If you have even got this far into the review for Electrical Language, Cherry Red’s lovingly packaged 4CD compilation of Independent British Synth Pop (78-84) , chances are you have at least one or two 80s compilations in your possession. There is also a good chance that these include ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (though Human League actually resisted the retro compilation market for a long time) and, of course, ‘Relax’. All fine, and indeed, groundbreaking records. But the set that Cherry Red have curated here carefully avoids those well-trodden paths and instead puts together a fascinating collection of music that comes from a wide range of artists, from cult concerns’ finest moments to lesser-heard cuts from some of the major players. You would probably need to take out a mortgage to buy the singles included here individually; to have them rounded up and presented with 12,000 words of backstory and a healthy dose of original artwork is certainly an attractive proposition.
Having said the above, the set actually kicks off with a bona fide Top 40 hit, in Thomas Dolby‘s magnificent ‘Windpower’, possibly the only chart smash to include a section of the shipping forecast, and not exactly a permanent fixture of those Rubix Cube flavoured comps. Other big names on CD1 include Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, an inspired selection with ‘Red Frame / White Light’, the single which some feel stalled their march to the higher echelons of the charts, following on from poptastic debut ‘Electricity’. In reality, it was a perfect single which showcased the band’s often-overlooked less commercial side (it was actually about a telephone box!) at the same time as having a hook that will stick in your head forever once heard. There is even a conservation group to save said telephone box (Friends of 632-3003 – why not give it a call?!).
The Normal‘s ‘Warm Leatherette’ (a double A-side with T.V.O.D.) was another landmark record and the public’s first exposure to future Mute Records boss Daniel Miller. The Normal didn’t make any more singles, but this one remains a huge cult favourite. Plus, it has the catalogue number Mute001, which can only be a very cool thing. Elsewhere, future chart-toppers (as part of M/A/R/R/S) Colourbox contribute the wonderful ‘Tarantula’, which is a treat for this writer having heard the (very different) cover on This Mortal Coil‘s ‘Filigree and Shadow’ a million times without really realising it was a Colourbox tune. The demo-like charm only adds to the song, which was unbelievably a B-side back in 1982. The unmistakable sound of the Casio VL-Tone (a hand-held synth that was all the rage in the early 80s) ushers on Testcard F with the Young Marble Giants-ish ‘Bandwagon Tango’, while Bill Nelson‘s Be-Bop Deluxe supply the compilation’s title track with a brilliant track which marries rock guitars with the synth pop that the band (formed in 1972) had veered towards. It’s an interesting combination that works a lot better than you might think.
CD2 starts with another heavyweight, the previously mentioned Human League, and their iconic ‘Circus Of Death’, an uneasy-listening song which appeared as the B-side to their ‘Being Boiled’ single (eventually a huge hit following a post-fame reissue). Another massive cult smash here is ‘XOYO’, a totally fabulous single from Manchester’s The Passage with a killer chorus (great to hear it on Radcliffe & Maconie’s famous ‘The Chain feature recently!). Thomas Leer, who later went on to work with Propaganda‘s Claudia Brucken in Act, appears with ‘Mr Nobody’, which nods in a jazz-funk direction and The Mobiles supply the evergreen ‘Drowning In Berlin’, downbeat as ever but an actual Number 9 hit back at the start of 1982. Notable mentions too go to Local Boy Makes Good with ‘Hypnotic Rhythm’, the B-side of their only single ‘Horoscope’ and a crazy Soft Cell inspired (possibly) Alvin Stardust cover, ‘My Coo Ca Choo’ by Beasts In Cages. It was to be their only release.
Over on CD3, the splendid Fiat Lux contribute their debut single ‘Feels Like Winter Again’ (originally released on the aforementioned Bill Nelson’s Cocteau label) and it still sounds like it should have been a massive hit, while Eyeless In Gaza (who released an astonishing seven albums between 1980-1983) feature with the sub-two minute melodrama of ‘Veil Like Calm’ and the brilliantly-named Drinking Electricity come across like a cross between Kraftwerk and The B-52s, complete with the eccentricity of both, in their ‘Good Times’ single, later covered to significant critical acclaim and commercial success by Crystal Castles.
CD4 has a very welcome appearance from Lori & The Chameleons with their excellent ‘Touch’ and erstwhile Josef K frontman Paul Haig crops up with ‘Time’, a B-side which shows that Haig’s vocal was still very recognisable from his days with that band, but the music was altogether different, with a kind of John Foxx sense of drama and melancholy. It’s another winner. Science crop up with their seemingly chart-bound ‘Look Don’t Touch’ (it would have sat perfectly comfortably in those early 80s charts alongside Ultravox and Soft Cell, but it sadly wasn’t to be).
There are so many more gems on Electrical Language that a review four times as long wouldn’t do it justice, (how have I not even mentioned Fad Gaget, Section 25 or Camera Obscura -not that one!), but the main message here is that this compilation is very accessible; though many of the acts may be considered relatively obscure, there are so many singles here that, with an ounce of luck, could have followed the likes of The Mobiles and Human League into the upper reaches of the charts. It’s an absolute treasure trove.
Electrical Language is released by Cherry Red Records on 31st May 2019.