RA+RE Records has a new clothing line! Get your Stefny sweater!
Mentioned in Time Out New York magazine
My Touch&Wiggle EP is #1 on the sales chart on deejay.de
artistxite.ca The Fall 2×12 album review
Medelinstyle Review of Touch&Wiggle ep
Speakeasy EP on Contexterrior gets review in De:bug Magazine
A good read about The Units and the Connections project:
According to Wikipedia, “1979 – remains the industry standard for deejaying”.I can believe it. As my band, The Units, were releasing our first 7 inch “synthpunk” records in 1979, there seemed to be a perfect storm of new musical and technological events going on … around the world.
Recent inventions like portable synthesizers, drum machines, computers and new turntable technology … combined with a pre-aids, hedonistic sex & drugs club culture … set the stage for a new kind of music.
In this “anything goes” environment, innovation and experimentation were not only encouraged, but demanded!
Unlike decades past, the “band leader” of the dance club no longer needed a band! The new band leader was a DJ … and he could reconfigure, chop up, rework, speed up and slow down … in other words … remix the music, any way he/she chose to … and improvise it in real time. One could create a Dada collage of sound for the dance floor.
I thought at the time that The Units were making a bold move as a band, by ditching the guitars and using synthesizers. But some innovative DJs took it a step further … they ditched the musical instruments altogether and remixed the status quo as they saw fit.
For some odd reason, in 2010, I seem to be lucky enough to have two camps of Units fans. Those that like our old synthpunk sound, and those that like our electronic dance sound. Not many of them understand why I think they are both revolutionary forms of music and why I like both.
So when Gianluca Pandullo (of I-Robots/Nemesi/Ebbro and label manager of Opilec Music) asked me if I’d like to put out a big collection of early synthpunk songs by The Units, all remixed for the dance floor, by international DJs, producers and bands, I thought that it would be a great opportunity for me to shed some light on the revolutionary nature of both styles of music.
I love synthpunk for it’s obvious creative and antiestablishment “do-it-yourself” sound.
But I also love electronic dance music and the clubs that it’s played in, for reasons that aren’t as obvious to many people.
Hopefully my thoughts on the subject here will shed some light on the political and cultural significance of electronic dance music and remixes … and it’s historical ties to revolution and the liberation of the gay community.
By Scott Ryser– founding member of The Units“It is probably difficult to imagine that Club culture was born in a small underground room in the Latin quarter of Paris during the period of German occupation in the Second World War. The Nazis had prohibited jazz and closed the Clubs where musicians performed thus forcing music lovers to meet in secret in cellars to listen to their favorite music on 78s. One such place was on Rue de la Huchette and was known as “La Discoth?que”. Historically this was the first time that the name was used to designate a club where people could go to listen to recorded music.”
(Michel Esteban from ZE Records talking about “Mutant Disco”)Fast forward to the USA in the late 1970’s, where mainstream Disco had become the music of choice.
The machine-like regimentation of the beat and the dress code obsession of making yourself look like a flawless, shrink wrapped product, only reinforced my rebellion against the conformity of it all. I kept thinking of John Travolta’s white suit in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. Christ, young people wearing white suits! Can you imagine? What is this … some kind of sterilized Sunday School Dance Club? Faith Based Fashion?I wasn’t the only one that was annoyed with mainstream disco.
