The trouble with technology, the trouble with humanity…
There’s a girl all the androids and the clones adore
She really makes a change from those mechanical bores
Preset females wear thin in a while
I’d give my left diode for a spontaneous smile
She’s certainly soft, she’s realistically warm
She’s not manufactured, she was born
I’m really not programmed to feel this way
But I guess my readout is “love” today
She’s so primitive
She’s so primitive
She’s so primitive – yeah!
I asked her to a quiet country factory one night
She didn’t say “affirmative”, she said “alright”
We went out steadily, she stayed loyal
She drinks Martinis – I have oil
We’ve got the cutest robot kid you’ll ever see
But parts of him are skin and parts of him are steel
She’s so primitive
She’s so primitive
She’s so primitive – yeah!
One of my very first songs. And I’m still bloody proud of that “loyal / oil” couplet.
It struck me later that all this android stuff was a simply a manifestation of a desire to live outside social norms. Most people are content with what they get. Some learn to use the system (these people become hedge fund managers), and many simply can’t cope (these people end up on handouts). But some just don’t like the game they’ve been asked to play, and try to avoid participation as long as possible (that can go either way).
Playing synth in 1981 was bloody exciting, mainly because (at least in Mid-Sussex), almost no one else had one. It was like spray on mystique. As a sixteen year old with a guitar, you started from the bottom of the ladder. Everyone was better than you. But with a synth, who was to say? To play synthesizer was to make a statement. You became anti-music, an immediate outsider. There was even a “Keep Music Live” campaign by the MU, protesting that synthesizers were putting “real” musicians out of work. Nonsense, but it all added to the aura. The reactions when people saw a drum machine for the first time were extraordinary. Fascination, anger, fear. And that was before you played a note! Assuming you could play a note. Which I couldn’t. So this hyper-reaction was most satisfactory.
Gigs that year – Kraftwerk Computer World tour (at the Brighton Dome). Human League Dare tour (Brighton Centre). Depeche Mode Speak and Spell tour (at the Top Rank; the one and only time I’ve ever seen them) and of course, Numan at Wembley.
My memories of those days are framed by the technology. My first synth was a Korg MS10, an ugly, complicated, inflexible piece of kit that was nevertheless the source of white-hot joy in my life. We also had a Roland TR-606 drum machine (the first affordable, properly programmable rhythm device) and Robert bought an SCI Pro One, a beautiful monosynth, even to this day.
I remember those first synthesizers like I remember my first lovers – their touches, responses, sounds, even their individual smells of plastic and warm diodes (the synths that is, not the girls). As I write, I can still see the winking red lights against the dark grey and silver fascias. I spent days and nights trying to learn their mystical controls.
I don’t think I was alone in this quasi-erotic worship of analogue tech. There used to exist a long dead UK magazine call something like Electronic Sound and Synthesis, which alongside hardcore diagnostic editorials and circuit diagrams, used to feature a colour centerfold of the “Synth of the Month”. The keyboard would be positioned coyly in (e.g.) the foliage of a forest glade, dappled sunlight playing across the fascia. Other teenage males may have pored over Penthouse or Knave. We got hot for ES&S.
“Phwoar! Check out those fuckin’ oscillators!”
“Oooh you bad, bad girl. “
“You need a damn good re-programming, don’t you?”
Or maybe it was simply displaced lust. Luckily the whole Futuristic / New Romantic movement was adamantly asexual, or at least androgynous. Whatever, it gave us good cover for not getting laid (“Oh, sex. Yawn. It’s just too boring, y’know?”).
A core of weirdoes started to coalesce around the band, mostly (except me) public school dropouts. There was Robert, new romantically fringed and queered-up. Me – trying to look intellectual and futuristic in boiler suit and glasses. Giles – tall, sardonic and arty. The perma-stoned Mike Mantel, a little older than most of us and living off his parents. Occasionally JB – bisexual, and druggie. (Actually we were all druggie, but JB was particularly appalling.). Worst of all was that trust fund lunatic, Horton. Horton’s mother regularly had him committed to various posh mental institutions, from which he would escape, turn up in nightclothes, driving a Morgan, or it might be a Golf, usually stolen from his mother or sister, desperately demanding a refuge, or hash or college girls.
