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Synth Britannia

Since first seeing the trailer some months back I have to admit that I’d been very much looking forward to the BBC’s Synth Britannia documentary, which was shown recently.

Following on from the decade-spanning, multi-episode Folk Britannia and Dance Britannia documentaries, Synth Britannia set out with a much narrower remit – to chart the adoption of the synthesiser by a few Kraftwerk-savvy individuals through to the mainstream onslaught on the UK charts by “synth pop.” In other words, about 5 years in a single hour-and-a-half programme.

Split into 2 parts, I found the first to be fantastic. One thing that was portrayed very nicely, and that I hadn’t appreciated previously, was the isolation in which each band had been working, largely unaware of the others. Excellent use was made of period footage to drum home the point that the music was very much a sonic analogue for the architechtural brutalism inherited from the late 60s and early 70s – I don’t think I’ve heard the word “dystopian” used with such density before. In amongst the talking heads was a rare opportunity to meet Richard H Kirk, from Caberet Voltaire. Having not seen him in “real life” before my minds eye picture of him had been formed by listening to the stripped down bleep-funk he created as Sweet Exorcist. It was something of a minor shock to be greeted by an elder statesman of the Goth tradition!

After such an assured start, part 2 made a slighty less cohesive job of retelling how this new music spilled out from art schools and into the charts at large. The problem for the most part lay with the bouncing back and forth in time that the narrative took. With that said, all is forgiven once the archive footage is taken into account. As Depeche waxed lyrical about the hammers, steel and anvils used as sampling source material for their “Constuction Time Again” album, the footage told a different story as we watched Martin Gore roll a small pebble along the metal sill of a sliding door. Just lovely. The blanket omission of the term “New Romantic” had an almost Orwellian touch. Whilst I can fully appreciate the undesirable associations – Spandau Ballet anyone?! – it was undeniably something that happened, and made heavy use of both synths and pop.

As a bit of a synth boffin, there was always going to be as much appeal in seeing the artists in their studios as there was in hearing what they were saying. And in this regard Synth Britannia did not disappoint, unless you include Throbbing Gristle who, as far as I could tell, were interviewed in their kitchen. It would seem that you don’t count as a bone-fide ex-synth popper unless your studio contains at least a Moog IIIc modular and an example of each model in the Korg MS series! With the odd small editorial oversight aside (Chris Carter posing in front of a Roland System 100M in one shot, then declaring in the next that Throbbing Gristle didn’t use “Roland stuff”) the programme was refreshly accurate in the technology department. my only disappointment was that Vince Clarke’s appearance on the BBC’s Rock School series wasn’t included. Here it is via YouTube:

So, all in all an excellent programme that lived up to expectations – you don’t get too many of them to the pound!

Categories: Music, Reviews, Synthesizers
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