The Anti Disco Riot of Chicago happened on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. It was held at a twi-night doubleheader baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Seems they put a huge box containing disco records that many of the 90,000 baseball fans had donated and rigged it with explosives. Blew a big whole in the outfield and started a fire … fans were throwing lethal melting disco records at each other like ninja death Frisbees. Total chaos and injury ensued.Poor Nile Rodgers, producer and guitarist for the popular disco-era group Chic said “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning. This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco’.”Sorry Nile … and welcome to AmeriKKKa 1979!But that was “mainstream disco”. At the same time in ’79 when the Bee Gees and Donna Summer were racking up #1 hits, there was an incredibly exciting and underreported electronic “underground disco” music scene going on in several places around the globe that challenged the pretentiousness of Rock&Roll and Disco along with every imaginable preconceived notion of song formula and dress code … and challenged disco music in the same way Punk challenged Rock&Roll.The White Night Riots in San Francisco happened on May 21, 1979 …
Less than two months before the disco riot in Chicago, the White Night riots were a series of violent events sparked by an announcement of the lenient sentencing of (former policeman) Dan White, for the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Harvey Milk, a San Francisco Supervisor.
During the riot 11 police cars were burned and the Police, in full riot gear, retaliated by raiding a gay club in the Castro district and beating up club patrons and passersby. Two dozen arrests were made during the course of the raid, and several lawsuits were later filed against the SFPD.
The punk band The Dead Kennedy’s used a photo of those burning cop cars for the cover of their first, best selling and generally the most critically acclaimed album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, which has become a major staple of American punk.What can I say?! To me, the cops raiding this gay club felt like a raid against the whole gay music/culture/dance-club scene. What I like to call “underground disco”.I wanted to mention the White Night Riots, because I think it’s interesting that at the same time there was a national backlash against mainstream disco going on, in the San Francisco punk scene there was a lot of support and a cross over of musicians and musical/performance ideas between the punk clubs and the gay dance clubs. Especially between the Synthpunk musicians and the Electronic gay disco musicians.Everybody was very upset about the slap on the wrist Dan White got for killing Harvey Milk. Relations were very tense between the police and the punks and gays.Three days before the White Night Riots, The Units shared a bill with The Dead Kennedys. It was at that show that we first started smashing plywood guitars (that we had cut out of sheets of plywood) on images of police. We projected the police photos onto the giant metal hood of a Cadillac car. The car hood was held upright on a big wooden tripod. Pieces of the guitars would fly into the audience and they would throw them back up on the stage. We would grab another fresh guitar from the stacks we had and continue smashing cops while our synthesizers played factory noises on autopilot.A few days after the riots The Offs and the Blowdriers, among other punk bands, held benefit concerts for the defense fund of the gay club that was attacked.My friends and I had started The Units in San Francisco a few years earlier, in part as a reaction and protest against the conveyor-belt conformity and consumerism inherent in our culture, typified in the predictable “business-as-usual” formula of Rock&Roll and Disco.
We set out to be anti-establishment, anti-fashion and anti-guitar. We also decided to try and break down preconceived notions of the front man formula and the audience/performer relationship by showing ironic “training films” behind us.We were an all synthesizer and drums band that skirted the edges of dance, punk, and performance art … and found ourselves playing packed houses in an array of straight and gay clubs, often sharing bills with both hard core punk bands and electronic pop music bands.Portable synthesizers, like the Moogs we used, had only been around for a few years.
We chose to use these new synths exclusively, not only to rebel against the guitar formula, but also as an ironic comment on the way our culture idolizes new technology and takes it so seriously.
With all the pretentiousness going on in popular music and technology at the time, we thought it would be funny to see a band that looked like a group of mad scientists in the midst of an experiment gone haywire (as we believed our culture had)!I doubt we would have ever been inspired to do what we did in the late ‘70s, had it not been for the outrageous and creative gay dance club music scene that we witnessed before and during our “synthpunk” days in SF.The gay discos in SF were such a fantastic spectacle they could turn a strait guy queer. It surprised the hell out of us that grown men and women could have that much fun together without spitting or shooting firearms. Pounding music, dancing, laughing, drugs. We had never seen it before.People weren’t happy in the small town where we came from … let alone gay.
You were supposed to shove some tobacco under your lip and be quiet and depressed … at work and in public … and act like the asshole sitting next to you. That’s what we were taught as kids … look invisible and pretend you have a stick up your ass!These SF clubs were another story altogether. These people were enjoying themselves … and they seemed to LIKE oddballs like us … creativity was ENCOURAGED!
