sides too from this period – not least the miniature Chic tribute “Chik Musik”. Best of all was “Missing persons” – one of Mansfield’s finest melodies and a sympathetic lyric too, he’s actually relating to someone else for a change. Again, all shiny music with odd words. By the time of their second album “Anywhere” the music would become almost as dark as the words.
I don’t mention sleeves very often but I’ll mention the sleeve on “Anywhere”. It’s a gatefold and features a main photograph of some clouds in a blue sky. Mainly the clouds are white but at the top right hand corner of the picture the clouds are grey, heavy with rain, heavy with portent. The photograph is edged in black with “Kodak safety film” written on the edge, to make it look like a piece of film. So it’s not a real sky, it’s once removed from reality, a picture of a photograph. Inside the gatefold there’s all the words for the songs and another photograph – again edged to look like a film print. This photograph shows the band, mostly looking left – where the grey cloud was in the front photo. There’s more dark clouds behind the band. One member is smiling, perhaps enjoying a joke. Two members with beards – one with shades – look pensive. And looking directly at the camera is Tony Mansfield, half his face in shadow, not smiling, not happy, staring at the viewer (and hopefully listener), trying to engage, trying to communicate. I like the sleeve. It speaks to me, and so does the music on “Anywhere”.
“They all run after the carving knife” starts with a minute of synths winding themselves up for making noise, followed by a metronomic drums (heavy on the synthesised snare drum – a sonic theme on the album, somewhere between the snare drum on “Low” and the snare sound on “1999”), those bright 12 string acoustic chords and synthesised melodies, with more emphasis on the synthesisers now (I remember reading a link from ILM about New Musik claiming they were experts in programming the SCI Prophet 5 synth). And there’s more use of vocodered backing vocals, which is cool. Lyrically… It could be about any old rat race – “they race to the top until they drop, and they take the pain – is it all in vain? See how they run…”. Maybe Mansfield could see the oncoming rush of yuppiedom, just as Heaven 17 could. After a few minutes the song drills down to just the drums and then more synths join in, alongside big farting bass synths. “Areas” is quieter – the Roland CR78 drum machine makes the first of many appearances, and the music is fully synthetic and lovely.
The words are about travel and people trying to connect to each other. “Churches” sounds like a full band again, but without the guitars (and some slap bass, oh dear). Mansfield has been reading the Book of Revelations – seven churches, four horsemen come riding. 666 approaching fast. End times, bad times. And in the middle “Someone said the magic words today” – a quote back to “The safe side” on “From A to B”. So is heaven the safe side? Nothing is clear. “This world of Walter” is nothing like “This world of water”, Walter has found his own ‘safe side’ but it isn’t clear if it’s real or imaginary, he is isolated but not unhappy in isolation – and no judgement is made on his condition – mental or otherwise. The song builds in layers from acoustic guitars to include sonar blip drums, bass and multiple keyboards. Very nice. “Luxury” follows – a skipping drum machine, ominous low bass synth notes and melancholy chords, but with bright acoustic guitar on the chorus. Again this could be taken as a proto-yuppie anthem, naked ambition and striving for more – but the music belies this attitude, shows it’s not worth the strain and pressure to reach the “life of luxury”. “While you wait” was the album’s second single and an odd choice – there’s more slap bass, a sequencer pulsing and contrasting grouped vocals (again in places – the “We can’t go back – no!” section – it reminds me of Heaven 17), and Mansfield shoots off buzzwords like a slightly less paranoid Pete Shelley on “A different kind of tension”. But the song goes on too long and doesn’t really go anywhere. End of side one.
