Music documentaries are often dry and boring, especially when they focus in on a singular band or a particular club. A few years ago, the BBC did a ‘Seven Ages of Rock’ series which gave a potted history of rock music, from hair metal to grunge, ending in stadium rock. It’s a pity that it’s not been repeated more, even if it did miss out a lot of important bands and seemed to mainly feature whoever they could get ahold of to interview.
Anyway, they’ve proven their skill at making good factual music films before and they’ve done it again with the largely entertaining Synth Britannia. The main protagonist is the synth itself and how it was brought into British musical culture. On top of this story of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan and all the post-punk scene is an excellent study of every popular music movement in living memory, though it doesn’t really spell it out as much as it could. From Invention to early adopters and experiments to the first few hits and through to saturation and evolution, it’s all in there.
It’s interesting, but at an hour and thirty minutes long, it’s probably best to watch when you’ve got hours to waste. Still, very well done. It features Simon Reynolds too, who wrote the seminal book Rip it up and start again.
BBC description of the program:
Documentary following a generation of post-punk musicians who took the synthesiser from the experimental fringes to the centre of the pop stage.
In the late 1970s, small pockets of electronic artists including the Human League, Daniel Miller and Cabaret Volatire were inspired by Kraftwerk and JG Ballard and dreamt of the sound of the future against the backdrop of bleak, high-rise Britain.
The crossover moment came in 1979 when Gary Numan’s appearance on Top of the Pops with Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric heralded the arrival of synthpop. Four lads from Basildon known as Depeche Mode would come to own the new sound whilst post-punk bands like Ultravox, Soft Cell, OMD and Yazoo took the synth out of the pages of the NME and onto the front page of Smash Hits.
By 1983, acts like Pet Shop Boys and New Order were showing that the future of electronic music would lie in dance music.
Contributors include Philip Oakey, Vince Clarke, Martin Gore, Bernard Sumner, Gary Numan and Neil Tennant.