Then there was Adam. Silent, chain-smoking, with a drawn, gaunt face, Adam became our chauffeur during these years. And since his father owned one of the Sussex garage chains, there was an endless supply of Ford Fiestas for us to wreck. The mute, passive (but mobile) Adam formed a close, symbiotic relationship with the loquacious, dominant (but carless) Robert. Adam was an excellent driver. By which I mean that, drunk and stoned, he could very often maintain control of a Fiesta at 80mph. But no one can tear around lonely moonlit country lanes, ripped to the tits on sticky hash and whisky, without some occasional damage. Wrapping a Fiesta round a tree, or shredding its bodywork through a barbed wire fence or ripping off the suspension by careering into a ploughed field was commonplace.
One night, on a jabbering, drug frazzled road trip, we went through a hedge at speed and bounced off something before landing in yet another fucking field. By the light of a near full moon, the car juddered to a violent halt in the furrows and furlongs. There was silence.
I began whimpering. I was upside down in the back seat. “I can’t feel my legs,” I moaned.
“You were saying that before we even trunched, you spazz.” Giles snapped, experimentally feeling his brow.
I started giggling idiotically. “Yeah, you’re right. I’m…. I’m OK”.
Robert was checking himself in the rear mirror. He looked at Adam.
“I say, you’re bleeding, old chap”.
Adam dabbed his lip, which had collided with the steering wheel and split. He shrugged, reached for his lighter and lit another Benson and Hedges. The cigarette became sloppy with blood. He re-started the car. Slowly, we reversed back over the ploughed ridges.
Giles adjusted his trousers. “What the fuck? I got the horn”.
“Very J G Ballard”. Robert observed drily.
In all this time Adam had not spoken a word.
With Robert our stylistic leader, I became the songwriter in the band. Giles was touted as lead singer. He certainly looked the part – tall and mysterious. But he couldn’t sing and despite an acerbic wit, was intensely shy and permanent galvanized on booze, speed and weed. So progress was tricky, and in the early days at least, membership of the band was fluid.
We set up the gear in the attic above Robert’s garage where we installed a primitive but very loud PA. Our standard “rehearsal” consisted of perhaps 30 minutes of fiddling with wires, and hour of drinking cider, making odd noises on the synthesizers, then another four hours arguing, listening to records, drinking more cider and smoking hash and arguing some more. But music was very political in those days – the arguments on where you stood left / right, Baudelaire / Burroughs , new wave / old wave, synths / guitars were as important as any musical ability.
There was a Darwinian social dynamic in the group and the weakest would frequently be turned upon and savagely humiliated. Any confession of sensitivity or embarrassment would be ruthlessly exposed and exploited. There is a very English, public school form of cruelty. It relies upon the subtlest nuance of tone, barely observable to an outsider. No aggression is displayed. The insult is delivered as a superficial compliment with the blandest possible expression, aimed at the weakest psychological point with pitiless accuracy. I soon learned to get cunning and to fight this way – cold, clever and dirty.
The first “hit” I wrote, guaranteeing my place in the band, was a catchy, stomping number called Nuremburg Romance, intended as a moving tale of love in wartime. A guy falls in love with a fascist chick. Unfortunately her love for the Fuhrer means the relationship is ultimately doomed.
I found romance in Nuremburg
Drinking beer and eating bratwurst
You the crowds and me
We posed around the fine old city, watched the troops march by
Your wore your uniform with crosses on
And your heart met with mine
I had a Nuremburg romance
I found romance in Nuremburg
You were then a party official
Still you were almost mine
By this time we were nearing war
And tanks rolled through the streets
They deafened the sound of the oom-pah-pah bands
And as we listened our eyes would then meet
I had a Nuremburg romance
Well I went back to Nuremburg
I heard you’d died on the Russian front
But still my dear I’ll wait
We couldn’t have the beer and bratwurst
Rations were still quite tough
But I’d give them all away and more
To see your face my love
I had a Nuremburg romance
I am aware that this sounds dodgy now. It sounded dodgy then. But on re-reading the lyric I am struck by its innocence and I can’t help laughing when I think back to the ludicrous seriousness with which we took ourselves.
The first indication that my chosen path might lead to trouble came when I introduced Pete to the gang. Pete was a legacy friend from mine from school – earnest, honest and loyal. He was a good Christian boy whose father was the verger in a local village. But he fancied himself as a musician and liked to strike what he thought were arty and alternative poses. Retrospectively, Pete had great tastes – Fad Gadget, Bowie, the early Mute stuff. We had always talked about making music, as teenage boys always do – big plans, no action. So when I told him that I was now in a band, Pete was jealous as hell, and he pleaded to attend a rehearsal. I was doubtful. But eventually my desire to show off and my old friend’s persistence overcame me, so one Saturday afternoon Pete turned up at an attic rehearsal.
