Berlin was an alternative synth-pop band that played heavily on sexual innuendos. Okay, with songs like “Sex (I’m a…)” and Terry Nunn’s role in the band being listed as vocals and BJs, I suppose it went a little beyond innuendo…. Anyway, because of this, Berlin was quite often dogged by some critics as being lackluster in talent, focusing more on sexuality than substance to sell their music. I never thought so.
Berlin made some of the most exciting synth-pop music in the 1980s. Sure, some of that had to do with the suggestive lyrics and Terry Nunn’s sexual overtness, but it had a lot more to do with great hooks that made their songs as easy to dance to as they were enticing to listen to. It also had a lot to do with Bassist John Crawford, who penned most of Berlin’s stuff. He had a mastery of writing catchy tracks with seductive lyrics; just as Terry Nunn had the exceptional vocal talents to exhume the seductive qualities from those words and melodies.
As for Terry Nunn’s other talents noted in the album’s credits…well, one can only wonder.
The Human League’s third album, “Dare”,
was for the most part, my introduction to synth-pop and electronic music. Up to that time, I had listened to a lot of bands that used synthesizers and loved the versatility and expanded sound they brought to rock and roll. But I don’t think I had ever heard a band that used synths exclusively; no guitars and no real drums. If I had, The Human League was the first to make an impression on me.
“Dont You Want Me” was the first song I heard off of “Dare”; it was all over the radio in 1981. But it wasn’t the airwave saturation that grabbed me; it was the switch-hitting baritone and alto vocals of Philip Oakey and Susan Ann Sulley. It was the lyrics. It was the catchy hook of the song. And of course, it was the synthesizers. Only synthesizers.
The 1980s saw a huge rise in the popularity of synth-pop bands. Scritti Politti was one of many that had success with only a couple of albums and then faded away. “Cupid & Psyche 85” was their most successful album, finding its biggest popularity in the UK where it hit the #5 spot on the charts and spun off three top 20 singles. In the US, the album peaked the charts at 50 and had only one hit single, “Perfect Way” which went up to #11.
The first song I heard off “Cupid & Psyche 85” was “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)”. I remember being immediately grabbed by the song’s funky groove. What made me want to listen to the whole album though was its crisp, production and innovative use of synthesizers and electronic keys. That same production and innovation resonates through every song on “Cupid & Psyche 85”. It is a synth-pop album that showcased what the genre was capable of.
If you want to really grab my attention and make me listen to your debut album, open it up with my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem, “A Dream Within a Dream” put to elegantly dark music.
I remember exactly why I bought Propaganda’s debut, “A Secret Wish” in the late summer of 1985. I had never heard of Propaganda. I knew none of the members in the band. I had never heard any of their songs. No one I knew had heard of them. I was going through a difficult breakup and needed some comfort music. I bought a sh!t load of records that day, all by artists I had never or only barely heard of, just so I could hopefully jump into something new that was close and personal to me…anything but a new relationship. Music was the only thing I could think of to turn to.
I don’t remember any of the other records I bought that day. Only this one, because it immediately touched me personally with Poe’s poetry of a false awakening. With its innovative use synth pop combined with progressive rock, the rest of the record continued to pull my attention away from memories and thoughts I needed to abandon at the time.
“A Secret Wish” will forever be a special album to me because of the timing of when I first discovered it and because it is some of the most kick-ass and innovative music I have ever heard. But mostly, it’s special to me because it opened with lines from my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem put perfectly to music.
“All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream”.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s debut album, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” was a highly anticipated album in the United States but not nearly as much as it was in the UK, where it had over a million copies in pre-sale orders, making it the number one selling album there immediately upon its release.
In addition to the original songs, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”
includes a few uniquely arranged covers, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, Edwin Star’s “War”, and Dionne Warwick’s “San Jose”.
The double album, which included four singles that had already topped the British charts and one that took the number three spot prior to its release, is about as brilliant a combination of synth pop, dance, and rock that you will hear anywhere. Many of the songs, including “Relax” and the title track, were considered controversial when they came out. The BBC banned “Relax” from being played on British radio and television for reasons of what it felt were sexually obscene lyrics. MTV banned the video for the song “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” for similar reasons.
The funny thing is, the bans actually helped the sales of the singles and subsequently, the album.
What would you say if I told you that in the ’80s, metal legend Ozzy Osbourne did the rap vocals to a synth-pop dance song?
Well, if you demanded proof, I’d just throw “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” on the turntable. Then I’d have you listen to “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go To Bed)”.
Strange bedfellows for sure, but it works.
Was (Not Was) never really had an official singer on their first two albums, so their second album, “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes”, like their debut, is loaded with guest vocalists. Others who appear on this album include Detroit natives Doug Fieger (The Knack) and Mitch Ryder as well as Marshall Crenshaw and jazz legend Mel Tormé.
Even though “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” received high accolades from Rolling Stone magazine, it failed to sell well outside of the Detroit area. Their follow-up album, “What’s Up Dog” would end up being their national breakthrough with the help of “Walk the Dinosaur” and a few other hit singles. By that time, founding members David Was (David Jay Weiss) and Don Was (Don Fagenson) had added a couple of official singers to the group’s lineup, so Ozzy was off the hook.
Synth pop was at the height of its popularity in the mid ’80s. It was a music style that could easily provide addictive hooks and innovative sounds, but it could also be ruined if an artist was overly dependent on the musical technology they used and less confident in their musical ability. Howard Jones knows how to find the perfect balance between composition, musicianship, and innovation. His second album “Dream Into Action” is a perfect example.
Howard Jones had a knack of knowing when to keep the arrangement of song sweet and simple or make it densely complex. That intuition helped him create a trend-setting album tha is complexly powerful and beautifully simple in all the right places.
“Dream Into Action” was the second album by Howard Jones. Other than some background vocals and a few bass lines Jones had his brother lay down, he plays and sings every note on this album.
Often overlooked and underrated by music critics, Howard Jones’ music often didn’t receive the radio airplay his contemporaries, but that never deterred him and he continues to write, record, and perform his music today.
“Dream Into Action” remains one of my favorite albums from the ’80s. It includes the hits “Things Can Only Get Better” and “No One is To Blame”. But like with many great albums, it’s the collection of songs that weren’t hits that truly define it. That’s where “Dream Into Action” is at its best.