Just as post-punk is indelibly British, and Neue Deutsche Welle purely German, so too is synth-punk resolutely American. Think about it: Outside of France coughing up electro-stooges Doctor Mix And The Remix (plus related projects Métal Urbain and Metal Boys), the music’s top-tier innovators – from Suicide and Screamers to Chrome and Six Finger Satellite – have all been red-blooded Yanks.
Because of this, the music is smeared in an “Americanness” that distinguishes it from its sister genres across the pond. Whereas post-punk and N.D.W. were kickstarted by futurist-fueled musicians aching to reboot history, synth-punks have never harbored any ill will towards the past. Quite the opposite, actually: they prefer integrating their futurist tendencies (automated marching beats, robotic intonations) with the very rock-and-roll tradition through which so many of us Americans came of age. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to posit that synth-punks have never been, as far as rhythmic innovation goes, nearly as iconoclastic as, say, D.A.F. or Throbbing Gristle or Einstürzende Neubauten. Rather, they merely make explicit the mechanized propulsion that has always been at the heart of rock music. After all, disregarding the flavor-of-the-era dressings unique to each, the engines inside both Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” and 6FS’s ’90s synth-punk, rave-up masterpiece “Rabies (Baby’s Got The)” are more or less the same.
American synth-punks rarely come off grimly political... or cultured for that matter.
Yet there exists another distinguishing factor, one less about sound and more to do with artistic temperament. The ranks of both post-punk and N.D.W. were for the most part filled with art-school kids who fancied themselves guerilla revolutionaries and/or manifesto-scrawling avant gardists (Gristle were both, interestingly enough). American synth-punks, in stark contrast, have rarely come off so grimly political, or cultured for that matter. Rather, they’ve always given the impression of basement-dwelling outsider-bohemians more in touch with Alfred E. Neuman than Hugo Ball. Even in the case of Suicide (who once penned a tune, “Frankie Teardrop,” about some poor unemployed sap who slays his baby, wife and, finally, himself) twisted irreverence permeates their shtick. This is most obvious when watching old live clips on YouTube: the duo of Alan Vega and Martin Rev are utterly mesmerizing: sweet-ass shades, faux epileptic fits, street tough stare downs. Yet it’s damn near impossible to determine whether they are truly wacko or merely putting us on for their own perverted shits and giggles.
Now, as for the birth of synth-punk, most of my fellow music dorks would probably date it to the proto-punk years 1974 through ’76 (back when Suicide, Devo, Pere Ubu and Debris’ were all either gigging or releasing their first records). But I say it’s a tad earlier, 1968 to be specific. In addition to debut albums from Silver Apples and The United States Of America (both pivotal to the discussion at hand), that’s the year The Doors – fathers of New Wave, according to the late rock critic Lester Bangs – unleashed “Hello, I Love You.” A product of the band’s genius transmutation of The Seeds’ greasy garage-rock stomp into factory-manufactured sex beat for teenage cyborgs replete with buzz-saw effects, it is the first true synth-punk jam. Devo hacking into “Satisfaction,” Suicide building bridges between doo-wop and industrial, Chrome ingeniously warping Raw Power into proto-techno... they’re all just unique expressions of the core-level alchemy this wonderful, little tune performed.
If thrash can have a Big Four, why not synth-punk? They, of course, would be Suicide, Devo, Screamers and Chrome. But because all four have been covered to death, I chose to spotlight just one, and they’re my favorite of the lot. What sets Chrome apart is their dynamic evolution. Where those other three didn’t necessarily advance beyond their earliest innovations, Chrome personified rapid mutation. Between 1978 and ’82, the core duo of Damon Edge and Helios Creed (who were even too weird for most of the weirdoes in San Francisco’s burgeoning industrial scene) progressed beyond known genre by welding together scraps of German motorik, Motor City proto-punk and avant-garde electronics into increasingly alien permutations. By the time they released 1982’s cryptically hypnotic Anorexic Sacrifice 7-inch, their sound wasn’t terribly far removed from the neo-Kraftwerk electro found on Cybotron’s “Alleys Of Your Mind” (released just a year prior). I have zero idea if Juan Atkins ever heard Chrome, but his 20-year-old self surely would’ve flipped for their strange transmissions.
Outside of German Shepherds (see below), John Bender most epitomizes the basement-dwelling outsider-bohemian aspect to synth-punk. In 2010, when attempting to track him down for a proposed profile, the scant few contacts I had all said the same thing: he ain’t talking to no music journalist. Self-imposed obscurity is definitely the name of the game for the mysterious Bender. In the early ’80s, he produced three slabs of vinyl, I Don’t Remember Now / I Don’t Want To Talk About It, Plaster Falling and Pop Surgery, all of which quickly sailed into the phantom zone (until that is music blogs such as Mutant Sounds retrieved them).