It was the damnedest thing we had ever seen!Here’s an example. In San Francisco, in 1978, when Tim (Ennis: synths, vocals) and I were looking for a new drummer, we went to check out this great drummer, Richard Driscoll, that eventually joined our band. Richard was playing in the house band at a gay cowboy club in a seedy district of SF.This club looked exactly like something off the movie barroom set of Blazing Saddles, only with a transvestite playing the Madeline Kahn role. The club was packed full of super buff men wearing butt-less chaps, cowboy boots with spurs, big cowboy hats, handlebar mustaches, and, well… nothing else! They were all topless cowboys. And I can imagine that these cowboys were riding more than horses later that night. It was as if the photographer Bruce Weber’s best ever homoerotic cowboy dream had come to life in downtown SF.
This wasn’t some one time Halloween Ball kind of event. This club had been open every single night of the year for years.From 1979 to 1983, unlabeled high-tempo disco music was especially popular among LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) communities in U.S. coastal cities such as San Francisco and New York. In particular, DJ/producer/synth player Patrick Cowley helped popularize this kind of music at the The EndUp club in San Francisco. Cowley is credited by some as pioneering electronic dance music. One of the musical genre crossovers I was talking about was that of Cowley and Indoor Life vocalist Jorge Socarras, who recorded an album together. Indoor Life was one of the “punk” bands we shared bills with.The EndUp was originally an entirely gay dance club, catering mainly to Asian-Americans and their admirers. It was famous as the location of the Sunday Afternoon Wet Jockstrap Dance. (I’ll leave that one up to your imagination!)
One of the gay dance clubs The Units frequented and played at around that time was the I-Beam. The temperature inside the I-Beam was deliberately kept as warm as possible in order to encourage people to take off their shirts while they were dancing; sexual encounters in the bathrooms and the parking lot were a common occurrence.People would go to the Trocadero club after the I-Beam closed at 2 a.m., and after the Trocadero closed at 6 a.m., those who still wanted to dance could after 1980 go to The EndUp, which opened at 6 a.m. Sunday morning.To get an idea of how music was changing you just had to look at the actions of the legendary rock promoter Bill Graham.
1979 was the year that Bill Graham closed San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. Famous rock bands that played there included the Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Cream, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Styx, Allman Brothers Band, The Band, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Rush, Genesis, Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, Grand Funk Railroad and many many more.The same year Graham closed Winterland, he presented his first show at California Hall, on notoriously gay Polk Street.
The show was called “A Nite of Electro Psycho Rock”, and it featured the synth punk bands: The Units, The Screamers and Tuxedomoon. The show was the first “punk” show boycotted by the local scene because of high ticket prices ($6.50/$7.50) and the Bill Graham influence.1979 was also the year SF’s major newspaper, the Examiner, decided to acknowledge the punk/performance art scene with big back to back articles on “Punk Under Glass”. A performance art installation piece in which The Units performed in the display windows of JC Penny’s downtown San Francisco store.As far as I was concerned, punk was dead after that. It had become mainstream. And straight.America is great at taking dissent, repackaging it and selling it back to the masses as fashion and entertainment. And in this case, America sold a “straight and white” version of Punk.
The homogenized and sanitized version… the Walt Disney version … the straight white boys with guitars version … much easier to sell to the old folks … than the gay and/or black ElectroFunk dudes with synths version!The most popular west coast synthpunk bands around 1979 were The Screamers, The Units, Nervous Gender, Tuxedomoon, and Voice Farm. 4 out of 5 of those bands had gay members. We all played shows with long-known-and-well-documented punk bands. But our segment of the punk scene took decades to get unearthed in the histories.
After ’79 the way that punk was historically covered immediately glossed over any mention of gays.
Punk became socially mainstream and “gay” remained underground.
