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highlights: synthesiser music
June 29, 2011 | By:
Fifty years ago today, ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon topped the charts, the first electronic record to do so. Ed Owen charts a half-century of synth
Keytar illustration

Synth when? The Keytar was no match for a Les Paul. Photo by Mailloux (Flickr)

Before the synthesiser, rock ’n’ roll was made on guitars, bass and drums. For some, that classic combination has never been bettered, but the arrival of this futuristic musical instrument broke the rock mould, introducing exciting sounds and moods not possible with traditional instruments.

Technically speaking, the electric synthesiser was invented 135 years ago (yes, really!) but it wasn’t until 1964 that Robert Moog introduced a commercially available model. The first programmable synthesiser was unveiled several years earlier in the late 1950s, so it was only a matter of time before rock and pop music would never be the same again.

The synth originated in the States, but it’s impossible to ignore the huge influence of British innovators and artists throughout the last 50 years. British boffins initially made the best instruments, such as Peter Zinovieff’s Putney-based EMS, but they were later priced out by cheaper quality producers in Japan, including Roland, Akai and Korg.

And so to my list. Before people start to write in about Joe Meek’s I Hear a New World, the Dr Who theme, or Frank Chacksfield’s oddity Little Red Monkey, this is a list of pop hits, which immediately disqualifies them.

Meeks’ masterpiece was released as a promo in 1960 – incredible considering how fresh it sounds today – but it did not get a proper release until 1991, 24 years after he killed himself.

Little Red Monkey is another amazing piece of work that made the ‘hit parade’ for three weeks in 1953. I’m discounting that because it was a novelty record, created as an oddity by Chacksfield, who composed ‘light’ music. It would not have been considered ‘pop’, despite retaining a cheeky irreverence today.

Lastly comes the Dr Who theme, made by studio genius Delia Derbyshire for the Radiophonic Workshop. It is without question one of the best-known and amazing electronic records ever made. But it was, incredibly, never a hit.

1. Runaway, Del Shannon (Number 1, 29 June, London Records, 1961)

Made in year zero for electronic pop, this rockabilly wonder still sounds amazing 50 years on. The solo towards the end of the record is often mistaken for an oboe but in fact it’s a Musitron, built by keyboardist Max Crook from another early keyboard called the Clavioline. Crook tried to sell the Musitron commercially, but failed to secure patents and parts. The Clavioline was invented in 1947 but forever considered a novelty instrument.

2. Telstar, The Tornados (Number 1, 4 October, Decca, 1962)

A massive worldwide hit created by studio madman and landlady murderer Joe Meek to celebrate the launch of the communications satellite of the same name. Inexplicably, a favourite of Margaret Thatcher and one of her Desert Island Discs (can you imagine Thatcher listening to ‘Telstar’ on a desert island? Me neither). The tune, with its shuffling beat and buzzing synthesised melody, is instantly recognisable and still sounds remarkably fresh. Oh, and remember Max Crook’s ‘joke’ instrument, the Clavioline? That’s what you’re listening to.

3. Virginia Plain, Roxy Music (Number 4, EG, 1972)

Brian Eno’s EMS VCS3 synthesiser and tape ‘treatments’ turned this romp into something rather special. Eno can be seen lurking in the background dressed as a pantomime vampire in TV performances. But let’s face it, Roxy went downhill after Eno left, while Eno went on to produce the monumentally dull U2 (so not much better, really).

4. Stevie Wonder, Superstition (Number 11, Motown, 1972)

Arp and Moog synthesizer sounds were created by Brit duo Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff – studio engineers, producers and musicians hired by Wonder for his trio of classic albums Music of My Mind, Talking Book, and Innervisions. Wonder made the synthesiser mainstream. His incredible creative run completely destroyed arguments put about by those wary of electronics, and made the synth a lead and essential instrument.

5. Kraftwerk, Autobahn (Number 11, Vertigo, 1975)

Moog synthesisers, a vocoder and electronic percussion make this the model for the way music would be made 15 years later by the likes of New Order, Throbbing Gristle or a multitude of dance acts through the 1990s.  However, in the mid-1970s this was a revolutionary and also very quirky record. Unmistakably Kraftwerk, it is minimal and intense and an unlikely hit. (Kraftwerk later had another unlikely hit with The Model in 1981.)

6. I Feel Love, Donna Summer (Number 1, GTO, 1977)

German-based Italian producer Giorgio Moroder made worldwide hits time and again using synthesisers instead of orchestras to produce emotive and exciting records, exemplified by Donna Summer’s huge hit. It was so futuristic it spawned entire genres of music – house, techno, rave, to name a few – all based on this blueprint. The Sex Pistols might have invented punk in the same year, but Moroder brought electronic music to the dancefloor, where it has stayed.

7. T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette, The Normal (didn’t chart, Mute, 1978)

Daniel Miller created this record using a cheap Korg synthesiser in his bedroom. Although the record didn’t chart, it sold more than 30,000 copies, making it a hit at least.

It also kickstarted the indie post-punk revolution in the UK, as charted by Simon Reynolds in his book Rip It Up. Miller’s surprise success persuaded him to start a record label, which featured studio wizard Vince Clark’s early projects Depeche Mode and Yazoo. Grace Jones later covered Warm Leatherette in 1980.

8. Marvin Gaye, Sexual Healing (Number 4, Colombia, 1982)

Gaye’s comeback single was a smash, and showed great promise for the renewed career of the artist who recorded classics What’s Going On and Let’s Get it On for Motown in the 1970s. Made in Belgium, a hothouse for electronic music, the single is believed to be the first to use the Roland TR-808 drum machine, now widely used in hip-hop and techno. Gaye’s comeback was short-lived though; he was shot dead by his father in 1983.

9. Close (To The Edit), The Art of Noise (Number 8, ZTT, 1984)

Not the first record to use sampling (copying and looping part of other records or sounds) but at the time by far the most ambitious. The result sounded like absolutely nothing else when it was released. Yet it was, and is, damn funky. In turn, it went on to become one of the most sampled records in history, used on tracks as varied as The Prodigy’s Firestarter and Back in the Day by Christina Aguilera.

10. Sweet Dreams, Beyoncé (Number 5, Columbia, 2008)

It is now more unusual to have hit records made without synths rather than with. If you are still not sure whether synths are a good thing, check out Beyoncé’s Sweet Dreams, which is a great song, brilliantly produced, with evil, rolling basslines, typewriter beats and Beyoncé just doing her thing. All together now, “Turn the lights on”…

Sadly, such a top ten has omitted many, many classic records. Notable mentions go the other Sweet Dreams, by Eurythmics, Sign O’The Times by Prince, Pump Up The Volume by M/A/R/R/S, The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and the amazing work done by Warp Records since the late 1980s. And there are others. The list goes on. Suggestions?