Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Synth Pierrot

Klaus was a face -- elfin and painted as a Kabuki robot. He was a style -- a medieval interpretation of the 21st century via Berlin 1929. He was a voice, almost inhuman in range, from operatic soprano to Prussian general. He was a master performer -- a master of theatrical gesture. Above all he was a visionary. His vision was naive, quaint, almost foolish, but forceful in its purity and innocence. Even at his most wildly ridiculous ("Lightning Strikes") or quaveringly sublime (Purcell's "Death") there was an acknowledgment of impending apocalypse that lent it conviction. For Klaus, apocalypse was a metaphor for purification, and as the oddball optimist surrounded by cynical detachment and resignation, he dared to believe in a better world.

(Description of Klaus Nomi from an internet fan site, Kristian Hoffman)

The 1980s are back. We might as well get used to it. But whose 1980s? Which memories will be brushed down and which will be passed over? Even in the junk store of cut-price retro trash, there's a battle of interpretation going on. It's my 1980s versus their 1980s. It's all a joke, but it's deadly earnest too. That's ten years of my formative cultural history you're talking about. My youth. My songs. My origins.

We know what happened to the 70s, after all. The mainstream summed it up with Starsky and Hutch and Abba, while the marginals were left to mull over Todd Haynes planting a big pink flag in Glam Rock. (Yes, but...) The struggle for the 80s will stay hot until some major network runs a sitcom called 'That 80s Show' and the great suburban public decides that it all boils down to Lady Di and Air Supply.

Meanwhile I'd like to get my bid in early. I'd like us to remember and revive the 1980s as the decade of the Synth Pierrot.

New Dawn Fades To Grey

It's the Narnian dawn of the 1980s, and Aslan is singing his song of creation. Only it isn't Aslan, it's David Bowie. He's appearing on Saturday Night Live with Klaus Nomi and an electric pink poodle. Nomi wears iron shoulders and a gigantic shiny bow tie and sings like a 17th century Venetian castrato. Bowie pretends to be a puppet. Later, on the cover of his 1980 number one hit single 'Ashes To Ashes', Bowie will dress as 'the most beautiful pierrot in the circus' and the Synth Pierrot will arrive on pop's landscape (not to mention the copycat hit by Landscape).

Visage, the extras from the 'Ashes To Ashes' video, take their own 'Fade To Grey' to clubs like Blitz, and the top of the charts. Like Ultravox's 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' it seems to be a song about waiting for a train somewhere in England, an activity dull enough to make visions (no doubt gleaned from Kraftwerk records) of the grey mainland of Europe a byword for glamour. 'Riding Inter-City trains, dressed in European grey'. 'On a lonely platform... We fade to grey.' The decade begins with grey chic, but soon discovers designer black.

The Bromley Contingent are snapping their fingers along to Screaming Lord Byron, not missing a beat. David Sylvian is crooning the haunting 'Night Porter': 'I'll sit in my room, and wait until nightlife starts'. It's yet more abandoned scenery from a David Bowie lyric, 'Sound and Vision', married to music Eric Satie doesn't need any more. But who cares, it's a thing of stiff loveliness, a still life for our mobile homes.

For some, the stiffness would prove fatal, and the posture of tragedy would prefigure the real thing. The angry epileptic pierrot Ian Curtis of Joy Division, a distant memory of Goethe's Young Werther, kills himself after watching Werner Herzog's 'Strozek' one night. Jobriath and Klaus Nomi fall victim early in the decade to AIDS. The Associates' Billy McKenzie seeks death as an alternative to early middle-aged obscurity. His glamour chase ends prematurely.

In other times and places, the Synth Pierrot lives on well beyond expectations. In Japan, for instance, where Visual Kei, like some secret valley still sheltering dinosaurs, becomes a place where the frail pop pierrot thrives to this day in bands like Malice Mizer, Arc En Ciel, and Pierrot.

Tender Pierrot

It's 1988. I'm giving an interview to City Limits magazine:

'Although Momus is rarely to be seen sporting the billowing white suit with pompons once dear to Leo Sayer,' writes Jonathan Romney (in 2001 a senior film critic and one of the judges of the Orange Art Prize) 'his adopted archetype is the Pierrot, doleful third corner in the Commedia dell'Arte love triangle.

'I was browsing at this book on the influence of the Pierrot right up to Bowie and Boy George,' says Momus, 'and I thought 'Oh my god, this is me. Not only is the Pierrot oversensitive and melancholy, but he rejects the conventional notion of masculinity.'