It seems that in SF and NY, that the gays were the ones with the most serious political outrage … and the punk scene fed off that … and was given the spotlight, while the gay scene remained in the dark.It’s interesting that at the same time the synthpunk thing was happening in LA and SF, you had the League of Automatic Music Composers working on experimental electronic music across the bay in Oakland, at Mills College and an American experimental music tradition, as represented by fellow Californians John Cage and Henry Cowell among others.
Part of this California electronic music tradition also included Terry Riley who studied at San Francisco State University (where I went), and the San Francisco Conservatory (were several of the Units drummers went) before earning an MA in composition at the University of California. Terry was also involved in the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center working with Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender. All of these people influenced the SF synthpunk scene as well as the SF gay electronic-disco scene.And while on the topic of inspirational electronic music pioneers, let me backtrack, and say a few words about the Synth Queen, Wendy Carlos.SYNTHESIZING ONE’S LIFE … AND SEX … WITH BIG CITY DANCE CLUBS AND SYNTHESIZERSIn 1971, soon to be Units, Tim Ennis and I, were working the graveyard shift at a lumber mill. The lumber mill was in a horribly desolate little redneck town in northern California … a day’s ride away from any kind of city … and it seemed like we couldn’t make it through the night without some (real) cowboy taunting us.We’d been out of high school for about a year … and we definitely, without a doubt … had no future. I guess it was that sense of hopelessness and despair that inspired us to sneak in the life-sized plastic baby dolls … and send them down the assembly line to be sawed and chopped up in the wood chipper.We thought it was pretty funny at the time, but the boss and the rest of the crew didn’t see it our way. We were 19 years old, and we were lumber mill history. It was time to reinvent ourselves.We decided to drive to San Francisco with our lumber mill money, so I could buy a synthesizer that I had been reading about. Robert Moog had just introduced a new portable synthesizer called the Mini-Moog, and according to the salesman at the music store, I turned out to be the first one in SF to buy one.I had been reading about the new portable Mini-Moog, and the idea of being able to create new sounds in new ways intrigued me. I couldn’t help but extend the idea. Just the name alone was full of possibilities. “Synthesizer”. The ability to create or re-create yourself and the world. One that synthesizes. A wizard. Some definitions of synthesis I like are; “the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole”, and “the dialectic combination of thesis and antithesis into a higher stage of truth.”That’s what being a synthesizer means to me. Remixing the life you are given, recreating it as you see fit, and creating a higher stage of truth. Being able to find some kind of coherent whole, some kind of personal meaning in all this swirling chaos.So it seemed like perfect timing to me, that perhaps the most famous synthesizer player of the time, Walter Carlos (Switched on Bach, Clockwork Orange soundtrack), would take this idea to it’s extreme … by not only synthesizing his sound … but by synthesizing himself!
And changing from a man to a woman.Carlos’s first public appearance after her gender transition was in an interview in the May 1979 issue of Playboy magazine, a decision she regrets because of the unwelcome publicity it brought to her personal life.
It was the same month that we were bashing cops on the hood of a Cadillac as our synths played on autopilot.The (musical instrument) synthesizer itself is defined as a “computerized electronic apparatus for the production and control of sound (as for producing music).”But I’m afraid that definition just doesn’t cut it.
A better definition would be: “orchestra of ideas for the dance floor … in a suitcase”.NEW YORK CITY – 1969
Ten years earlier in NYC, The Stonewall Riots of 1969 were violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, in New York City. They are frequently cited as the first instance in American history when people in the gay community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world. In 1966 the Stonewall was the only bar for gay men in New York City where dancing was allowed, and dancing was its main attraction.
