The Real Eighties: Beep Oink Squawk

All this month as we go through eighties music, I’ve been trying to establish that the one great stereotype of eighties music – that synth-pop was the dominant genre of the decade – is, at thirty years remove, overrated.

Still, it is a fact that the ubuiquity of inexpensive new technology took a genre that was a pseudoacademic curiosity in the late sixties…

A 1970 Moog synthesizer

…and an expensive art project in the seventies, became a mass-market musical commodity in the eighties.

A 1983 Yamaha DX7. Digital, light, reliable, and $2,000, it was the basis for much of the sound of the1980s.

It got to the point, with instruments like the Yamaha DX and Roland Juno-series synths, that synths became replacements for conventional instruments like pianos, basses,organs, and (more or less) horn and sections.

And in and among the “Men Without Hats” and “EBN-OZNs” and other assembly-line synth-pop detritus, there were a few artists that stood out, to others, and to me.

There was Thomas Dolby, most famous for the iconic synth-pop top-forty hit “Blinded Me With Science”. Here’s a recent performance of “One Of Our Submarines”, another early ’80s tune…

Pete Townshend once called Dolby the first synth-pop artist he encountered who made the synthesizer sound like there were actual humans involved.

I remember having endless arguments about the Pet Shop Boys back in 1986. I didn’t get ’em back then.

Gotta confess: I dug A-Ha. Partly the fact that they were Norwegian, partly the cool/iconic rotoscope video…

…and partly because I just plain liked a good chunk of their supernaturally-accessible brit-via-Oslo pop. So sue me.

Of course, not all technological development involved new, or entirely new, technology. Germany’s Einsturzende Neubauten, for example,which may have been the inspiration for Mike Meyers’ “Sprockets mit Dieter” bit on SNL, mixed industrial noise, with…

…well, more industrial noise and synths, among other things.

More tomorrow.

12 thoughts on “The Real Eighties: Beep Oink Squawk

  1. Occasionally I will stumble across a live CD by a 60s soul or early R&B (early meaning a couple of permintations removed from funk and disco…..think Eddie Floyd) artist. And it turns out the artist had put together a small band and did some touring in the 80s. Yes, the synthesizer is one of the main instruments you hear. Its kind of sad.

    You think of the Blues Brothers scene when they need to go to the airport Holiday Inn to find one of their band members.

  2. I honestly thought that my old high school classmate Anton Barbeau would be on the synth to glory path. He was an amalgam of Thomas Dolby & delightful Beatles melodies – he could play anything, but was never happy with our high school garage band covers. Now a quarter of a century later, he’s a Beatles/psychedelia/guitar-oriented sensation in Europe. He stepped away from the keys right after we left high school, and never looked back.
    I can listen to synth for that warm feeling of nostalgia, but it always leaves me a bit… meh.

  3. For me, the synthesized trumpet break in “West End Girls” reminds me of the sax break in “Baker Street” – something that moves the song past what it would be otherwise.

    “West End Girls” also occupies a similar space in my mind with another very different song from the same year, “Welcome to the Boomtown” by David + David. Both are really Civilization and Its Discontents with synths.

  4. Ran across an old magazine or something (posted on line) that had an article…circa 1984. The writers assertion was that now that they have synthesized drum sets and even electronic guiters (meaning no strings, but the keyboard), that the old instruments will go away. No more traditional drums, no guiters with strings.
    My take is he thought he wasn’t a deep thinker, but probably thought he was really edgy.

  5. Chuck,

    I’ve been reading permutations of that article every few years since 1978. It’s always somebody new, and it’s always some version of the same basic idea.

  6. Heh. When I read “Beep Oink Squawk” I immediately thought of Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines”.

    I liked Dolby and his song “Dissident” is one of my personal favorites.

  7. I can appreciate Dolby’s talent (what high school geek didn’t love “Blinded?”), but 80’s synth really didn’t do it for me. Over-generalization, but generally I figured those bands relied too much on good hair (or what was then considered good hair).

  8. Older Moog synths were analog electronics requiring some serious tweaking and knowledge to run. The digital synths that people came out with in the 80s were huge improvements in terms of usability by non-geeks and a big cost reduction made possible by the larger levels of chip integration that the 80s saw. Put me fully in the Moog-geek camp since I design analog circuits for a living, but I wouldn’t wish an early Moog on anybody who doesn’t do that.

    And another guilty A-Ha fan? I knew we had similar tastes, but that’s ridiculous.

  9. I took a class in electronic music at the U back in about 1991. It was divided up into 3 parts. Fall quarter was the history of electronic music. Winter quarter was learning to use the Moog and composing for it. The U’s Moog was about as large as the one pictured above, without the 2 boxes on the right hand side. Spring quarter was learning to use the digital studio (a few different synths, a drum machine, a vocorder, an E-mu Emulator rack mount (no keyboard) and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember anymore. Learning the Moog wasn’t that big of a deal once you learned how to patch, and the general controls. Then it was just a matter of learning what modules produced what kind of sound or sound effects. I had a ton of fun playing with everything but failed the last 2 quarters miserably because we were expected to COMPOSE music…something I was horrible at.

  10. Oh yeah, and in the Winter quarter, to make it timely with the Moog, we also learned analog recording and tape handling/splicing. What a joy…not.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.