What is Synthpop

What is Synthpop: A History of Synthesizers in Pop Music

Take a mental journey back to the 1980s. It’s easy to see that people and life were in the process of transformation during this time. Dubbed the age of materialism, the 1980s represented a time of daring gender-bending fashion, an explosion of TV networks and shows, blockbuster films premiering almost weekly, and a new youth culture trying to reinvent itself. So, how does synthpop fit into all of this, and what is synthpop anyway?

After surviving massive unemployment and soaring inflation of the 1970s, society needed a change – a new look, new toys, a different vibe.

“Yuppies”, punks, goths, and a load of other genres and subgenres formed and multiplied as popular culture forged ahead under the influence of new forms of media. Eventually, MTV influenced generations of music fans (to the dismay of many artists including Frank Zappa). 

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They were all seeking that new sound, something to represent their place in a changing, chaotic world. The 1980s was a time when music took new leaps into the unknown with new gadgets and technology flooding the market. And that includes the all-important synthesizer. 

Enter synthpop

While it’s referred to as techno-pop and many other variations to some, it’s a massive genre that’s made its mark on music and society. Synthpop comprises music that is either mostly or completely produced electronically by synthesizers, modulators, and drum machines. Its influence reaches bands as diverse as Aphex Twin, Atari Teenage Riot, and The Postal Service.

People originally thought that synthpop was a passing phase. They didn’t foresee the massive commercial success it would become. 

Synthpop represents everything about the people of the time – experimental, questioning, loud, flashy, bold, glam, and often just wanting to have fun. We’ll explore how synthpop came to be and who the artists were that inspired a generation to come.

A very brief history of synthpop

The first embers of what would become synthpop began back in the 1960s and 70s. It grew from multiple musical influences and crucially, from the development of synthesizers in the 1960s.

The prelude to the rise of synthpop goes back to the developments made in psychedelic and progressive rock from the late 1960s. Bands such as Pink Floyd, Silver Apples, Kraftwerk, and Faust pushed musical boundaries. They used the earliest developments of synthesizers and electronic effects processors to create a new era of music and artistry.

By the mid-1970s, both recording technology and next-generation synthesizers made it easier to recreate the studio sounds on stage. The punk era of the time became the breeding ground for artists seeking the synergy of punk edginess and the use of synthesizers and drum machines.

Artists such as Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, as well as Giorgio Moroder began releasing music fusing music with a punk edge and synthesizers. They, and many others, paved the way for an age of new wave sounds and decades of new music.

The 1980s, New Romantics, and synthpop

During the 1980s everything changed. Synthesizers and drum machines became much cheaper and more portable. The introduction of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) changed audio production forever, and music videos became the commercial rage.

Synthpop found a home in the New Romantic movement. Developing in the London scene, the New Romantic movement saw bands take the electronic sounds and “warm them up” for a more lyrical and commercial sound. 

Bands like Visage and Duran Duran were some of the major artists performing this new style of commercial pop. Synthpop grew rapidly in Europe, where many bands from America to the UK looked as far as Eastern Europe for inspiration.

As the decade rumbled on, a newer sound began to emerge. It was around the mid-1980s that synthpop would find a new partner in the form of EDM (electronic dance music). Synthpop fused with the House and Techno genres coming out of the UK, Chicago, and Detroit. 

This fueled what would be the dominant sound of the 2000s to the present day. The Communards, Pet Shop Boys, and Erasure come to mind during this time.

As the 1990s rolled in, so too did the change in pop culture and ideas. Synthpop took a backseat to the emergence of indie rock and guitar-based music that dominated the 1990s, especially grunge. Some of the exceptions of the time include Savage Garden and the Rentals, who enjoyed some commercial success. 

Synthpop technology, culture, and influences

It’s all in the name. Synthpop would be nothing without the technological advances made in music production technology. As far back as the 1950s, advances in computer processing trickled down to music creation. These devices could generate a variety of tones and repetitive figures and sustain signals indefinitely, going beyond what any human could do.

In the early days, it was impractical to take these machines out of the studio and onto the stage. So, most of the development happened in the studio, where artists and producers first used early synths and sequencers to create new sounds and more elaborate compositions. 

The Mellotron and The Moog

Some of the earliest devices were the Mellotron, built in 1963 in Birmingham, UK. The Mellotron is a polyphonic sample-playback keyboard where players can access different sounds and even automatic accompaniments. This was like magic in the 60s.

The Beatles hit single Strawberry Fields (1967) and Moody Blues’ album Days of Future Passed (1967) made great use of the Mellotron. 

