There’s something rather familiar about 1981. America had a new president better known for showbiz than politics, the Labour party was being led by a scruffy leftist, a new age of nuclear paranoia was dawning and a devastating London fire became the focus for protest at social and racial inequality.
The pop scene that year was, unsurprisingly, marked by escapism. 1981 was the year of synthpop, bringing the outlandish influences of science fiction, glam and romanticism to the forefront of pop. While Gary Numan had set a bar two years before with Cars and Are ‘Friends’ Electric? topping the charts, and 1980 had seen notable hits like John Foxx’s austere Underpass and OMD’s hyperactive Electricity and Enola Gay, 1981 saw synthesiser-based music break out in forms ranging from the inanely catchy to the sophisticatedly arty. With an outré, androgynous look putting the masculinity of 1970s rock firmly in the past and a fixation on the cold glamour of pre-Perestroika Europe, synthpop was British music’s most daring aesthetic moment. The year opened with the world still reeling from the murder of John Lennon the previous December. Imagine was Number 1 in January, followed by Woman and Roxy Music’s cover of Jealous Guy. This run of memorial hits was only interrupted by the incongruous presence of Joe Dolce with Shaddap You Face at Number 1 in February. That this novelty single kept Ultravox’s simultaneously stark and pompous Vienna off the top spot showed that music was looking forwards and not back, driven by a generation who had grown up on a steady diet of strikes and innovative sounds during the 1970s.
While it may not have been what Norman Tebbit had in mind when he urged the nation’s youth to get on their bikes at 1981’s Conservative Party Conference, these young people emerged from northern towns, suburban council estates and London’s inner city to make their way in the music business and create a new vision of the world. It was a world that certainly needed to be viewed through a new lens to be remotely palatable. Bobby Sands, who died in the Maze prison after a 66-day hunger strike in May 1981, one of ten such deaths that year, became a human symbol of the British government’s brutal Northern Ireland policy. The siting of nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common RAF base resulted in 36 women chaining themselves to the fence in September, marking the start of 19 years of continuous protest at the site. The following month the new leader of the Opposition, Michael Foot, addressed a CND rally of 250,000 at Hyde Park. January’s New Cross fire, in which 13 young black Londoners died, caused protests at the lack of police action on what was widely believed to be a racist arson attack. Unemployment stood at two and half million and there were riots all over the country that summer. That one of the most unusual hits of the year, The Specials’ ska revival hymn to urban decline Ghost Town, was being recorded as the Brixton riots of April were ongoing made it clear that this bleak atmosphere was fertile musical ground. The synthpop scene picked up glam rock’s imperative to remake yourself in defiance of your drab surroundings and married this to the electronic sounds coming from the continent from bands like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Telex (their 1979 single Moskow Diskow had been a revelation), to create something new. Taking advantage of technological advances that made synths cheap enough to save up for on the salary from a first job and small enough to stick under your bed at home, for these twentysomethings anything was possible. Steve Strange, 22 in 1981, had been just such a pioneer, journeying from Newbridge, South Wales, to London to become part of the original punk scene, before leading the New Romantic revolution. Forming Visage with Rusty Egan, their single Fade to Grey had signalled a whole new sound for the new decade in 1980. But their Blitz club, the home of the New Romantics, had already been and gone by 1981. While native Londoners Spandau Ballet had been part of that original movement, and the insistently synthy To Cut a Long Story Short had been a Top 5 hit in late 1980, marking the peak of the period when they still dressed like pirate-Cossack-Highland warriors, they had changed their sound dramatically by the summer of 1981. Chant No 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On) saw them go full zoot-suited blue-eyed funk in a step towards the tanned yuppie look of 1983’s True and Gold. The reference in Duran Duran’s debut single Planet Earth, released in February 1981, to ‘some New Romantic looking for the TV sound’ suggested that this underground movement had peaked.
