In December, I went to see Neon Indian play in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They were great, the spangled kitschadelic wooze of their Psychic Chasms LP so much more imposing live than on record. But I was actually struck even more by support band Tiger City. Not because they were amazing or anything, but because, while clearly an indie band, they sounded for all the world like Go West: they had that tight, slick mid-80s pop-funk sound down pat, the singer flexed a supple falsetto in the Daryl Hall blue-eyed soul mould, and the net effect was like time travel to 1986. Yet in an article on the web I found the day after the gig, Tiger City are described as "entrenched members of Brooklyn's underground rock scene". Not only did all this underline the meaninglessness of the word "indie" nowadays, it reminded me of the endless, endless 1980s revival that has run the entire course of the noughties. Perhaps, now we've reached the point where hipster bands strive to sound like Then Jerico and Robert Palmer, it's finally run its course?
Every decade seems to have its retro twin. The syndrome started in the 1970s, with the 1950s rock'n'roll revival, and it continued through the 1980s (obsessed with the 1960s) and the 1990s (ditto the 1970s). True to form, and right on cue, the noughties kicked off with a 1980s electropop renaissance. Separate, but running in parallel, was the rediscovery of post-punk and mutant disco launched by countless artists: LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture, DFA, Bloc Party, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Liars ... there's really far too many to mention.
On the subject of post-punk, I've probably said enough really, don't you think? (I will mention in passing that one reason Tiger City opted for the Hall & Oates/Go West superslick sound was that other New York bands had worn the "scratchy post-punk guitar sound" threadbare). But the nu-wave/neo-electro craze, being one of the more amusing upshots of the early part of the noughties, deserves reconsidering. Eighties flavours had already been circulating on the underground dance scene for a few years prior to 2000: there was a loose network of electro-influenced outfits like Adult, Dopplereffekt, Les Rythmes Digitales, I-f (of Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass fame), and more. Daft Punk took these traits into the mainstream with 2001's Discovery, revered by many as the greatest album of the noughties. Melding influences from the early 1980s but also the late 1970s (post-disco club styles, synth-pop, electro, Supertramp/ELO-style soft-rock, Van Halen-esque snazz-metal), they created a sound of transcendent artificiality.
What makes Discovery seem "1980s" is the way Daft Punk tapped into that decade's association with "plastic pop". At the time, this was something that indie rock resisted, by rejecting synths for guitars, valorising noise and dirt or taking up rootsy, woodsy influences from folk and country, and singing with an all-too-human snarl or mumble. Coming from an indie background themselves (their name derived from a negative review in Melody Maker), Daft Punk took the dialectical next step and transvaluated "plastic": they shed its negative associations (synthetic, fake, disposable, inauthentic) and recovered its original utopian aura (the idea of plastic as the material of the future).
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter's use of vocoder was crucial here, coating their voices in an angelic, otherworldly sheen. But this was actually a form of false memory syndrome: apart from certain Kraftwerk songs and the breakdance-oriented electro tracks they inspired, vocoder and other robotic voice treatments weren't widely used in the real 1980s. The hallmark of original synth-pop was its emotional, at times operatic singers: the torrid, teetering off-pitch Mark Almond, soulful Aretha-wannabes such as Alison "Alf" Moyet and Annie Lennox. Discovery's plastique fantastique fiction of the 1980s would nonetheless be hugely influential, popping up in unlikely places across the decade, from Kanye West's Stronger (based on Harder Better Faster Stronger) to the Pennsylvania indie-psych outfit Black Moth Super Rainbow, whose vocoder-tastic Dandelion Gum was my fave LP of 2007.
Daft Punk's own follow-up, Human After All, overdid the mandroid shtick with tracks like Robot Rock and flopped. But it seems only righteous that they have scored Tron Legacy, the forthcoming sequel to the quintessentially 1980s science-fiction movie.
When Discovery came out, a full-blown new romantic revival was emerging from the hipster precincts of Brooklyn, Berlin and London. Clubs like Trash and Berliniamsburg were packed with svelte young poseurs sporting a nu-new wave look of assymetrical haircuts, skinny ties worn over T-shirts, and studded bracelets. Heavily influenced by the cult 1982 movie Liquid Sky, the Berliniamsburg scene called itself "electroclash". Impresario Larry Tee organised the first Electroclash festival in Autumn 2001, featuring acts like Peaches, Chicks On Speed, and Fischerspooner. But while the latter were signed for a reputedly massive advance and other outfits like ARE Weapons, Tiga, Crossover, and Miss Kittin were much buzzed about, none of the groups had the hook power or vocal presence to match 1980s ancestors like Gary Numan. Ironically, given that the scene was a reaction against the "faceless techno bollocks" of 1990s rave, the most memorable electroclash anthems were stirring, majestic instrumentals by faceless producers like Vitalic and Legowelt.
Electroclash went from Next Big Thing to Last Little Fad within a year. But it didn't go away, it just slipped on to the noughties pop-cult backburner, biding its time as a staple sound in hipster clubs. By mid-decade the "clash" was long gone; people just talked about "electro". This was confusing for those of us who'd been around in the actual 1980s and for whom "electro" meant something specific: that Roland 808 bass-bumping sound purveyed by Afrika Bambaataa and Man Parrish, music for bodypopping and the electric boogaloo. In the noughties, electro came to refer to something much more vague: basically, any form of danceable electronic pop that sounded deliberately dated, that avoided the infinite sound-morphing capacities of digital technology (ie the programs and platforms that underpinned most post-rave dance) and opted instead for a restricted palette of thin synth tones and inflexible drum machine beats. "Electro" meant yesterday's futurism today.
(continued in next post)