The widespread adoption of synthesizers took hold in 1964 when pioneering engineer and inventor Robert Moog created the first Moog synthesizer. The Moog synth was the first of its kind to use voltage-controlled oscillators and envelope filters to generate sounds. The Minimoog, which came out in 1970, took the same technology and made it more portable and cheaper, making electronic music creation more accessible. 

Roland and Yamaha in the 80s

As technology kept up its relentless pace, new machines entered the market that helped define the 1980s sound. Roland and Yamaha dominated the market with two iconic devices that were the main tools of countless hits. 

The Roland Jupiter-8 was the heavy-weight in analog synth technology, with eight voices that could be layered and split and utilizing high and low-pass filters. 

Yamaha made waves in the 1980s with the very first digital keyboard synth called the DX7. The portability and different effects made it a popular product, while simultaneously birthing the third-party sound design industry. You can hear the DX7 on U2’s chart-topping album The Joshua Tree (1987). 

There was plenty of other notable gear to influence the sounds of 1980s synthpop as well. For instance, there was the sampling synthesizer Fairlight CMI, E-MU Systems Emulator, and the Roland D-50. Drum machines also played their part. The Oberheim DMX and the Linn LM-1 drum machines were heavily represented on the soundtracks of the 1980s. For a reference point, listen to tracks like Peter Gabriel’s Security (1982) and The Sisters of Mercy’s First and Last and Always (1985).

The tech is one thing, but what about other influences? As synthpop took inspiration from the punk movement, the lyrics for many early synthpop songs are minimalistic, and the music focuses on repetitive rhythms and themes. There is less emphasis on musical prowess and more attention on the musical and thematic idea.

Music and video games began their long-term relationship in the 1980s as well. Their influence on each other was kick-started by the likes of Nintendo and Gameboy with game composers borrowing from 80s artists. For example, listen to the soundtrack for Last Ninja 2 (1988), with influences of EDM, metal, and of course, synthpop.

Important synthpop bands and songs

Talking about all of the genre-defining bands and songs would take a semester of college lectures. For now, let’s look at a few of the bands, artists, and their songs that brought synthpop to pop culture.

Synthpop from the 1970s to the 1980s

Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets, Roxy Music, Heroes

Brian Eno has lived an eclectic musical career. He’s worked in progressive rock, created classical compositions, and has become known as a highly respected record producer. He’s also a massive creative force behind ambient music. 

In addition to all that, Eno found time to help lay the foundations for synthpop. Heroes (Eno co-wrote the title track and others with David Bowie) is a classic example of powerful melodies over a bed of ambient electronic sounds.

While Brian Eno’s solo music is not as well known as David Bowie’s is, it’s absolutely amazing. His early work with Roxy Music is groundbreaking, and his solo album Here Come the Warm Jets is truly incredible.

Definitely check out all of Eno’s early music.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygene (1976)

French electronic music composer Jean-Michel Jarre is another example of the early proponents of synthpop. His classical album Oxygene was recorded using a home studio, which was very rare at the time, with both analog and some of the earliest examples of digital synths. This particular album influenced a whole generation of EDM producers a decade later.

Suicide – Cheree (1977)

Suicide was a synth-punk duo from New York. The duo made great strides with minimalist electronic instrumentation with sparse lyrics. Their hit record Cheree ranks as one of the top 100 indie singles ever and is a perfect example of the minimalist style that influences early synthpop.

Kraftwerk – Das Model (1978)

Founded in Germany in 1969, Kraftwerk is considered by many as the founding fathers of modern electronic music. They released Das Model in 1978 and topped the OCC single chart in the UK. Their popularity was massive, including in other regions such as the Netherlands and the US. 

Kraftwerk continued into the 1980s producing serval influential albums such as Computer World (1981) and Electric Café (1986) 

Tubeway Army – Are Friends’ Electric? (1979)

Starting as a punk band, Tubeway Army gradually evolved into producing electronic music. They were the first-ever band to have a synthesizer-based song with a number one hit, Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Gary Numan – Telekon (1980)

The leader of Tubeway Army, Gary Numan, debuted as a solo artist in 1979. Looking to distance himself from the punk rock scene, Numan forged ahead with electronic music production and became a key figure in the electronic scene. 

He combined guitar pedal effects with an array of synthesizers while lending his voice to many of his songs. Telekon topped the charts in 1980 and followed by the Teletour that same year.

Modern 80s synthpop artists

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Enola Gay (1980)

British electronic band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark is one of the pioneers of 80s synthpop. Their mix of experimental sounds with minimalist lyrics defined the sound of 1980s electronic pop music. 