Side two starts with another long introduction, setting up “Changing minds”‘s melodies and instrumentation, more strummed guitars and bass before Mansfield starts to sing – “The future rests on someone changing minds”. Is that hope or fear for the future. Next come the two songs I missed from my tape. “Peace” doesn’t go anywhere – Mansfield repeats “It’s a countdown to destiny” and it’s a bit heavy-handed, all this nuclear political dread. Of it’s time, shall we say? “Design” sounds like the soundtrack to a promotional film for a design studio, all bare walls, people huddled around Computer Aided Design screens, and utterly bland. “Traps” on the other hand is heart-stopping. Totally synthesised and melancholy, and Mansfield singing to me – “Now you’re trapped, it’s too late, no escape, no way out, any way, anywhere”. And then a mournful synth melody plays over some dischords and it breaks me in two. That song was exactly where my head was at in January ’89 – feeling trapped by further education, unsure if I should continue, unsure if I could tell anyone, scared of failure, destined to fail. Trapped. “Division” is light relief after that – a song of separation, either a relationship or a friendship. “We’re searching for the same things but we’re moving different ways”. Finally “Back to Room One”… Bright synths and guitar chords and a dark ending to the album, a sense of something that is impossible to return to, as the tape spools backwards quickly at the song’s conclusion. And then there’s some of the saddest words. Written on paper they look banal…
“All I want is the same room
Where I waited before
Take me back to my old room
It’s not there any more
Take me back to room one
Every day every hour
Keeps me where I remain
Let me back to my old room
I could start once again
Take me back to room one
Here I am in my new room
And it’s here I must stay
No return to my old room
It’s been taken away”
Yes they look banal. But my God they hurt like hell at the time. A desire to return to some place of security, a place where you grew up, where everything was fine. Yes that sounded good. But it wasn’t there. During 1988 my parents had decided to build an en-suite bathroom off their bedroom in our family home, taking about a third of my bedroom with it. No return to my old room, it’s been taken away. For someone who likes routine and a lack of change, it really felt like a part of me was torn away forever. The room I’d been in for ten years – gone. All those memories, the days and nights with my radio, my records, my synths, all gone. How horribly middle class of me to complain about such things. Looking at it now it seems pitiful. But how many nights in early ’89 did I walk up Granville Road, drunk to blot out my reality, with tears pouring down my face as this song played on my Walkman?
So “Anywhere” touched me. It’s not perfect, it could be edited down a little to remove some fluff – and it’s worth noting that the original cassette included two extra tracks, which I think is one of the first tapes to include extra content. The b-sides of this era were fine too – especially “The Village”, a nice homage to “The Prisoner”. And that was where my relationship with New Musik stopped.
Of course I’ve already said that I never bought “Warp”, New Musik’s third album. But I thought I would give it a listen as part of this article so I located the full album on Youtube and played it about five times at least. It’s sort of what I expected. The line-up of the band had changed, losing the rhythm section, and there was more emphasis on the emerging technology – more drum machines, more sampling. Sadly this leads to a loss of personality in the music, and there are more instrumentals than necessary. Opener “Here come the people” sounds like the theme to an obscure early 80s chat show (though traces of it can be found in “99 red balloons”), but starts the obsession with sound games by having a sampled water splash where a snare drum or hand clap would be. “A train on twisted tracks” sounds like Ultravox trying to remake “Up the hill backwards”. There’s a surfeit of sequencers and drum machines on most of the songs, and an obsession with repetition driving the same phrases into your head. From time to time I’m reminded of similar music by Bill Nelson – “The love that whirls” LP uses similar equipment, but there’s a lack of Nelson’s passion and tunefulness. The lyrical references are most banal, less specific. It’s a disappointment. There’s a few good songs, though. The original song “All you need is love” is fine, thanks to a good lyric, a fine melody and the return of Mansfield’s 12 string guitar flourishes. Sadly any good spirit is then destroyed by the cover of the Beatles’ song of the same name, all rhythmic imbalances in the original steamrollered by the relentless “boom crash” of the 4/4 “Stars on 45” beat. The title track has flashes of inspiration – the music physically warping and buckling at the end. But compared to what had come in their previous LPs, it’s a dull, dated listen. And when compared to what others were doing with similar technologies it just sounds pitiful. There’s probably some people out there who love it. I’m not one of them.
I’m looking back now and wondering why I bothered with this blog entry. Three thousand words? Nobody’s going to be convinced to revisit “Anywhere”. Radio 2 can play “Living by numbers” and “This world of water” as oldies for a little while longer. That’s all anyone knows, that’s all anyone cares. But sometimes the search for sanctuary continues.
UPDATE – One month on I’m still listening to “Warp” and it’s grown a lot on me. So maybe I was a bit harsh to judge it after so few listens. Sorry “Warp”! RDM 25/3/14
Next time – some early 70s solo albums from my parents’ record collection.