As anyone with a love of wobbling synthesiser sounds will know, much of the groundwork for the electronic musical revolution that would grip the charts in the late 1970s and 1980s had been laid by a young BBC staffer two decades earlier. Delia Derbyshire, given the task of bringing the score for Dr Who’s theme music to life in 1964, would create one of the most distinctive electronic compositions ever recorded.
By painstakingly splicing oscillators and edited pieces of magnetic audio tape, the mathematician made a piece of music still adored today and a theme tune that still has many middle-aged men cowering behind the sofa muttering something about the Daleks.
Not quite so well known is the fact that the person often credited with bringing synthesised electronic music back into mainstream pop charts after a decade languishing behind grunge and Britpop is a pint-sized Australian with a penchant for hot pants. Kylie Minogue’s 2000 smash Spinning Around might have had most of us staring in awe at her minuscule gold lamé shorts (factoid alert: they were bought for about Dh3 at a market), but the track heralded a revival that saw synthesisers – almost forgotten during the 1990s – back in pop’s starting 11.
Fast-forward another decade and synthpop is ubiquitous. At the top end of the popularity stakes you have Lady Gaga, whose electropop-inspired hits have been filling dance floors from Aachun to Zwolle (which, unfortunately for my point here, lie only 191km apart). But, despite her chart dominance, Gaga is not the only big seller to doff a (probably bathtub-shaped) hat to the era of big electronic keyboard noises.
The past couple of years have seen the likes of Little Boots, Ladyhawke, Chromeo, Cut Copy, La Roux, Calvin Harris and countless others take the synthpop baton to new levels of popularity and mainstream success. With La Roux, you have a band that probably sounds more 1980s than the 1980s. The big-name acts, too, are wheeling in synth-loving producers to “update” their sounds.
Stuart Price, who a decade ago was flinging oscillated sine waves around with a keytar as part of his outlandishly 1980s outfit Les Rythmes Digitales, has now settled behind the mixing desk to add his distinctive creativity to the likes of Madonna (Confessions on a Dancefloor), Scissor Sisters (Night Work) and Take That (Progress). More recently, he produced the album Aphrodite from Kylie herself. After a decade on the sofa flicking through the daytime television channels, synthpop is firmly back on the map.
Which brings us to this weekend’s gig in Dubai. The British duo Hurts are surfing the crest of the synthpop revival wave. Their debut album, last year’s Happiness, came straight in at number four on the UK charts, with similar spots across Europe. Perhaps as a nod of appreciation, the album’s ninth track, Devotion, features the vocals of Kylie, and the band have performed their version of her hit Confide in Me.
But where Kylie, and the majority of recent synthpop revivalists, have perhaps given the more cheesily cheerful and upbeat electronic sounds of yesteryear a 21st-century twist, often with a hefty dose of irony (Calvin Harris built his success on a track that mocked the 1980s), Hurts – as you might expect, given the name – seem focused on the contemplative, subdued side of things.
Describing their sound as “emotional electronic music”, the twosome belt out dramatic, synth-laden ballads, backed by grandiose electronic orchestral sweeps and drum machine thumps. If you can imagine what might be on the stereo if Tears For Fears and the Pet Shop Boys were to set off on a roadtrip only to encounter the hitchhiking Go West and Midge Ure, who squeeze into the back seat, you’re halfway there.
Clearly with a firm eye on the all-important marketing side of things, Hurts have tailored their look accordingly. The music videos, almost all shot in monochrome, see the two standing around sporting expressions of suffering and high-waisted trousers, while emotionless women throw wild shapes in a futile bid to raise their spirits. Interestingly, while their clothing is clearly modelled on the rather less colourful side of the 1980s, Hurts have opted for haircuts seemingly styled on the slick quiffs of the moderately successful late-1980s boyband Bros.
The general rule of thumb is that while the acts of the 1980s can be excused their bleeding-heart balladry because it was the 1980s and they didn’t know any better, if you’re going to give it a reboot in this day and age, you’ve got to give it a splash of comic appreciation. Hurts, though, have adopted the maverick approach of taking themselves seriously, as the heartfelt looks to the floor and excessive use of braces suggest.
Whatever it is they’re doing, it’s working, with a sell-out tour last year and a slot supporting Scissor Sisters on theirs, despite only emerging in 2009. Although they might prefer not to show it, the future seems bright for Hurts, and for synthpop in general. In February this year, La Roux won the Best Electronic/Album at the Grammies and Lady Gaga looks to cement her dominance with Born this Way, due out next week. Additionally, some of the old hands who shaped the original scene have come back to reap a few benefits of the seeds they sowed decades ago. Thirty years on from the genre-defining Dare, The Human League recently returned with Credo, which didn’t bother the charts too much but was received favourably by reviewers for its distinctively Human League sound. With anniversaries clearly in the air, Duran Duran celebrated the 30th birthday of Planet Earth in March with All You Need is Now. With Mark Ronson on production duties, the album narrowly missed the top 10 in the UK, but topped many of Europe’s download charts.
Having escaped potential ridicule on so many occasions, the synthesiser – with its twiddly knobs, bleeps and squeaks – is now about as credible a musical instrument as the double bass. And thanks to the likes of Hurts – who play at the Irish Village in Dubai tomorrow night – synthpop is likely to have a sizeable stake in the musical landscape for some time to come. And if it is all thanks to Kylie and her magical hotpants, just consider what might have happened had Spinning Around been released by its songwriter and the original intended singer, Paula Abdul.
•Hurts are at The Irish Village in Dubai tomorrow at 9pm (doors 7pm). For tickets visit www.livinthemusicdubai.com.
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