Robert, Giles and I ran shambolically through a handful of songs. Pete sat entranced in the middle of the room, full of wonder. After a while we took a self-satisfied pause.
“Sounding bloody good, I think”. Said Giles, taking a slug of cider.
Pete leaped to his feet.
“I think it’s OK, but I’m not sure about the key. Let me show you how to improve that last song. Have you tried shifting it – to C?”
Robert, Giles and I looked blankly at each other.
“You’re right. It’s C sharp, isn’t it? So then we should…”
On he went. We should change keys, add new beats, harmonies, perhaps allow Pete to try a few of his lyrics out? I noticed a few meaningful glances between Giles and Robert, who sat on a beanbag and started buffing and repainting his nails – always a war sign.
One essential piece of our equipment was a fully primed bong. The bong is a scientific piece of paraphernalia familiar to any teenage dope smoker. The principle is simple; you suck the smoke from burning hash or weed though a tube attached to a water filled bottle, thus cooling and purifying the smoke. It’s a perfect way for the novice smoker to ingest large quantities of ganja into the lungs.
Giles especially had an evil look in his eye. He passed Pete the stone 2 litre scrumpy jar and pulled out the cork stopper.
“Yeah fascinating, Pete. You, ah… fancy a slug of the good stuff?”
“Yeah, sure.” Pete took a long swallow of the deadly cloudy cider. Giles nodded encouragement and looked inquiringly at Robert, who frowned at his nail lacquer and waved a condescending hand.
“Ne vous inquiétez pas. Plenty more where that came from.”
“Go easy Pete.” I said, nervously as he tipped the scrumpy jug upright, draining it.
“What was that you were saying about the bass again Pete?”
“Well, ah, erm… I think it should go, “tah… dah DAH! Instead of… uh…”
“Good point. Fancy a blow on the good stuff?” Asked Giles in a friendly, solicitous manner, producing the bong, like a magician with a rabbit. “Pass the light, Bobby. You puff here Pete. Meantime I’ll light this, here, and… Yeah that’s it, you keep sucking. And again. And one more for luck. Go on my son!”
“Pete, Godsakes go easy.”
“Ah, Marc don’t be such a stiff”, said Pete, wiping his lips, all bravura now. “I feel fine. In fact, I’m… Wooh! Yeah. Time to sort that bass out. In fact, I’m up for it. Now’s the time. Gotta be now. While I can really hear what I’ve gotta do. It’s like, like… some… a smorgasbord of… slo-mo malarkey… shimmering over many cornered fields, with like, inspirational, uh… multivarious sort of video vault walls of existential flack and flicking nodules and a huge, ging-gang growing purplosity…”
“Oh no”. I said.
“Purplosity?” Asked Giles, with a grin like a shark scenting blood.
Robert was flicking disinterestedly through a copy of The Face. Boredly, he said, “I’m afraid have no idea what you’re talking about Pete. However I would point out that the toilet is up the stairs on the left. And I do suggest that, as a precaution…”
A puzzled look spread slowly across Pete’s face.
“But, I feel…” Pete looked at his hands worriedly, as if they belonged to someone else, before clutching them to his mouth. Then he ran from the room.
“He’s gonna chunder”. Said Giles, confidently.
Robert sighed. “Ick. Well… I bloody well hope he makes it to the bog in time, and he better not chuck up on the carpets. He better not, or he’ll have to…”
A hollow, inhuman howl echoed through the window. The terrible sound was wrapped in the unmistakably brittle reverberation of bathroom tiles.
“He made it”. Giles said, standing up and clapping his hands. “Let’s go check it out.”
In the bathroom, Pete was kneeling in supplication in front of the toilet; his head deep in the bowl, whilst he clutched the rim with his big hands, elbows out and knuckles pulsing white.
We watched him be very sick, several times, sobbing with degradation.
“The world is spinning round”. Pete mumbled, tearfully, deep in his hollow porcelain pit.
Giles was sitting on the bath, with the concerned bedside manner of an old family doctor. “It’s spinning? No problem, Pete. Take it easy old son. I’ve got the spinny switch right here in my hand. I’ll turn it off for you. See? I’ve turned that spin right off. Shh… It’s OK. Everything’s quiet and still now. No one can hurt you.”