At the time of the riots in 1969, homosexuality was still illegal in every state in the USA except Illinois.I’m bringing this up, because I don’t think disco and dance music would be where it is today, if it weren’t for the gay community and “dance clubs” like this. Prior to the gay dance scene, people were making records for the radio … afterwards, people started making records and “mixes” for the clubs. People started thinking about hours long mixes where the transitions of the songs would mix together so that there was no dead time on the dance floor.The Units had their first Billboard Dance Chart success in the early ‘80s. We had moved to NYC and were playing clubs like the Peppermint Lounge (the place where go-go dancing originated!).
We were on Joel Webber’s Uproar Records label at the time. Along with being Rachel Webber’s (Units synth player, singer and multimedia person) Joel was our manager and one of the founders of the NY New Music Seminar. New York was a hotbed of dance music activity at the time … and it was impossible to tell in which direction it would go.
New Jersey’s Sugarhill Gang had used Chic’s (Nile Rodgers disco band) “Good Times” as the foundation for their 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight”. It turned out to be the song that first popularized Rap music in the United States and around the world.
A few years later in 1982, Afrika Bambataa released the single “Planet Rock,” which incorporated electronica elements from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers.” The “Planet Rock” sound also spawned a hip-hop electronic dance trend (electro music).
Innovative DJs like François Kevorkian were burning up the dancefloor with groundbreaking mixes of funk, punk, and post-disco elements at clubs like the legendary Paradise Garage as well as laying down remix tracks at the Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas where the Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads were mixing their quirky dance tracks.“Between 1978 and 1983 in New York City, music from a wide range of styles developed based on a common denominator – you could dance to it. The title of “Garage” comes from “Paradise Garage”, the now mythical club at 84 King Street, which was one of the focal points for New York gay and disco culture for 10 years (1977-1987). The turntables were under the magic touch of Larry Levan, one of the pioneers of NY Dance Music that some began calling Garage, while his childhood friend Frankie Knuckles did pretty much the same in Chicago where certain began to call his style House music.” .” (Michel Esteban from ZE Records talking about “Mutant Disco”)Michel Esteban, owner of a Paris punk shop and the magazine Rock News, had decided to leave the music scene in France with his partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux and move to NYC where, along with Michael Zilkha, he started ZE Records in 1978.
They all soon became part of the punk and emerging post-punk music scene. It seems that they were into mixing up the punk and new wave scene (bands like Television and the Talking Heads) with the disco-funk music being played in the New York clubs, much in the same way we were doing out on the west coast with the punk, gay disco, and East Bay funk scene. They set up ZE records and the results later became known generically as No Wave – the title of one of the company’s first compilation albums.
ZE released records by new talent such as James White and the Blacks, Was (Not Was), Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Bill Laswell’s Material, along with more established performers like John Cale and our east coast synthpunk contemporaries, Suicide. Many of its releases were first played at the Paradise Garage club in New York, starting point of Garage music.Meanwhile my No Wave synth friend Stuart Argabright (Ike Yard, Death Comet Crew, Dominatrix) shared the NYC record label we were on at the time when he started burning up the Billboard Dance Charts with his The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.
Stuart said of the NYC club scene of the times:“In the clubs a new generation of black, white, uptown & downtown, ghetto & fabulous mixed wildly to No Wave, New Wave, old Soul & Rock, Punk, Post Punk, Funk, Hip hop & Electro were coalescing into new forms. We created a new scene, and made our own sound of anything-goes-music. Everyone who mattered took the chance to make a new group, new art – or both.”ITALY AND THE COSMIC SOUNDAt the same time The Units were reacting to Disco by playing synthpunk music in SF, thousands of miles away at the legendary “Cosmic” nightclub in northern Italy, the Cosmic scene’s most notable DJ, Daniele Baldelli, took a different approach. Instead of replacing disco with punk, Baldelli just punked up disco! And the results were fabulous!
In an era of Cosmic hedonism that began in 1979, Baldelli would be simultaneously spinning and triggering drum machines and samplers, as water fountains bubbled frenetically behind him, playing samba with Kraftwerk, a 45 rpm Depeche Mode 7” on 33 rpm, mixed into African rhythms – all on ’70s turntable technology.