'Considering the nature of his preoccupations,' Romney concludes, 'it's odd to find Momus in the world of pop, where he's almost setting himself up to be sneered at.'

Nobody sets out to be sneered at. But sometimes the forbidden becomes irresistibly alluring to bold souls. (Perhaps those fashion pioneers currently flouting received wisdom on the ugliness of the mullet -- the hairstyle with 'business at the front and a party at the back' -- feel the same thrill.)

Mimes, clowns and pantomime dames have always been accorded an odd status in Britain. Like the town waits, the medieval bands who started as town cryers and ended up, in the 19th century, tolerated only at Christmas as wassailers, the Commedia dell'Arte was permitted in Britain only in two special instances: Punch and Judy shows and Christmas pantomimes. (Actually, add a third: the early 1980s Synth Pierrot.)

The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 made amateur music-making on the streets (essentially what the Waits had done) an offence against public order. And although the Commedia actors had provided a template for Shakespeare and, in Paris, been given their own theatre, the Comedie Italienne, their influence was felt in Industrial Britain only at Christmas time.

For some of the flavour of the British attitude to Commedia dell'Arte, here's Tanya Headon, the Miss Abusing of the amusing Freaky Trigger website's 'I Hate Music' section (where large dogs have also been set upon Momus), on the subject of hating both mime and David Bowie:

This may seem a funny thing for me to say, but there's too much hate in the world. Prejudice, for example, disgusts me. Racial prejudice, prejudice against women, against the disabled, against mimes.....hmmm.. No, on reflection, prejudice against Mimes is great...

Another entirely reasonable prejudice is that against David Bowie. He is richer than you and everyone you know put together, and he has got that way by acting the arse for thirty-five long years. Though very little of his later foolery beats his winsome 1967 performance piece, "The Mask", a story about a young man who starts to mime with the aid of a magic mask, but he misuses its powers and GETS THE SHIT BEATEN OUT OF HIM...OK, no, I'm sorry, his face becomes the mask forever or something equally cod-symbolic. I would check but I'd rather pluck out my eyes and fry them in a big pan than see it again. In more enlightened times one dredging of this performance from the video vault and Bowie's career would have been firmly in the stocks, but alas this was the late 60s, and in a pre-videogames age miming was seen as a regrettable but acceptable use of a young man's time.

So, to recap. Miming = hateful. Bowie = hateful. Miming plus Bowie? You do the sums.

Refined, Mannered, Detached

Of course there have been times, even in Britain, when being effete was fashionable and didn't entail 'getting the shit beaten out of you'. The 18th Century, around the Opera House at Covent Garden. The early 80s, in and around the Top Of The Pops studio. There will be such a time again, I promise you, because as soon as something like hatred for mimes becomes axiomatic, proverbial, reflexive, conformist and universal, like the scorn poured on the mullet hairstyle, it tempts style pioneers to acts of situationist recontextualisation. Like shares that have drifted on the exchange to a level below their true value, the status of tastes so widely slandered is likely to change suddenly from 'sell' to 'buy'. How else will the pioneers recognise each other than by such acts of bold originality? Such ready (and admittedly snobbish) willingness to be dismissed by a perplexed mass they themselves already dismiss?

An article in the Houston Business Journal about the 80s revival shows that the very people who rummage about on the stock exchanges of the world looking for undervalued shares may very well be the ones rummaging for 80s synthpop in record store bargain bins, avid for the elusive American release of Falco's 'Rock Me Amadeus' (it had a narrative about Mozart's life spliced in) or Buckner and Garcia's novelty hit 'Pac-Man Fever'.

The article recalls something else about 80s synthpop; its overt, if camp, classicism. In a decade which started with Peter Greenaway's 'Draftsman's Contract' and ended with Close and Malkovitch playing decadent aristocrats in 'Les Liasons Dangereuses', a decade in which the optimistic, positivistic triumphalism of yuppie capitalism was reflected in a major revival of opera and the music of Mozart, and when revisionist echoes of the Enlightenment co-incided with the birth of the personal computer, we shouldn't be surprised to hear, in pop hits like Eurythmics' 'Sweet Dreams', a synthetic classicism appearing.

