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Archive for July 2006

Penthouse and Pavement

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I’ll admit that I’m completely enamoured by early 80’s synth music. Some of my favorite acts are: Heaven 17, the Human League, ABC, and New Order and Ultravox. This was music that seemed futuristic back in the early 80’s. In general, I like the 80’s postmodern new-wave version of the future – a cool neon-lit place with gigantic cities and skyscrapers where everyone rode on fast subway trains or drove scooters and video art was projected all over the walls – better than today’s future of catastrophic flooding and relentless heat and terrorism and total war. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that I hide myself in the neon dreams of that decade.

But back to music. In particular I’ve been listening to Heaven 17. I dug up an old tape of “Penthouse and Pavement”. The synthesizers sound so pure and strong, “planes” of electronic sound like planes of color in minimalist or abstract art. They are not broken up into a bunch of fragmented beats as in today’s techno. I think that the 70’s and 80’s pioneers often used synthesizers as a replacement for guitar or other instruments, which is why they sounded so strong. It is as if musicians were unapologetically rejecting the folkiness and organicness of the guitar, and daring to replace its exact role and function with something electronic, which is probably why all the rock and rollers hated new wave so much.

And the lyrics. Just take a look at this excerpt from “Who Will Stop the Rain” from “The Luxury Gap”:

A global affair in big house U.S.A.
A moving violation angels over Broadway
The next voice you hear will be the main attraction
The next time we love standby for action
Meet me tonight and love me for ever
Let’s be happy let’s be famous whatever the weather
The rain must fall and night time is calling
Golden boy and golden girl it’s a great day in the morning

I love the references to globalism and cosmopolitanism “meet me tonight and love me forever…let’s be happy lets be famous”, and optimism “golden boy and golden girl it’s a great day in the morning”. These are typical of early 80’s pop’s sophisticated ironic take on capitalism. All of the quality early 80’s pop musicians acknowledged and criticized capitalism in subtle ways. The title – “The Luxury Gap” is a criticism of the “have and have not” reality of capitalism. But lyrics about penthouses and nightclubs and skyscrapers and optimism acknowledge the temptations of wealth and pleasure. 80’s synth-pop bands realized the double-sided nature of life and weren’t satisfied just to complain and and issue vulgarities and spit on the rich, as punk bands did.

I just located some Heaven 17 videos online at youtube. It was great to see “Let Me Go” again, which it’s images of lead singer Glenn Gregory (a Draco Malfoy double if ever there was one) wandering through the streets of Italy dressed in euro-tailored suit and long coat, like a scene from a 1940’s Italian film. The video was stunning, but for some reason the version that played in my memory since watching it at age 13 was different. My memory version always has them walking along the edge of a freeway on against a gloomy sky on the outskirts of some bleak looking place, instead of along the well-manicured streets of an Italian town. I wonder, am I remembering another Heaven 17 video? Perhaps. I think my [sub]consciousness is well-stocked with clips from early 80’s music videos and I probably confuse them at times.

Written by nattie

July 21, 2006 at 6:42 pm

Posted in music