Between Buddy Holly's death in 1959 and the Beatles' arrival in 1964, American rock suffered through the era of "teen idols" such as Fabian, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. With little apparent talent, these singers relied on their hairdos and good teeth to attract attention on TV's "American Bandstand." They relied on big string arrangements and heavy studio echo to carry their bland songs to the top of the charts.
There are distressing signs that a similar phenomenon is recurring. Britain's synth-pop stars like A Flock of Seagulls, the Thompson Twins, Blancmange, Soft Cell and others could be tomorrow's "teen idols." With little apparent talent, these bands have relied on hairdos and odd camera angles to attract attention on cable's MTV. They've relied on synthesizer programs and heavy echo to carry their bland songs to the top of the British charts.
This is not to say that the synth-pop movement is devoid of talent, any more than the original "teen idols" era was. Just as Phil Spector and the Brill Building group thrived in the "teen idol" era, so have legitimate talents like Heaven 17, Yaz, Pete Shelley, Martin Rushent and Thomas Dolby emerged in today's synth-pop phenomenon. Much of the synth-pop movement, though, makes the disco era seem like a paradise of creativity and versatility.
Nowhere are the limitations of synth-pop more evident than on the Thompson Twins' new album, "Side Kicks" (Arista AL 6607). Through the miracle of microchip electronics, this British trio has written songs without ideas or melodies but has simply programmed in the latest trends. Third World rhythms are in, so they program those into the drum machines; droning detachment is in, so they adjust the vocal echo accordingly. Only the most gullible could find a trace of genuine human feeling here.
Blancmange, England's latest synth-pop sensation, takes boredom to new extremes on "Happy Families" (Island 90053-1). The best drone music can produce a mesmerizing trance, but this duo's drone music only produces irrepressible yawns. Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe's endless layers of voices and synthesizers drone on and on without benefit of melody, rhythmic change or emotion.
Strong contenders in the boredom category are the Associates, whose "Sulk" (Sire 23727-1), is well titled. Billy MacKenzie's self-pitying lyrics and vocals are whining and angst-ridden. This Scottish quartet's attempt to make the songs sound significant by slowing them down and adding echo is funnier than it is successful.
Soft Cell tries to break through the mechanical monotony of most synth-pop by applying the craftsmanship of pop hooks to the genre. It's a promising tack, but it comes up short on "The Art of Falling Apart" (Sire 23769-1). The duo's instrumental half, David Ball, doesn't sharpen his hooks enough. It's no coincidence that Soft Cell's hit single, "Tainted Love," was written by someone else. The singing half, Marc Almond, doesn't have a strong enough voice to capitalize on what melody there is. The rhythms seem so slow and premeditated that the impulsive spark necessary for dancing is missing. This is especially obvious on the limited edition bonus EP included with the new album. The 10-minute Jimi Hendrix medley doesn't bring him back from the grave as much as it joins him there.
Not all is bleak on the synth-pop horizon, however. The recent albums by Heaven 17 and Yaz both move beyond mere style into substance and satisfaction. These two bands don't use synthesizers as a crutch to prop up undernourished song writing. Rather, they use synthesizers as a tool to enhance good pop tunes that would survive in any genre. Moreover, both bands undermine the formulas that have already solidified in synth-pop. Only when such formulas start to break down can you glimpse the personality behind the music.
Synthesizer players Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware left an early version of the Human League to form the trio Heaven 17, with vocalist Glenn Gregory. Their first American album, "Heaven 17" (Arista/Virgin AL6606), is the first British synth-record to successfully assimilate American funk. "Penthouse and Pavement" sounds like Chic; "(We don't need this) fascist groove thang" resembles Prince. Instead of a steady droning thump, Heaven 17's synthesizer programs feature a wicked syncopation that is constantly shifting into new rhythm figures. The synthesizers perfectly mimic rich horn charts as the harmonic colors keep building and shifting with the rhythms. Moreover, the lyrics contrast the apathy of romantic decadence in the "penthouse" with the real threat of a growing "fascist groove" on the "pavement."
Yaz (aka Yazoo) is a perfect partnership between big blues belter Alison Moyet and pop tunesmith Vince Clarke. Clarke, formerly with Depeche Mode, uses synthesizers to sketch out his well crafted compositions on "Upstairs at Eric's" (Sire/Mute 23737-1). In contrast to the suffocating overproduction of most synth-pop records, Clarke uses his equipment with admirable restraint. Much of the time he only uses one drum machine, one bass line and one lead line, so you can pick out and appreciate each instrument.
Most synth-bands couldn't handle all this space in their music because they don't have singers to compare with Moyet. She has a big, instinctive voice that can squeeze all the tenderness from a great love ballad like "Only You" or all the anger from a fractured break-up song like "Situation."