Their hit single Enola Gay is an anti-war song that sold over 5 million copies. It also enjoyed lasting popularity in the LGBTQ community.

Soft Cell – Tainted Love (1981)

Soft Cell is a duo from the UK that achieved popularity in the early 1980s. One of their most influential hit songs was Tainted love, written by Ed Cobb and originally recorded in 1964. A slower tempo and the exclusive use of synths and drum machines provided a sharp contrast to the 1964 version. The Soft Cell remake became a huge hit in the US and the UK to become a synthpop classic. 

Duran Duran – The Chauffeur (1982)

Duran Duran is one of the best-known new wave bands coming out of Brittian. They rose to high acclaim worldwide in the 1980s. They were at the forefront of the so-called British invasion spearheaded by MTV and music video publicity. 

Duran Duran also led the rise of the New Romantic scene, with one of their best albums of the era being Rio. “The Chauffer” went on to be a big hit with its accompanying music video, making use of vocal sampling and a range of synth sounds.

Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983)

“Sweet Dreams” is a hit song released in 1983 by the British pop duo Eurhythmics. The influence of MTV propelled the song to number two on the UK Charts and number one on the US Billboard Hot 100. 

The Eurythmics was part of a wave of groups that looked to home recordings instead of the large professional studios for greater creative freedom and lower costs.  

Tears for Fears – Pale Shelter (1983)

Formed in the UK in 1981, Tears for Fears is one of the most successful groups in the new wave and synthpop genres. Even though it was released in 1982, “Pale Shelter” became a hit in 1983 and was a massive hit in Canada in 1985 following a re-issue that same year.

David Bowie – Lets Dance (1983)

David Bowie (1947-2016) goes down in music history as one of the most eclectic artists of his generation. From Space Oddity to his alter ego Ziggy Stardust and experiments with all kinds of electronic sounds, Bowie is the epitome of artistic reinvention and musical risk-taking. 

His album Lets Dance, released in 1983 was one of Bowie’s best-selling albums, showcasing a mix of post-disco, new wave, and synthpop sounds.

David Bowie made frequent use of synthesizers and other musical technology throughout his career and his collaborations. Looking at both his early work together with his later work shows the range and creativity of his genius.

Depeche Mode – Music for the Masses (1987)

Successful British synthpop band Depeche Mode made waves during the 1980s with 17 Top 10 Albums on the UK charts. They became one of the leading groups of electronic music in the late 80s with hit albums such as Black Celebration (1986) and Music for the Masses (1987).

They also did some very important work with synth exploration on their earlier albums, such as Speak and Spell and Construction Time Again.

Synthpop bands since the 1990s

Ladytron – Light and Magic (2003)

Forming in 1999, Ladytron is a British synthpop group keeping the genre alive well into the 21st century. Their 2003 album Light and Magic showed off darker sounds compared to their first musical efforts and kick-started their popularity. 

Ladytron achieved further critical acclaim with Witching Hour (2005) and Velcoifero (2008).

Grimes – Art Angles (2015)

Canadian-born singer-songwriter and producer Grimes is an artist with a wide palette of musical influences. She has risen to fame for her dramatic and impressionistic songwriting, as well as her fusion of multiple genres such as synthpop, electronica, indie, nu-metal, and much more. 

Some of her most successful albums include Art Angles (2015), Visions (2012), and Miss Anthropocene (2020). 

La Roux – La Roux (2009)

La Roux is a synthpop duo based in the UK formed by singer Elly Jackson and producer Ben Langmaid. Their self-titled debut release in 2009 won a Grammy Award and peaked at number two on the UK album chart. 

After Langmaid departed the group, Jackson continued to produce music under the same name, with critically acclaimed albums like Trouble in Paradise (2014) and Supervision (2020). 

What is synthpop: Final thoughts

If there is a way to sum up the 1980s in terms of music, synthpop is an obvious choice. The stage antics, artsy and genderless fashion sense, experimentation and provocative themes all describe not only the music but the time in history society was going through.

The advances made in synthesizer technology directly affected popular music and gave the artists a whole new array of sounds to express themselves. Synthpop not only defined a whole generation but laid the groundwork for what was to come in the 1990s and 2000s with EDM and popular forms of electronic music. 

Microgenres like synthwave and chillwave spun off from synthpop and have influenced not only a new generation of fans but modern film and video game scores as well.

Synthpop has brought out all sides of human creativity, from the weird and wonderful to the dark and controversial. And no one knows where this synth-laden, boundary-crossing electronic music will be taking us next.

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