The All Music Guide, a treasure trove of information on the pop of the past, presents artist biographies, style maps and a section called 'Tones', where clusters of adjectives (compiled from ratings by fans) plot the artist's mood. Tones noted for Momus, for instance, are: Irreverent, Sleazy, Humorous, Playful, Rousing, Refined/Mannered, Brash, Provocative, Witty, Acerbic, Quirky, Theatrical, Silly, Sexual, Stylish, Literate, Cerebral, Sophisticated, Elegant, Ironic, Wry, Cynical/Sarcastic. (Hmm, doesn't sound like me at all!)

Guess who these tone strings describe? Playful, Refined/Mannered, Restrained, Theatrical, Detached, Clinical? That's Gary Numan, apparently. Gloomy, Tense/Anxious, Detached, Melancholy? That's Ultravox. Reserved, Theatrical, Detached, Clinical, Stylish, Sophisticated? That's Eurythmics. And Refined/Mannered, Detached, Stylish, Literate, Cerebral, Sophisticated, Elegant, Brooding? It doesn't sound much like pop music, does it? No, Sherlock, it's not Robbie Williams. It's Japan.

1984: The Counter-Revolution

Here's a young Steve Sutherland (last seen leaving the helm of the NME after a reign not noted for its Pierrot-love) writing about David Sylvian in Melody Maker back in 1984, at the time of the release of his seminal, shockingly acoustic-sounding Pierrot-rock album 'Brilliant Trees'.

'Sylvian's writing with Japan was reflective... emotion tempered by thought. His songs were more like frigid sittings than teeming situations. His neurosis was unique. He was passive and tranquil where pop revelled in wild exaggeration.'

Certainly, the music created by the Synth Pierrot was more cerebral and formally experimental than pop had ever been, or has been since. At a time when choosing to play synthesiser rather than guitar meant being 'arty' rather than 'matey', you were expected to experiment once you'd invested in your Odyssey or your Prodigy. (Unless you were Nick Rhodes, in which case 'experimenting' meant trying a new hair dye and dropping Andy Warhol's name into every conversation.)

Japan's Ghosts took a murky concrete sound inspired by Messiaen and Stockhausen to the top of the singles chart. Never before had pop sounded this introverted, this classical, or this miserable. 'Just when I think I'm winning, when I've broken every door, the ghosts of my life grow wilder than before...' It was commercial songwriting that was, in the words of melancholy Jacques in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It', 'compact of jars'. Even Scott Walker had never released singles this abstract and atonal.

But values like 'Mannered' and 'Cerebral' couldn't dominate the mainstream for long. Hedonism arrived with a party, a zoot suit and some cocktails. Duran Duran took Japan's sound and put it into the service of the kind of emotions a secretary might experience on her holidays in Crete. Mark Two Ultravox switched Royal College of Art graduate John Foxx for rabble-rousing moustachio'd middle manager-type Midge Ure, who ended up rousing hundreds of millions with the worthy but artistically bankrupt hype of Band Aid in 1985. ('We are the world, we are so huge, blah blah blah' was Iggy Pop's comment.)

But in 1983 the most worrying news of all reached the Synth Pierrot. David Bowie, his inspiration, his role model, returned with a new label and a new image. The Rolling Stone cover said it all: David Bowie Straight. Not only was Bowie not an androgynous bisexual pervert any more (someone tell Soft Cell!), he was no longer using synths. Worse, the new conservatism of Let's Dance was selling millions of albums. From then on, the rout was inevitable. The Synth Pierrot faced his Waterloo. You could hear the stadium guitar rock of U2 ruining the Human League in 'The Lebanon' and gospel music undermining the poised, Kraftwerkian detachment of the Eurythmics on 'Missionary Man'.

For the remainder of the 80s the Synth Pierrot would (like Disco in the late 70s) be banished to a dim neon hinterland of afficionados and otakus. He would surface only ocassionally in belated anomalies like Japan's Visual Kei acts, France's Mylene Farmer, Sweden's Army Of Lovers and Britain's Pet Shop Boys (the Synth Pierrot in 'classic pop' mode, complete with 'timeless songwriting values'). The melancholy Jacques and cerebrotonics were banished to the shadows, as they always are, and as they probably will be from the retro fest that will be the 80s rerun.

The Nobel Pop Prize

Perhaps now the time is right for recognition and revival. Give us a synth, and a melancholy fellow to play it. He may be a town cryer, a circus barker, a zany, a mummer, a waitsman, a wassailer, I care not, as long as he be thin and saturnine. I will teach him the heightened aestheticism of Des Esseintes, add some ideas I picked up at art school, and, through long evenings of patient indoctrination, kindle in him a burning desire to be David Bowie. We will fill this handsome fellow with smouldering passive aggression. Set his video in Vienna. His high cheekbones will do the rest.