The Cosmic Sound included a very diverse range of musical styles, from electro and funk to jazz fusion and Brazilian music, but the typical instruments Baldelli focused on to bring it all together in his mixes, were synthesizers, drums and percussion.
Baldelli created a new sound, forging disco, funk and electronica together. He managed to beat-mix different genres of music with imprecise tempos, quickly moving on from the upbeat elitism of happy disco music, turning it into something darker and edgier. In Chicago, Ron Hardy would soon be doing likewise, forming the breeding ground for house music.The Units were one of the bands that Baldelli would include in his wild club mixes.
Pre-Internet, I had been hearing rumors of what he was doing in Italy, but it was difficult to track it down. I finally got my hands on one of his collectable mix tape cassettes that had been passed from hand to hand, and was blown away by the creativity of it.
Baldelli made his “re-invented” Units sound so popular in Italy, that small labels began pressing 12” bootlegs of our songs with the inscription “to be played at SLOW speed” printed on the labels.
I ended up buying one of the 12” bootlegs of our 1979 songs “I-Night” and “Warm Moving Bodies” just to see what all the fuss was about, and I loved it. It sounds like Darth Vader from Star Wars singing … only, it’s me!The “Cosmic” sound soon spread outside of Italy. German and Austrian holidaymakers copied it and took it home with them. Cosmic Afro events are held to this day in Italy, southern Germany and Austria.I had set out to make The Units sound original, electronic … and weird!
Now it was coming back at me … even more original … and even weirder!
Once I started looking towards Italy for inspiration I discovered Italo Disco. Kind of the musical equivalent of a Spaghetti Western, what is lost in translation, is made up for in originality.
Italo Disco music has a distinct, futuristic and spacey sound, which was created using synthesizers, drum machines, and vocoders. The term, “Italo-disco” was marketed only in Europe in the early 1980s by the German record label ZYX Music.
Songs were sometimes completely electronic and featured drum machines, catchy melodies, vocoders, overdubs, love-song lyrics sung in English often with heavy foreign accents, and, occasionally, nonsensical lyrics (due to artists’ poor command of the English language). In many cases the use of English lyrics was mainly instrumental for obtaining the desired effect. To understand how this music sounded to the Italian audience and probably to many non English speaking countries, you should listen to the instrumental version first, and then take in consideration the voice as something like an additional musical instrument, rather than something meant to deliver a message. The songs often seem irony-laden and humorous to me, intentional or not. Along with love, Italo disco themes deal with robots and space, sometimes combining all three in songs including “Robot is Systematic” (1982) by ‘Lectric Workers and “Spacer Woman”(1983) by Charlie. Italo Disco was widely played on radio stations and in discotheques in Europe, but in the English-speaking world, it was mostly an underground phenomenon that could only be heard at night clubs.
I hear the influence this sound has had on modern underground electronic disco/dance bands that I like now, bands like Miss Kitten & The Hacker, Felix Da Housecat, Scissor Sisters, Ping Pong Bitches, Tiga, Juan Maclean, LCD Soundsystem, etc.
So I was excited when Gianluca Pandullo (I-Robots/Nemesi/Ebbro and label manager of Opilec Music) contacted me and proposed this project where many of the people I have been talking about would remix songs by The Units.
Not only did I like Pandullo’s own music, I was a big fan of his ever since he put out the definitive and classic compilation: “I-Robots Italo Disco Underground Classics”, which included songs by Charlie, Capricorn, Klein & MBO, Steel Mind, Sun La Shan, Lectric Workers, Kano, Peter Richard, Alexander Robotnick, Dharma, Scotch, Sphinx and N.O.I.A.
FRANCE – 1979
As I said earlier … it was here … in defiance of Nazis (!) … that underground disco was born.