That single’s driving bassline owed more than a little to the previous year’s Call Me by Blondie, a collaboration with disco and electronic pioneer Giorgio Moroder, who would be an enduring influence on British synthpop as its native progenitors made moves towards chart domination. The founding of the Some Bizzare record label by Stevo Pearce, and the release of Some Bizzare Album, a compilation of emerging synthpop artists, including Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, made 1981 the key year for the genre. The album featured production by Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records, and Pearce and Miller were the Svengalis of southern synthpop. Some Bizzare put out Soft Cell’s cover of Gloria Jones’ cult northern soul hit Tainted Love in the summer of 1981 and it went to Number 1 at the beginning of September, sparking the inevitable Top of the Pops performance in which Marc Almond’s black eyeliner was the next day’s conversation starter. It went on to become the best-selling single of the year. November’s debut LP Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, placed squalor beside glamour, and featured such song titles as Seedy Films and Sex Dwarf, but the future single Say Hello, Wave Goodbye showed that Almond was as inspired by the tragic mien of the torch singer as the pervy underbelly of Soho. Miller’s first signing to Mute, Frank Tovey, known as Fad Gadget, missed out on chart success, but was one of the most creative British electronic artists of the time, making heavy use of found objects and industrial sounds and with a legendary live act involving Tovey tarring and feathering himself. In 1981 Tovey released his second album and the single Make Room, with the astonishing feminist fable about body hair, Lady Shave, on the B side (‘Stupid magazines spread a social disease… Oh worried girl/ You don’t have to shave it’). Miller’s other pet project, Depeche Mode, couldn’t have been further from Tovey’s weird darkness. Ranging in age from 19-21, the band was formed of two junior bank clerks, an unemployed synth virtuoso and a tearaway fashion student. The disparate influences of the local music scene in their native Essex were evident in their confused look, which ranged from funk-dandies to leather boys, although in 1981 they emphatically rejected any association with the passé New Romantics, instead laying claim to the short-lived ‘Futurists’ label. Just Can’t Get Enough, with its fatally catchy lead synth line, wheedled its way into the Top 10 in October and their debut album Speak and Spell followed suit the following month. Despite this success, their creative lead Vince Clarke left and formed Yazoo with Alison Moyet at the end of year. Depeche Mode’s awkwardly-dressed ingénue act contrasted sharply with the studied sophistication of Sheffield’s Phil Oakey, who was slightly older and had already been around the pop block, having released two albums by then. 1978’s Being Boiled, a song about silkworms with a claim to pop’s sole instance of the use of the word ‘sericulture’, was an early electro masterpiece. In 1981 his bandmates Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh had already left to form Heaven 17 and their (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang was in the Top 30 in March, despite being banned by the BBC for its reference to new US president Ronald Reagan as a ‘Fascist god in motion’. Oakey, meanwhile, had drafted in teenagers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall as backing singers. Three hit singles and the Number 1 album Dare! followed, and Don’t You Want Me? was Christmas 1981’s Number 1. The video for the single, with its high production values and a cinematic feel, propelled the identically made-up faces of the band to star status. Japan were the last word in synthpop sophistication in this year. November’s Tin Drum LP was their fifth, having previously been a New York Dolls-inspired glam rock outfit, and they had the maturity to match this long pedigree. Frontman David Sylvian’s mannered yet mesmerising vocals and genuinely ethereal beauty (many of his contemporaries looked like they had just raided the local fancy dress shop) were undoubted attractions. Their startling, minimalist Ghosts was an unlikely Top 5 hit in April. The boundaries of electronic innovation were being pushed by other artists too, however, and American performance artist Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, an unnerving eight-minute experimental piece featuring heavily vocodered vocals, got to Number 2. Thomas Dolby was the ultimate synth boffin who also had a pure pop sensibility, and his two 1981 maiden releases showed the polarised possibilities of synthpop, the angular Leipzig taking the cue from Gary Numan in its Nietzschean coldness, while Europa and the Pirate Twins was a jaunty pop fairy tale. The pop kings of the year were undoubtedly Adam and the Ants, who embodied the evolution of punk to larger than life New Romantic-tinged pop. Stand and Deliver and Prince Charming were both number 1 hits in 1981 and were promoted with cartoonishly over-the-top videos that made the most of Adam Ant’s chiselled features.
When the Prince Charming video showed Ant not just in his dandy highwayman guise, but also dressed as Alice Cooper, Rudolph Valentino and spaghetti western-era Clint Eastwood it insisted, not unreasonably, on his iconicity. There was in fact plenty of popular cultural froth to enjoy in this year. Double denim aficionado Shakin’ Stevens had two Number 1s with covers of 1950s hits and Bucks Fizz won Eurovision with Making Your Mind Up. The wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles was the TV event of the year, foreshadowed two days before by Ken Barlow marrying Deirdre Langton on Coronation Street. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy hit BBC2 in January, Peter Davison took over from Tom Baker as Dr Who, and Only Fools and Horses launched, while David Jason also voiced Danger Mouse. Brideshead Revisited on ITV and the release of Chariots of Fire in cinemas brought 1920s nostalgia to the fore. Synthpop was firmly established by 1982, signalled by UK chart success for its European originators and those at the British vanguard breaking America. Kraftwerk’s 1978 song The Model would get to Number 1 on its UK re-release, suggesting the buying public were by then thoroughly au fait with such foreign, mechanical sounds. Liverpool’s A Flock of Seagulls saw their I Ran (So Far Away) propelled to number 8 in America by virtue of a slick video given airtime on MTV. The launch of that channel in August the previous year was 1981’s most enduring contribution to music, changing pop from writing right through to marketing. But in 1981 Britain had shown what pop was really made for. Dr Sophia L Deboick is a historian of popular culture. Follow her @SophiaDeboick