The Sinclair ZX Spectrum user manual had this to say on the subject of electronic music:
“Because there is only one loudspeaker in the computer you can only play one note at a time, so you are restricted to unharmonized tunes. If you want any more you must sing it yourself.”
This guiding principle to “try things out for yourself” and apply inspiration to see past technical limitations was a common piece of advice found in home computer and synthesizer user manuals in the late 1970s. Here in the UK, this was advice that inspired a new generation of young silicon dreamers; bootstrapping revolutionary new art in the form of videogames and electronic music.
The Silicon Dreams festival brought together some of these (now-slightly-older) electro pioneers at the Snibston Discovery Museum in the former coal mining town of Coalville, Leicestershire. Celebrating our silicon chip age, the festival offered computing workshops, retro computing and vintage gaming sessions. Visitors were encouraged to have a play on any of the hundreds of home computers and gaming machines on display: ZX Spectrums were there of course, but also original models from Atari, Nintendo, Sega, IBM, Apple, and a host of almost-forgotten machines; all brought to life and running glorious hand-made code.
To complement the retro computing and gaming exhibitions, Silicon Dreams also held a special evening for synthpop fans. This took place in the adjoining Snibston Century Theatre, a 200 capacity former mobile theatre that had been converted from wartime military trailers back in 1952. For decades it would travel in a convoy of 32 vehicles to provide theatre around the country, hosting performances from the likes of Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and Laurence Olivier. Now permanently based at Snibston, its tradition of re-using old technologies in new ways made the Century Theatre the perfect venue for this auspicious event.
Kicking off the evening, Martyn Ware – our godfather of synthpop – took to the stage to talk about his career outside of Heaven 17. Despite a ribbing from Glenn Gregory backstage that his presentation was really just a “cunningly disguised time-share promotion”, Martyn proceeded to talk us through a slideshow about Illustrious, the pioneering 3D sound company he’d formed with Vince Clarke in 2001. I’d heard of Illustrious of course, but had no idea of the range and vision of their convergent art. They’ve deployed 3D sound installations at such diverse places as the Palacio di Belles Artes in Mexico City and the enormous ‘Tales From The Bridge’ installation on the Millennium Bridge during the London 2012 Olympics. With upcoming plans for installations at the Royal Albert Hall (as exclusively revealed) and a 24-hour non-stop 3D soundscape, it’s clear that Martyn is still as inspired now by the possibilities of music technology as he was 35 years ago.
There was then as a chance for the audience to ask Martyn some questions, and as it happens I was first up. Ever the geek, I asked Martyn whether he thought machines or software would ever become self-aware, and if so what would be their favourite Heaven 17 song? Martyn spoke about existing software that could already compose its own music, then mused on the sci-fi inspirations of early Human League. The lyrics were often intentionally “multiplex” (to quote Mr Oakey) and open to different interpretations. This was also true for Heaven 17, in particular on the How Men Are album. Martyn reckoned a sentient AI would especially like ‘Five Minutes to Midnight’, for reasons that will remain to be seen.
Another question confirmed Martyn’s love of music’s disappearing physical medium – the vinyl version – and how Heaven 17 had always put a lot of thought and time into designing each album and 12 inch cover, something that just doesn’t have the same imperative when releasing songs as MP3s and digital streams. He teased us with news that plans were underway for some forthcoming special vinyl releases of early material with previously unreleased tracks and mixes.
A question about his thoughts on the impact of music television programmes such as X-Factor and The Voice saw Martyn fiercely critical of such manufactured shows. He felt they were insidiously shaping our music listening habits and were basically just free commercials for the promoters, who, incidentally, had already decided who was going to win from the beginning, regardless of who people were voting for. Martyn said he knew this was a sham with 100% certainty, a fact that in a fair world would make headline news. Lightening the tone, the apocryphal story about Phil Oakey chasing Martyn down the street and throwing bottles of milk at him can now also finally be put to rest: Martyn claims this is entirely fictional.
After a brief refreshment break (sorely needed on that hot summer night!), it was time for some music. Northern Kind have had a special place in my heart ever since I first heard their smash debut album Fifty Three Degrees North back in ’07. Their blend of Yazoo-y synthpop, crisp production, and memorable melodies earned them a place in my ‘Best British Bands’ list, with 2009’s wonderful sophomore album Wired: cementing their place. Now – after a slightly longer than expected gestation period – they’re back to preview some songs from forthcoming third album Credible Sexy Unit.
Opening with ‘Daggers’ (which some keen ears in the audience recognised from the special edition re-release of the first album), lead singer Sarah Heeley steps up to the mic looking like a divine Roman goddess in her silvery, shimmering toga-dress. It’s clear that despite their relative lack of recent live performances, Northern Kind have been busy rehearsing their set; new song ‘Piece of Me’ sounded assured and confident, with Sarah’s superior vocals on fine form and clearly gaining new fans who thought they were only there to see Heaven 17.
A sequence of five songs from the previous albums followed, showcasing highlights like ‘Pleasurely That Machine’, ‘Euphonic’ and my own personal favourite: ‘Millionaire’. Then for ‘Dirty Youth’ Sarah drops her guard of innocence to come over all sultry; flirting with the audience as she croons “she sees a cute boy in the corner” and raising the temperature in that little theatre to dangerous levels.
To cool things down, music maestro Matt Culpin completes his re-wiring of some machine that looks like a telephone exchange and new song ‘The River’ gets its first public airing. “This is my favourite one from the new album” says Sarah and my gig buddy Paul later reckoned it was the best song of the whole night too. A slower number with intricate vocals, I can’t wait to hear ‘The River’ again in the comfort of my own room. Northern Kind closed their set with a third and final new song called ‘Out of Time’, an upbeat tune and a good choice to end with. Although I’d expected to hear a few more new songs than the three played on the night, the balance was probably about right given that the majority of the audience were most likely new to Northern Kind.
Now it was time for headliners Heaven 17: Glenn, Martyn plus Billie Godfrey, Berenice Scott and Kelly Barnes. “This’ll be like playing in Grandma’s front room”, smirks Glenn as he enters and surveys the cosy theatre. The band launch into a strong sequence of favourites including ‘Let Me Go’, Penthouse & Pavement and ‘Geisha Boys & Temple Girls’. Both the band and the audience are clearly enjoying themselves; this band know how to make an audience feel like we’re all mates together and the low stage and low roof just added to that intimate atmosphere. “Here’s a song little Martyn and little Phil wrote together while sitting on the swings in the playground” jokes Glenn to the opening strains of ‘Crow & A Baby’.
After a few more hit songs he tells us it’s time for “an Enid Blyton bedtime story” (“…with lashings of Ginger beer!” prompts Billie). Martyn steps up for a ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ duet and it’s never sounded better. As the heat of the night warms away my goose bumps from that brilliant bromantic duet, Heaven 17 close with the obligatory ‘Temptation’ and ‘Being Boiled’.
The Snibston colliery is long gone, and the dawn of the age of computing is fast becoming a distant memory too. But synthpop’s still alive and as vibrant as ever, as evidenced by the two bands who performed here tonight.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum user manual had this additional piece of advice on the subject of electronic music:
“If you are really keen to make a lot of noise you could record the sound onto tape and get the Spectrum to play along with itself”
Thankfully people like Martyn Ware were keen to “make a lot of noise” and his silicon dreams are still inspiring us into the 21st century.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Matt Culpin
Text by Jer White @ Pansentient League
ZX Spectrum manual by Steven Vickers
Photos by Jer White.