Hailing from art-punk hotbed Ohio, Bender creates deliriously dub-drenched electronics that – in addition to boasting structural complexities that resist easy decoding at every turn – are intensely personal. He doesn’t necessarily “rawk,” but on a track like “65-2 Galacial” (“I hate the world, it’s dying and it’s ugly,” he croaks) the guy does manage to achieve a blurrily hiccupping, avant-rockabilly that falls somewhere between deconstructed Charlie Feathers and Pyrolator circa Ausland. Seriously far out stuff.
Few underground scenes were as freewheeling as the Bay Area’s at the onset of the ’80s. Chrome, Flipper, Minimal Man, Dead Kennedys, Factrix, Monte Cazazza, Crime, Tuxedomoon … its pursuit of radicalism was staggering. Out of this sonic melee emerged German Shepherds, whose synth-punk nugget Music for Sick Queers was reissued in 2012 on the outstanding Superior Viaduct label. Teetering between extremely un-PC satire and downright bad vibes, the record is soaked in Cold War-era youth angst, mass murder chic and apocalyptic prophecy (“J. Christ” is credited as a contributor).
Performances are delivered with such stone-cold intensity that it’s hard to imagine anybody but disturbed individuals making this music (apparently, the group enjoyed spreading unsavory rumors about themselves). Both “THC” and “Communist Control” are mandatory listening, but the group’s pièce de résistance is “I Adore You;” buttressed by bargain-basement drum machine, singer Mark Hutchinson comes off like a religious cult casualty while moaning, “Oh, Lord... I submit to you. I offer a sacrifice. Permit me to offer this sacrifice... I want your blood. Share your blood... oh, God.” Clearly, dude did not have a positive church-going experience as a child.
My outlier pick to piss off the purists, Big Black avoided synthesizers like the plague. Yet the Chicago trio’s impact on the genre’s genesis is nothing short of profound. One of the most important underground outfits of the ’80s, Big Black served as the primary viaduct over which synth-punk made the pilgrimage from the ’70s (Chrome, Devo, Suicide) to the ’90s (Six Finger Satellite, Brainiac). Not only that, it was a bridge of ingenious construction, one that revolved around pumping the genre’s principal sound (i.e. greaser rock as performed by hotwired robots) full of hardcore aggression, classic American hard rock and dystopian gloom (formative influences included Cabaret Voltaire, Killing Joke and Neubauten). In addition to opening up synth-punk to new intensities of noise squall (as well as belligerently offensive subject matter), Albini’s use of the Roland TR-606 was downright brilliant, enabling the group to unleash battering-ram beats whose inhuman relentlessness shared more in common with electronic body music and new school hip-hop than anything rock music had produced up to that point in time.
As previously hinted at, the preeminent practitioners of synth-punk in the ’90s were Six Finger Satellite and their snotty, little brethren from Ohio Brainiac. Why I feature the latter but not the former basically has to do with the fact that 6FS – right up there with Chrome and Big Black in regards to vision and innovation – have been gradually receiving their due (though admittedly it took over a decade after the 1998 dissolution of their classic line-up).
Brainiac, on other hand, currently sit in an unenviable position: too old to be considered relevant and not old enough to be labeled vintage. Pile on to this the tragic death of singer Tim Taylor in ’97 (just over a month after the Electro-Shock For President EP, far and away the most ambitious release in their catalog), and you have the all the makings of a group that is criminally underrated. But make no mistake: between their tireless experimentation and ferocious live show (an onslaught of spazzoid tantrums and post-hardcore start/stop rhythmic mania), Brainiac fit snugly into Ohio’s deep-well lineage of art punks and avant-rockers.
The current state of American synth-punk is a gigantic question mark. These days, most underground freaks into synthesizers and drum machines fall for minimal wave (the soul of which is resolutely English/European – and that’s cool, but synth-punk it is not). Fortunately, exceptions do exist. Lurking deep inside Noah Anthony’s Profligate project (electro-industrial bleeding into 21st-century technoise) lurks a dark, spacey cool that without question would make Damon Edge proud.
Then there’s Los Angeles’ Pure Ground (cofounded by Greh Holger of Hive Mind fame and Brotman & Short’s Jesse Short); these dudes might call the minimal-wave scene home, yet their jams bop/swing with rock ‘n’ roll vigor. This is especially true of the über catchy “Going Under the Wire” (which can be found on the duo’s self-titled cassette released last year on Holger’s Chondritic Sound imprint). Buzzing like a robotics lab, with Gothic vox that only grows more wrecked with each rotation of the ear-worm chorus (“UNDER THE WIRE!”), the tune totally flaunts the Devo/Pere Ubu chromosomes buried in its silicon-based DNA.
Further exploration (i.e. bands not mentioned anywhere else in this piece): Smersh, Men’s Recovery Project, Nervous Gender, The Parasites Of The Western World, Sad Sack, Danse Asshole, Xex, Xerobot, Billy Synth And The Turn Ups, Skoal Kodiak, The Misfits (debut 7-inch only), Red Asphalt, The Jesus Lizard (first EP only), The Twinkeyz, Units, Primitive Calculators (Australians who rocked like us Yanks)