But hush! The roll call rings around the great hall of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. It's time to award the Nobel Prize for Synth Pop. This year it's a special award for veteran Synth Pierrots, in recognition of a lifetime of noble posing.

Of course, every club in New York is playing 'TVOD' by Daniel Miller and The Normal, Chicks On Speed are covering 'Warm Leatherette' and early OMD, Ladytron and Daft Punk are filling the art school disco floors with their deliberately passe, pseudo-Futurist works, little labels are rushing out tributes to the Human League and the Pet Shop Boys.

But the Swedish Academy wouldn't stoop to the merely modish. No, in a long peroration Lars Stigismund Olaffson, chief of the pop panel, points out the serious worth of the Synth Pierrot. Pop, he says, is all too often the province of extraverts, rowdies and hoodlums. Delicacy and introversion are difficult virtues to plant in a noisy, populist medium. All the more reason to credit those artists who, risking ridicule, stand up for the shy, the sexually confused, the effete, who create records which can make lonely adolescents dream of silver sickle moons, Venice, and Vienna.

Arlecchino Electronico

Punk, cries Olaffson to a sea of silver-headed delegates, need not detain us. Splashy, clashy, bolshy, punk made its rabid bid for headlines before pogoing and gobbing its way to eternal glory as a fashion statement, a handy sneer for models to use to prove they aren't sexual objects, or celebrity supergroups like Damon Albarn's Gorillaz to prove that they aren't entertainers.

After punk something paler and more interesting began to flower. Wire, Magazine, early Human League and Simple Minds. The Passage, for heaven's sake! Groups (not 'bands') keen to celebrate a European perspective, to come to terms with the legacy of High Modernism. By the 80s, everything had become mannered, quirky, jerky. Nina Hagen! Lene Lovich! Lio! Devo! Perhaps best of all, Alberto Camerini, the Brazilian-born Italian Electronic Harlequin who scored a 1981 number one hit in Italy with 'Rock'n'Roll Robot' before bombing with 1983's 'Computer Capriccio'. Camerini often sounds as mad and inventive as Klaus Nomi should have done, but too seldom did: an artist using synths as time machines, melding past and future, a Commedia version of the 'kabuki robot... with a medieval interpretation of the 21st century'.

Olaffson ends his speech with a folktronic aside. Synth Pierrots, he points out, combine a love of medieval imagery with futuristic technology. They love the past as much as the future. So it shouldn't surprise us that the founder members of Eurythmics and Pet Shop Boys came to electronic pop from years of apprenticeship in folk groups, or that Fad Gadget embraced acoustic folk ballads after a career playing a sort of electronic Mr Punch, scary cousin of the Ashes to Ashes harlequin.

The Academy hall is darkened and we see projected on a giant screen Laurent Boutonnat's Felliniesque video for 'Sans Contrefacon' by Mylene Farmer. A tomboy marionette is rescued from a small gyspy circus only to expostulate to her saviour 'Je suis un garcon'. Farmer is clearly a Pierrot, androgynous and frail, full of passive aggression against society's repressive norms.

The lights come back on. The King of Sweden himself steps up to the lectern to announce the prize. Miss Farmer, even more pale than usual in her Shiseido make-up, dressed in vintage Miyake, hovers stage right, poised to accept the pop world's greatest award. Her eyes brim with tears, her pet monkey clings to her back. Her melodramatic synthpop records will now surely enter the Pleiade and sell all over the world in huge quantities. A compilation of her so 1980s videos is even now being rush released on DVD.

But something is afoot on the stage. A senior member of the Academy shuffles up to the king and hands him a crumpled note. The king dons a pair of half-moon spectacles, reads it, raises his eyebrows. Apparently there has been a change of plan. A hush falls over the hall. The king solemnly declares: 'The Nobel Prize for Pop, a special award this year for the Retro 1980s Synth Pierrot, goes to... Daniel Miller!'

There is a moment of mute astonishment -- an enjoyable silence -- then tumultuous applause sweeps the hall like a white noise filter. The portly Mute MD, champion of the thin man, afficionado di portamento, patron saint of the Synth Pierrot, eminence grise whose time has come, ascends the stage to receive his medal.

Somewhere stage right a door slams. 'Sounds like that big reverby snare sample in the Simmons kit!' chuckles the King of Sweden.

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