Gradually Pete’s weeping ceased. Shakily and with great effort, he pulled his head up from the toilet. His face was terribly pale, the eyes rimmed scarlet. Gobbets of saliva and vomit smeared his chin. He looked up at Giles with pathetic gratitude.
“Hey, you… you’re right. It’s… it’s stopped. Thanks. Oh thank you.”
Giles was smiling kindly at Pete. But suddenly his face darkened, and dropping to his knees, he looked into Pete’s eyes with a new and terrible urgency.
“But now I’m turning the spinny switch back on Pete. Yes, yes. I’ve flicked the switch back, and now it’s starting up again – whirling, whirling, whirling, spinning faster and faster and faster and fasterandfasterandfasterandfasterandfasterand…”
Pete’s scream was choked by another bolus of vomit as he dived back down into the toilet bowl. I heard the high-pressure slap as the liquid impacted against the porcelain at very close quarters.
“I’m going back to practice.” I said.
A major problem with synthesizer technology in those days was the lack of connectivity. The MIDI protocol was just about to emerge, but before then, every synth manufacturer had a different interface, which made sequencing very difficult. Alone in the attic, I puzzled over the wires and tried different combinations of equipment. I had a sound in my head, a sound that needed a hammering, unforgiving rhythm of synthesizers. How could I get the machines to talk? How? If only I could…
“Hey, Marc. Adam’s here. We’re going to Uncle Dicky’s. We’re gonna get some hash and booze”. Giles shouted up the stairs, an hour later. “Wanna come?”
“No. I’m busy. How’s Pete?”
“Oh, uh… better. Sound as a pound. He’s coming too.”
“OK.” I said, distractedly. Let’s think. If I connected this mini jack from the 606 here and stuck it here, in the back of… No. But maybe…
“OK. Well. Ciao. See ya soon”.
An hour later, or it may have been two, I heard a car pull into the driveway and Giles, Adam and Robert returned. The mission to Uncle Dicky’s had clearly been successful. Robert’s eyes were unfocused and dilated.
“Where’s Pete?” I asked.
“My friend, Pete.”
“Oh. Uh… We dumped him.”
“You dumped him? But where?”
He gestured vaguely but expansively. “Oh, somewhere on… like… in a hedge?”
“Uh… It was more of a wood than a hedge”
“But where, for God’s sakes?”
Robert became aggrieved. “I mean, the stupid bugger couldn’t speak. Or walk. So we got him as near his home as poss. And you did say he lived in Nutley.”
“Not Nutley, Newick. You just… Oh shit Robert, this is… this is bad.”
“Oh Christ, don’t be so uncool. I don’t know where it was. Someplace towards Chailey. He was starting to get on everyone’s nerves and I thought he was going to chunder in the car. He was all fucked up anyway.”
“Yeah, he won’t feel a thing.” Said Giles supportively.
I realized that here was a decision of loyalties. On the one hand, Pete was my very old childhood friend. We had dammed streams together, glued model tanks, swapped homework, sung in the school choir. Now, comatose on drugs and booze, he was lying in an unknown verge, discarded at the side of the road, like a broken toy. It was my duty to find him, to help him, to return him to his parents. On the other hand, here were my new friends, cruel and careless. And here was the band, the synthesizers, my future…
Where was all this leading? I wondered. I felt my morality ratchet downwards a few clicks.
Sensing the psychological moment Robert said, “God Marc. You’re such a, such a Grammar School boy. I mean, it’s a nice evening. He’ll be alright.”
A raindrop spatted ominously on the window. Robert picked up a copy of Vogue and started flicking through it. “Probably, anyway”.
Giles stretched and yawned. “God, I’m munched. Let’s grill up some fish fingers, then drink beer at The Sloop. I wanna check out Sophie’s tits, behind the bar.”
He stood up and started snapping his fingers and thrusting his hips. “I love it when she wears that purple top without a bra.” He pinched his thumbs and forefingers illustratively in front of his chest. “She’s got the prettiest little nips you ever…”
“Good plan.” Said Robert approvingly. “Marc? Another toke on the Bongola, rock through Nuremburg Romance one more time, then fingers, beer and the nubile charms of Sophie?”
My poor friend. I really should go to look for him. Outside, the rain was falling steadily now.
“Yeah, OK”. I said.