At the outset of the '80s, popular music is taking a hi-tech turn. The monotonous, mechanical rhythms of disco have collided with the electronic razzle-dazzle of art rock, creating a sound made from equal parts of musical technique and technology. Synthesizers drone incesantly, propelled by percussion machines and accented by electronically altered voices, guitars and horns. Added to this mix are melodic hooks that snare the ear of traditional listeners.
This is Techno-Pop, a hybrid form of music that walks a fine line somewhere between overloaded disco diodes and short-circuited pop sentiments. The techno-pop musician attempts to fashion the cool, brisk textures of electronic instruments into music that will warm the hearts and feet of the record-buying masses without sacrificing the proverbial danceable beat!
The records by the group called M -- "New York, London, Paris, Munich" (Sire SRK 6084) and "Yellow Magic Orchestra" (Horizon SP 736) -- illustrate many of the promises and pitfalls of this new style.
For weeks, the single "Pop Musik" dominated the international record charts and swept across disco floors from Los Angeles to Brussels. That song and the follow-up album "New York, London . . ." are the work of M, the code letter and media symbol for singer-songwriter Robert Scott. M, as described by his record company, is a kind of musical secret agent sent out to save the pop world (one imagines a cross between James Bond and Devo).
Promotional claims aside, Scott has produced one of the more invigorating records to hit the market in some time. His music is caustic and driving, with lyrical side swipes that are painfully close to parody. On "Pop Musik" he jabbers away like a demented disc jockey, while synthesizers and bright vocal harmonies set a harried pace. The foibles of personal relationships are dealt with on "Woman Make Man," to the accompaniment of electronic gurgles and clanks.
Throughout the record, Scott uses his synthesizers to create a futuristic mood, accentuated by his somewhat metallic vocals. "Moderne Man" and "That's the Way the Money Goes" have an almost sinister remoteness, with Scott's voice and the instrumental background issuing from the speakers like a readout from a space-age, rock 'n' roll computer.
This mood is heightened by the instruments themselves. The harmonic clarity and metronomic precision of the synthesizers provide a nonhuman counterpart to the witty lyrics. The effect is as much hi-fi as sci-fi and, despite the gadgetry involved, Scott's sensibility survives and flourishes.
The same cannot be said of Yellow Magic Orchestra. This trio of Japanese space cadets comes equipped with enough technology to handle a moon shot. Onstage, they are literally enclosed by their instruments. On record, their music is similarly enveloped -- the group is never able to transcend the tons of transistors and circuitry.
The record is largely a lackluster collection of banal melodies that plod along to trance-inducing disco motifs. Where Scott's songs sparkle with a kind of mischevious snideness, Yellow Magic Orchestra relies on the novelty of the synthesized sounds for thematic support.
The record begins with "Computer Game," an imaginative montage of noises that sounds like a pinball machine gone beserk. However, this soon degenerates into songs that represent dull potshots at Western pop styles. "Cosmic Surfin'" is a ragged approximation of surf groups from the '60s, and Bridge Over Troubled Music" is mired in a mesh of electronic echoes, phasers and filters.
Yellow Magic Orchestra is a minor example of modern man's struggle against the evils of rampaging technology. In this case, the machines have won.