Pretending To See The Future #17

by Oliver Rose

So often in popular music, ‘superfluousness’ is used to account for an absence of quality. Take a look at most contemporary dance tracks – banal, hypersexualised and, ultimately, dispiriting. They’re excused because they fill nightclub dancefloors or because they’re ‘feel good’; ‘carefree’ maybe. Once upon a time though, pop music could be unserious and yet remain merit-worthy.

During the New Romantic movement of the early eighties, there was a boom in electronic synthesiser music; popular and underground hit songs were often released in a multitude of variant mixes and laden, as a pre-requisite of the form, with pretentious, Europhiliac lyrics. This art was mired hopelessly in avant-garde imagery, and sound-tracked by throbbing, brassy backdrops of sine and saw waves. It catered, as today’s dance music does, to popular demand – but its harmlessly camp modus operandi and underlying technical genius constituted something altogether purer.

The history of the British synth-pop movement is such that the style rose from a bohemian, working class statement, popularised in urban areas particularly (London’s Soho was a major hotspot). Much like Warhol’s new wave Factory of the ‘60s, this British new wave comprised a great deal of artists and art-forms – by sorry virtue of their number, some never gained the exposure of others.

Robert Marlow is one such artist, having come frighteningly close to fame through his association with synth-god Vince Clarke. The Peter Pan Effect was finally released in 2000, though the material contained was recorded almost twenty years prior. Some of the tracks did actually receive a limited release through Clarke’s short-lived Reset Records label closer to the time of their making – I recently happened across an original 12” single of The Face Of Dorian Gray myself, featuring a sublime extended mix that is in fact exclusive to the format and not reproduced here on this compilation.

For fans of synthesiser music from this period, Clarke is quite obviously all over these recordings. This CD compilation was in fact marketed in the US, where the movement is less well remembered, as having been produced by Clarke (whose name is even typeset larger). Every track is stellar, pounding pop excellence – the literati-indebted The Face Of Dorian Gray; the sea-shanty sampling Calling All Destroyers; the beautiful, proto-Wonderland That Dangerous Age. The collection is defined by the thick squelches you’ll have come to expect from Clarke – the buoyant synth shimmers of his Depeche Mode days, evolved through the disco velocity of Yazoo and existent here in a transitional phase that nods toward the sickly-sweet melodies of Erasure, a collaboration with Andy Bell that began in 1986 and continues to prosper today.

It’s fair to see where Marlow fell short – his lyrics are significantly naffer than those of his contemporaries and his voice is somewhat grating, lacking any kind of distinctive feature – Midge Ure had his tortured falsetto; Dave Gahan his deep-throated baritone. The tracks are all very charming though – Claudette is a particular favourite of mine, detailing an illegal romance between avant-garde apologists living under the Third Reich, their hands forced and hearts entwined.

If you love New Romanticism, chase up Marlow. Do the listening legwork yourself – I shan’t spoil the fun for you. Some hunting (nefarious or otherwise…) will also land you at the still un-remastered vinyl mixes from back in day (arguably the best-sounding, and certainly least retouched versions of this material around).