The BBC’s Synth Britannia television special didn’t have much in the way of new anecdotes by the stars of synthpop (at least nothing of a credible nature – there was at least one example of what might be most kindly be described as “mythologising”), but it told a small part of the history of popular electronic music in the UK in a way which, hopefully, held a general audience interested in music, without pandering to, or insulting, the devotees of synthpop too much…
Any account squeezed into an hour-long programme is bound to be subjective, and indeed, there are so many ways to relate historical truth (even as far as it can be known) that an entire series of the subject might not have widened the coverage enough to have avoided the need to tell a tale from a chosen perspective. Given the time constraints, the inclusion of some of the musical examples seemed odd, especially ‘Money’ by the Flying Lizards (which featured a prepared piano rather than a synthesiser) but it seemed reasonable that the rules had been bent enough to include Cabaret Voltaire – who were an influential electronic/electrical act, even if what we heard was mostly processed guitar, as the programme sort of admitted.
One name conspicuous by its absence was that of Billy Currie, who played synthesiser with Ultravox, Gary Numan (you can see him in the well-known ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ clip) and Visage, all of whom were name-checked. And whilst the influence of Kraftwerk was flagged very definitely, we will have to wait a week for the BBC’s Krautrock documentary to hear about some of the other influential German electronic acts. Other countries didn’t get a look in (surely proto-synth-duo Suicide, from the USA, deserved a passing mention?).
Who the heroes are depends on who is telling the tale, and this tale was told well in a limited space of time, for an audience which is accepting of electronic sounds – at least those of past decades. It was respectably wide-ranging too, and did well to include Throbbing Gristle in the same show as Yazoo. Or rather, it did well to include Throbbing Gristle.