In addition to being the place where the phonograph was invented, France also happened to be the place, where in 1979, a Guinness World record was made for the largest outdoor gathering … in the world! It was for a music event, that also had a television audience of over 100 million people.
And it happened in Paris at a place that was once known as the “Place de la Révolution” … now known as the “Place de la Concorde”.
And guess who the headliner was … (you’re thinking Rolling Stones maybe … or maybe Dylan, Queen, Genesis … Led Zeppelin … something like that) … but noooo … the headliner was the French SYNTH PLAYER, Jean Michel Jarre.
Now considered a pioneer in the electronic, synthpop, ambient and New Age genres, Jarre had hit the mainstream. In 1979 Jarre sold 800,000 records in a six week period and continues to have the best-selling French record of all time.
But that was the mainstream scene. At the same time Jean Michel Jarre was racking up hit records there was an incredibly exciting and underreported underground French synthwave scene going on. Quirky, artsy bands that had ditched the good-ole-boys guitar formula and replaced it with synth stabs, bleeps, and robot vocals … defiantly spoken … in French!.
While Jarre was pumping out millions of albums to the world, these bands were putting out 7” singles by the hundred … within a tiny underground scene.
Artists like Marie Moor, Ruth, A Trois Dans Les WC, The Act, Deux and others were breaking rules and busting up the music status quo into a million new directions.
(Check out “BIPPP: French Synth Wave 1979-85”)
LONDON – 1979
I remember playing shows at the SF Deaf Club in ’79, where people were insulting us and spitting on us … and the thing was … that we knew most of these people … they were all in bands that we liked … and we were all friends! That’s just what people did then.
So when the Sex Pistols came over from London the first time, and it looked like Johnny Rotten was Gene Kelly … Singing In The Rain … a rain of spit, I wasn’t surprised. I know it’s impossible to imagine now, but a lot of that verbal and liquid abuse was encouraging … and FUN!
Of course Johnny went on to front Public Image Limited, now widely considered to be the first Post Punk group. The group’s second album, Metal Box, made in 1979, fully embraced the studio as instrument methodology of disco. It’s weird, funny and appropriate (at least to me), that John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) told the press that disco was the only music he cared for at the time.
A few years later in the early ’80’s, while US bands were experimenting with underground Hip-Hop, Dance, Disco, Electric Boogie and Freestyle, in the UK, a new “anything goes” Electro-Funk (later shortened to Electro) was taking hold. Around the same time The Units were recording our first major label album at Rockfield Studios in England (sharing living quarters with Led Zep’s Robert Plant), the UK’s own Greg Wilsons was spinning the electro funk that we were so influenced by at the time. Greg Wilsons, the first UK DJ to embrace and play the new sound puts in nicely in his article Electro-Funk – What Did It All Mean?:
“Perhaps the main reason that Electro-Funk remains a mystery to so many people is because it’s audience was predominantly black at a time when cutting-edge black music (and black culture in general) was very much marginalized in the UK, and as a result essentially underground. The diversity of records released during this period was what made it so magical, you never knew what was coming next. The tempo of these tracks ranged from under 100 beats-per-minute to over 130, covering an entire rhythmic spectrum along the way. There was no set template for this new Dance direction, it just went wherever it went and took you grooving along with it. It was all about stretching the boundaries that had begun to stifle black music, and its influences lay not only with German Technopop wizards Kraftwerk, the acknowledged forefathers of pure Electro, plus British Futurist acts like the Human League and Gary Numan, but also with a number of pioneering black musicians. Major artists like Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, legendary producer Norman Whitfield and, of course, George Clinton and his P Funk brigade, would all play their part in shaping this new sound via their innovative use of electronic instruments during the 70’s (and as early as the late 60’s in Miles Davis’s case). Once the next generation of black musicians finally got their hands on the available technology it was bound to lead to a musical revolution as they ripped up the rule book with their twisted Funk.”
Sydney, Australia – 1979
What do tape loops, dissonant sound sources, synthesizers and dance floors have in common? In 1979, in Australia, it was the electronic group the Severed Heads. Industrial music … Synthpop … Techno … Electronica? Yes. All of the above. Defy all “categories” and take it to the dance floor. That’s my motto. Take it to the club for that tribal experience.
S.H.’s Tom Ellard understands the essence of “remixing” better than most anyone I can think of.
At the same time that I was “remixing” corporate training films in California and re-configuring them from the functions they were originally meant to perform (to get a few laughs at our shows with our “Unit Training Films”), Ellard was chopping up TV commercials and making a mockery out of commercial advertising … all set to music!
Germany – 1979
As we all know, Germany has the largest electronic music scene in the world.
Tons of well know synth bands. But in 1979 Düsseldorf’s most famous contribution to the culture of modern popular music is beyond doubt the avant-garde electronic music band Kraftwerk. Formed by a few Düsseldorf-born musicians, Kraftwerk have often been regarded as the most significant band in the history of post-war German music.
It figures that Düsseldorf is known as the center of the German advertising and fashion industry, because to me … that is what Kraftwerk is so good at, fashion and advertising. You could take your pick of their song list and slap it on a TV commercial for most any big corporate product.
But at the same time that there was this SAFE, STERILIZED, STATUS QUO thing going on in music … even in synth music … there were also underground German synth bands that were challenging the status quo, not just with their synths, but with their ideas and their presentation.
So I just LOVED it in 1979 when I first saw the homoerotic image of black leather, muscles, hairy chests, and sweat … on a synth band out of Kraftwerk’s home town of Dusseldorf … a band called DAF!
In ’79, DAF made you cringe with embarrassment and excitement all at the same time.
DAF used the term “Körpermusik” (body music) to describe their danceable electronic punk sound. They were pioneers of the New German Wave movement as well as of house and techno music and they also strongly influenced the later EBM (electronic body music).
The New German Wave was mostly an underground movement with roots in British punk and New Wave music, but it quickly developed into an original and distinct style, influenced in no small part by the different sound and rhythm of the German language which many of the bands had adapted from early on.
Check out the Berlin-based Zensor label which released a compilation called Als die Partisanen Kamen (When The Guerrillas Came). It contains a bunch of synthy Berlin underground music which appeared on the Zensor, Monogam, and Marat labels between 1979 and 1983.
Also worth a look for some creative German ideas is the CD “Kein Kiel – Music Scene in Kiel 1977-1982”. Kiel was the punk scene that my friend Andy Schwarz from the band NO MORE came from. NO MORE had the great “Suicide Commando” song. Andy said of the times:
“Punk bumped into Avantgarde, Rockabilly into New Wave, No Wave into Glam, handmade into electronic, polical into apolitical, amateurs into professionals.”
As you can see, there was a lot going on all over the world in the realm of electronic dance music in 1979, and I’ve just touched the surface of it. I’m happy to have this opportunity to hand the torch over to the remixers. I love the whole “idea” of remixing. Of an “alternate” version … of one’s life and one’s art. Just imagine the possibilities. And if the new version can incorporate dancing … so much the better.
When I listen to these remixes, I do it with a sense of humor and adventure, and imagine being in a surreal dance club with outrageous people and a crazed DJ, spinning flaming vinyl … having fun … and prepared TO RIOT!
If you would like to compare these remixes to the originals, be sure to check out:
“History of the Units –The Early Years: 1977-1983”
(Community Library Records)
Special thanks to Gianluca Pandullo and David Chandler for their help and ideas on this article.
Scott Ryser (Brooklyn, 2010)
THE UNITS – “CONNECTIONS” – OPILEC MUSIC
The music in this collection comes from original songs written by The Units between 1977 -1983. The original songs were then remixed and/or reworked by the following international DJs, bands, and producers, from 2009 – 2010. The remixers include: