There is a cascade of emotional and physical reactions when I hear “Cars” by Gary Numan. To the casual observer I appear to have a seizure, or fit as the music takes hold.
I have no control over this, it just happens.
I became aware of this particular tic when Numan’s chart topper comes on during the 2009 BBC 4 documentary Synth Britannia. The film chronicles the golden age of UK experimental electronic pop music following the introduction of the low-cost portable, programmable keyboard in the mid-70s and goes forward in time from there.
Outlining how bands like OMD, Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, and Joy Division – to name but a few – formed thanks in large part to the likes of experimental German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk and Italo-disco composer and producer Giorgio Moroder, the doc does a deep dive into both the hardware and humanity of the synthesizer phenomena. Explaining how newly-affordable models such as the Korg Mini 700S, and Micro Preset helped put the out-of-reach pricing of Moog technology – which Tangerine Dream employed – into the hands of musicians of average financial means, triggering a landslide of synth-pop talent hitting the British airwaves.
“That was probably a lot of people’s, maybe first time, they’d heard electronic music – you know – on the score to that film…”
Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire referencing Stanley Kubrick's dystopian 1971 film A Clockwork Orange
The doc also discusses how exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, and more specifically its soundtrack, scored by U.S. composer and electronic music pioneer Walter (now Wendy) Carlos, is credited with inspiring a generation of musicians to explore the synthesizer, including Bernard Sumner and Philip Oakey.
“That was probably a lot of people’s, maybe first time, they’d heard electronic music – you know – on the score to that film…” said Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire in an interview. Oakey – of The Human League – added, “That was the first time we ever heard that sort of absorbent, synth-based sound.”
Clockwork’s dystopian ethos also resonated visually with the new generation of musicians coming up as they were in the sprawling, industrial, concrete outlier of suburbs around London, Sheffield and Liverpool at the time. Most were experiencing the full measure of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party austerity measures during a deep recession in the country at the time.
Filled with rare or never-before-seen footage and interviews with a who’s who of UK New Wave, post punk and pop artists from Depeche Mode to Yazoo, along with insightful takes on how science fiction authors like J.G. Ballard played prominently in the vision of music’s future sound, Synth Britannia is a must-watch for any music fan. Embed below.
Listen to a Spotify playlist of songs used in the documentary: